Meet the Woman Fighting to End Inequality in New York City
“We must have more women in office and we cannot continue to self-select out.”
Around the world, fewer than one-quarter of lawmakers are women — an imbalance in representation that affects how laws are crafted and passed and how equality is created in societies. Global Citizen’s series, “Who Run The Gov? Girls!” chronicles the massive uptick in women running for office, regardless of political party, in the US and around the world, highlighting the candidates and the groups helping them to run, the challenges they face, advice & tips for running, and the results.
A quick scan of New York City public advocate Letitia James’ Twitter account shows that in the past week, she’s campaigned on equal access to education, disability rights, housing affordability, and women’s rights.
James is known in New York City for embodying the role through her tireless activism on behalf of the public. Among other goals, she has worked to end the pay wage gap that exists between men and women throughout the city.
“I just try to fight for the underdog, and try to fight for those who are locked out of the sunshine of opportunity,” James told Global Citizen over email.
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She became the public advocate in 2014, the first woman of color to ever be elected to citywide office in New York, and she’s running for reelection on Nov. 7 against four other candidates.
Formed in 1994, the public advocate is meant to act as a government and corporate watchdog and liaison for citizens trying to get their voices heard.
The public advocate is the second highest ranking official in New York City, but before James’ tenure, the role was largely symbolic, according to The New York Times.
James has committed herself to changing that perception.
James’ background is in law, where she spent decades as a public defender, and she carries a litigious streak into her current work.
She’s sued city agencies around a dozen times, more than her three predecessors, spanning more than 20 years, combined.
She’s challenged the city over the unfair treatment of kids in foster care; abuse of elderly tenants; inadequate resources for disabled students; and for the release of documents pertaining to the Eric Garner case, the man who was choked to death by a police officer in 2014.
Recently, James answered a few questions for Global Citizen about her work and how more women can get involved in politics.
Global Citizen campaigns on gender equality throughout all facets of society. You can take action on this issue here.
What's a pivotal moment that led you to politics?
When I was a child, I was once in a courtroom because a cousin of mine had committed a minor offense. I distinctly remember looking around that courtroom and realizing that everyone on one side looked liked me, and no one on the other side looked like me. It was at that moment that I realized I needed to pursue a career that would change that and ensure that our justice system was representative of our population. That is what led me to law school and ultimately a career in public service.
What kinds of obstacles do women face in politics and how can these be overcome?
“Women face a lot of obstacles in most sectors, but one of the biggest obstacles in politics is fear. This line of work can be very public and open to scrutiny, and women can be afraid to speak their minds, afraid to fight for what they believe in, and afraid to pursue elected office. Yes, it can be daunting, but in order to ensure that our values are advanced, we must have more women in office and we cannot continue to self-select out.
Read More: The Girls’ Guide to Getting Into Government
“We need more women — and men — to support other women running for office and other cities need to adopt campaign finance reforms like we have in New York City that allow for people without significant means to run for office. A lack of money or connection to those with deep pockets can also be a large deterrent.”
Across all levels of government, a gender barrier exists. What are some concrete actions that can be taken to increase gender parity?
“I sponsored a law to ban questions about salary history from the employment process in New York City because these questions only perpetuate wage gaps that exist. This law is a huge step toward closing the gender wage gap, but we need to do more.
We must continue advocating for policies that support families and uplift women and we need more women to get involved and run for office.”
How have you advocated for the poor and disenfranchised of New York?
"Over the past several years, much of my office’s work has been focused on providing services and supports for some of New York City’s most vulnerable communities. That includes taking on the city, landlords, and companies when they were failing to meet the needs of students, families, seniors, or immigrants. As of today, we’ve resolved over 30,000 complaints -- individuals walking through our door with nowhere else to turn."
"We took legal action against the City when students with disabilities were forced to sit on dangerously hot schools buses without air conditioning. For years, I called on the City to provide universal free lunch in our public schools so that no child would go hungry, a program that was implemented this year. Every year, my office releases a list of the worst landlords in New York City, who are often taking advantage of lower-income tenants and forcing them to live in dangerous conditions or harassing them."
"Ultimately, much of the work we do is to support those who too often are shut out of opportunity or do not have a voice."
What do you hope to achieve if you win reelection?
"If I am re-elected, I plan to continue my work and mission to make New York City a more fair and just place for everyone, regardless of your ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion."
"One of the most pressing issues we are facing is a record level of homelessness and a crisis in affordable housing and I will focus on finding real solutions to address this problem."
What's your favorite part of working as public advocate?
"My favorite part about being public advocate is getting to travel around the five boroughs, meeting New Yorkers from every background and walk of life, listening to their concerns or problems, and then going back to my office and coming up with solutions. I just try to fight for the underdog, and try to fight for those who are locked out of the sunshine of opportunity."