Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Public Advocate Letitia James wants to speak out for the disenfranchised

February 14, 2014 Heather Chin
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It was never Letitia James’ objective to be the first woman of color to hold citywide office, but now that she does fill that role, the Clinton Hill resident looks forward to “talking about issues and representing the interest of voices that have been ignored, invisible and that haven’t had a seat at the table.

“I look forward to raising the issues of income inequality, wage stagnation, homelessness and the crisis in affordable housing, as well as access to education and access to the American dream,” James said. “I’m a living witness that the dream is still alive.”

For James, the city’s first African American public advocate, Black History Month is not something to celebrate as an event, but rather a reminder to “celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans every day of the week and every day of the year [and to be reminded] of all the challenges moving forward.”

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Such challenges are reflected in James’ agenda for her years as public advocate.

Healthcare in Brooklyn is a top priority, she said, specifically “trying to save LICH, Interfaith, and SUNY Downstate. We do know that there are other hospitals in the borough that are at imminent risk of closure, so it’s been very challenging.”

There is also the chronic problem of “homelessness, advocating for more affordable housing, expansion of sick leave and the living wage in the city of New York, and dealing with constituent complaints ranging from lack of heat and hot water to education.”

James admits that being a role model means creating an environment in which education can thrive for all children, whether housed or homeless.

A graduate of city public schools (including Fort Hamilton High School), CUNY Lehman College and the Howard University School of Law, James is also currently studying for a master’s degree in public administration at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.

“As you know I had Dasani [Coates, 11] by my side during inauguration and I was holding her hand not as a prop but to let people know I was once Dasani and all things are possible,” James stated. “Homeless youth are more likely to experience acute mental problems [and] miss 31 days of school, repeat grades [and] that’s really unacceptable. We need to move families out of the shelter system and into permanent housing.”

James expressed a hope that youth today are as inspired by their parents and family as she was growing up. “My parents were my inspiration; in particular, my mother and father instilled in me the value of hard work and the importance of education, and that I should use my life to make a difference in the life of another,” she noted.

Reflecting on the road traveled and the road ahead, James added that “it’s an honor and a privilege to be in this position.

“I don’t take it lightly. Each and every day, I wake up just asking what can I do to improve conditions in New York City,” she said, adding that “faith, friends and family” keep her grounded.

“I’m a Brooklyn girl, born and raised, and when I look in the faces of New Yorkers, it reminds me of so many things in my past and my future,” she stated. “I look at the wrinkles in the face of senior citizens, think of the things they’ve had to go through and endure; how the wrinkles represent strength. They inspire me.”

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