Much ado has been made over the past year's transformation—for better or for worse—of New York City.
As the country's original epicenter of the calamitous COVID-19 pandemic, the city (though certainly far from "dead") endured profound change: an urban exodus of millions, more than 30,000 dead from the no-longer-novel virus, a summer of uprisings against anti-Black state violence, an economy collapsed. Now, as outgoing mayor and former presidential candidate Bill de Blasio prepares to leave Gracie Mansion, another metamorphosis is on the horizon.
Enter Dianne Morales. The former New York City public school teacher and nonprofit executive has been crowned by many as the most radical candidate in the city's forthcoming mayoral race. If elected, Morales will also be New York's first woman and Afro-Latina mayor.
Some headliners of her expansive, progressive platform include plans to divest $3 billion from the New York Police Department (that's half of their current budget) and to guarantee permanent affordable housing to end the city's homelessness crisis.
"There is a voice from the ground that has grown louder and is undeniable and is refusing to not be heard right now," the Brooklyn-born candidate tells BAZAAR.com. "That is because they see themselves reflected in this movement."
Ultimately, the test of whether or not New Yorkers are also tuning in to that radical voice will come on June 22, the date of the city's crowded primary election. Morales will have to beat out more than a dozen other contenders, including moderates with more name recognition, like Andrew Yang, who made a failed bid for the presidency last year, and Eric Adams, Brooklyn's current borough president.
This, too, is her first time running for public office—though she has a long professional history of serving communities. Morales previously headed nonprofits like The Door, a youth services organization, and Phipps Neighborhood, which provided job and education programs across South Bronx neighborhoods. Prior to those gigs, she worked as an educator, a tenant organizer, and a founding member of Jumpstart, a national early literacy organization.
Ahead, Morales talks claiming her space within the political sphere, her progressive policy vision, and why New Yorkers shouldn't be settling for anyone less than someone like her.
You are somewhat of a newcomer in terms of New York City electoral politics. What made you decide that you wanted to run for mayor having never run for office before?
I spent my entire career looking to support communities that are in crisis—low-income, working-class, Black and Brown, immigrant communities—because of structural and systemic barriers to access and opportunities. On a personal level, I'm a first-generation, Black Boricua, single mother of two young adults who went through the public school system with learning differences. That's been kind of a front-row seat to challenges, both personally and professionally.
No matter how effectively I was supporting families in overcoming those barriers, there was always a wait list. Actually, it was sort of like the more effective I was, the longer the list, because there were always more people. You start to become aware that these challenges are bigger than any one intervention or strategy can support or overcome. I wanted to figure out, how do I leverage my personal and professional experiences and skills to bring about real transformation for our communities.
People have been telling me I should run for office for over a decade, but I think I started to get to the point where I embraced the notion that it's gonna take someone who represents us in office to help those of us doing the work on the ground. After 2016, you see all kinds of people getting elected into office and you start to think that it's a space that folks like me should be able to claim. So here I am.
I find it really interesting that your campaign website divides your policies into three umbrella sections: Dignity, Care, and Solidarity. Was there a deliberate reason that you decided to frame your platform using that specific language?
The right and the ability to live in dignity is the thing that distinguishes a humane existence—a humane government and leadership—from one that has dehumanized so many of our Black and Brown community members for decades, if not centuries.
Care and Solidarity is about caring for each other and the idea that it's not a zero-sum game, that there really is enough to go around for all of us to be able to live in dignity. Solidarity is around the idea of recognizing our interdependence and our interconnectedness. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that those among us who are the most vulnerable and the most marginalized and the least secure and stable are also the ones that keep this city together. They're the heart and soul of this city. They're the ones that everybody relied on to keep things going while the privileged among us can work comfortably from home. We shouldn't try to unsee that. I think we need to recognize the value that those folks bring to our existence and recognize the way that we depend on each other to survive.
It's a different way of framing electoral politics, but I think it is exactly the perspective that we need moving forward. I think we've always needed it, but now more than ever.
You were the first mayoral candidate to call for defunding the police. You also plan to divest $3 billion, which is half of their budget, and redistribute that money for community resources and needs. What led you to make that call when others hadn’t?
This is both a personal thing for me and a collective thing. It's personal because my 22-year-old son has been subjected to racial profiling and abusive police behavior all his life. On May 29th of last year, both my kids got pepper-sprayed by the police. We got kettled while we were marching, and an officer assaulted my son. So it's personal, but it's also collective.
We have seen the harm that police have caused to our communities and the kind of false conflation of policing and public safety when, in fact, so many of the communities that are over-policed are also disproportionately harmed by police. We need to recognize that what it means to be safe in our community is not the same thing as being heavily policed. So, yes, I've called for defunding that $3 billion. I think we need to create responses that are proportionate to the needs. Part of that means the creation of a Community First Responders Department to address issues of homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse with people who are trained and skilled at the intervention and de-escalation of crisis, and also who would serve as part of a larger ecosystem of human service providers, medical providers, and mental health providers.
So we're actually connecting people with the things that they need to break the cycle, as opposed to what we have right now which is police officers show up and, in the best-case scenario, that person gets locked up overnight and the next day gets released right back to the same situation. The worst-case scenario is that they're harmed or killed. We need to change that.
We also need to invest fully in the thing that makes a safe community. That is access to affordable housing. That is access to jobs and job training. That is access to quality education. That is access to health care. We know that safer communities are rich in resources. Our Black and Brown, low-income communities deserve the same things that wealthy white communities get in order to be safe.
Your plan to establish a base of community first responders separate from the NYPD is very exciting. I was wondering how that plan came to be, whether or not it might have been modeled or influenced after other cities that might have something similar in place.
The reality of it is that no city compares to New York. Right? But we have seen promising examples of that come up. Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS model, is the one that first came on my radar, probably about a year ago when I first started thinking about this.
And, given my background in education and human services, I've had experience with organizations that practice this kind of intervention without policing or militarization. I've had experience in the human service and youth development world providing these types of interventions, particularly with mental health situations with the homeless population, in a relatively successful way.
So I think that there's a way for us to use this strategy and this approach deliberately, strategically, and at scale to have a significant impact on New Yorkers, both in terms of supporting and helping those people that are struggling and also the people around them. Again, to the Solidarity and Care and Dignity concept, we got to recognize that our neighbors' health and safety impact our own. This is a great way for us to begin to support one another and really transform the current crises.
I’d also like to ask about city jails. Rikers Island has long been a notorious site of human rights violations. Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed the closure of Rikers, but only to replace it with "more humane," borough-based jails. If elected, how will you address the issue?
I've called for the closure of Rikers and no new jails. It doesn't make sense to me to replace one jail cell with another "humane" jail cell. I don't think that really breaks the cycle of the over-criminalization of poverty or Black and Brown folks. I think what we have to do is actually get to the root cause of why it is that so many Black and Brown folks are incarcerated to begin with, and how it is that the criminal legal system actually does not work to bring justice to Black and Brown communities.
There are returning citizens who are advocating for the borough-based jails because of the conditions. But I don't think that we make the kind of progress that we need to make if we just replaced one kind of deteriorating prison with a more humane jail cell. The goal, ultimately, is to stop criminalizing poverty and criminalizing Black and Brown people the way that we do in our system.
What would Mayor Morales’s green agenda look like?
The headline for that platform is green jobs, green foods, green justice. It is focused on the idea of significantly expanding green jobs so that we are working towards a resilient, environmentally just city. We're both getting people back to work by creating jobs and also doing work to achieve climate justice, sustainability, and resiliency for New York. That includes an urban climate corps that would be trained in partnership with [the City University of New York]. We've talked about partnerships with CUNY to ramp up this workforce to help develop the projects that we need to do, in terms of renewable energy or technology, and having a workforce that comes from the community, prioritizing the communities that have been disproportionately harmed most. Towards that end, it also includes implementing things around how buildings are designed. Any requirements around new developments that are energy efficient and moving towards zero emissions in the city.
On the green food side, it means recognizing the food apartheid that exists in the city around certain communities and how communities have been designed such that they don't have access to fresh food. How do we expand that access to those communities and create food sovereignty?
Interestingly enough, we came up with the green justice platform before marijuana was legalized. It's around that whole idea of how Black and Brown communities have been disproportionately harmed by the criminalization of marijuana, and how we transition so that not only are the communities that have been most harmed by it are given access to the economic benefits that are coming down the pipeline, but also how we restore the harm that's been done to those that have been incarcerated or criminalized in any kind of way, expunging those records and supporting them in establishing their own businesses.
It's a pretty comprehensive vision and platform, but I think part of that is because it accomplishes so many things at the same time, all of which are ultimately beneficial for the city. It's a front-end investment that has an extraordinary return on the economy, on our city's resiliency, and on our overall transition into real justice for our communities.
“Housing is a human right” is a phrase that’s been used a lot throughout your campaign. How does that translate into policy?
What it translates is really making a commitment that we are going to put the full weight of our power behind guaranteeing not just housing, but affordable permanent housing for everybody. The way [the housing system] works right now does not serve all of us equally. We can make choices about that that actually prioritize access to housing for everyone.
Under my administration, that would mean both a commitment to ending the skyrocketing homelessness by converting existing vacant spaces. That includes hotel rooms, commercial storefronts, or vacant office spaces into housing. It means committing to the use of any public land that would otherwise be sold for luxury development. That is going to be set aside for newly affordable housing for all New Yorkers. It means moving towards a system where we are ensuring that people are not forced to pay more than 30 percent of their income towards housing. It means making a commitment to things like community land trusts that are really kind of driven by community interests or community needs, where communities are given a deciding role at the table, rather than the model that happens right now where luxury developers are the ones that are making the decisions and the communities are reacting to it.
It ultimately means recognizing the inextricable link in communities. If people don't have housing, they can't be healthy and they can't be safe. And if my neighbor's not healthy and safe, then that impacts my ability to be healthy and safe. We just have to acknowledge that.
Many have called you the most progressive candidate in this race. In light of the past year with the pandemic and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, there also seems to be a higher rate of tolerance or curiosity for “radical” ideas. Yet, you and other progressives in the race, like Maya Wiley, are still polling far behind moderates like Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough president Eric Adams. How do you feel about these numbers? Do you think New Yorkers are ready for a radical mayor?
Those numbers, quite frankly, don't mean much to me right now. This is anybody's race. I know that there's quote-unquote polling that is happening, but I think New Yorkers are really just starting to tune in to this race. I'll reiterate that I think that there's a lot of daylight between me and everybody else in this race, including Maya Wiley. If people really take a deep dive into our policies … I know people want to lump the two Black women into the same category of progressive, but that is not something that I think necessarily would stand up to a real scrutiny.
I know that my ideas are being referred to as radical, but I think that we are living in a radical time. The ideas need to be appropriate to meet the moment. I think that the ideas that I bring to the table do that.
The moment that we're living in right now has our communities experiencing multiple crises, and that's to the extent to which so many folks have been further marginalized or made insecure and unstable, while at the same time a small percentage of folks have increased in wealth significantly on the backs of those who are suffering the most. We can't deny this moment, and we have a choice to make—a moral and a political choice to make—about how it is that we're going to move forward and whether or not we're going to actually confront and reckon with our history and the inequities that made this possible.
I don't want to be on the wrong side of history. It doesn't sit well with me to look back at this point in time and feel like we've done anything less than everything we could to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to a life lived in dignity. These are the changes that will lead to that. Anything less is not good enough. We've got to stop playing by the old rule book, because the old rule book is what led to this moment. And I know that it's difficult for people to embrace change, embrace the unfamiliar, but that's where the courage comes in. That's where the real appreciation, the real applause and heralding of people that we did all summer last year at seven o'clock at night, that's where it comes in. Let's move from the rhetoric to the action.
Do you feel any kind of pressure or responsibility in potentially becoming both the first woman and the first Afro-Latina mayor of New York City?
I am definitely conscious of that. I am humbled by the possibility and the feedback that I get on a daily basis from young women of color as to what it means to them to see someone that looks like them and someone who reflects so many of their lived experiences running for office.
That being said, this campaign is actually so much bigger than me. It's really about people. This sort of groundswell of people that has come together around this vision because they're ready for change. It is an awe-inspiring and magical coalition that has come together to make it possible for us to defy all odds and expectations around whether or not I would still be standing in this race at this point in time. There was nothing about electoral politics that was set up so that someone like me, someone like us, could actually win. And we are winning. There have been all of these barriers to participate in this race, whether spoken or unspoken, and we have exceeded all of them at every turn.
This campaign started off as completely grassroots. I didn't have any consultants. I didn't have any strategists. I didn't have any political staff. I didn't have ties to the media. I just had people, and the people were working-class, everyday New Yorkers. They have made this possible. There is a voice from the ground that has grown louder and is undeniable and is refusing to not be heard right now. That is because they see themselves reflected in this movement. They see themselves reflected in this campaign, and that has led to this powerful thing that is taking place that I don't even feel like I can take credit for. I'm just inspired and I'm honored to be a part of it. I am privileged to serve as a megaphone to amplify the message of people on the ground in New York City who want transformation, and they want it now.
What’s your favorite place in New York City?
Almost anywhere by the water. I'm a Caribbean baby. If I can be on a beach, that's perfect. If I can't have the sand, then just anywhere by the water.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.