Meet Maya Wiley, the New Face of Progress in New York City

Photo courtesy of the New York Post/ Paul Martinka Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of the New York Post/ Paul Martinka

Since incumbent Mayor de Blasio is not running for re-election due to term limits, there is a special election in New York City underway. 

New York City is often referred to as the capital of the world, which is why the upcoming mayoral race is so important. Currently, the primary elections are in progress — early voting was finalized Sunday at 4 p.m. EST, but New Yorkers can cast their ballots in person on June 22nd as well. 

Aside from the significance of this major primary election, it will also be historical as it will feature the first use of ranked-choice voting (RCV).  

The seat has been sought after by dozens of candidates, including the multi-hyphenated Maya Wiley, who, if elected, would become the first black woman to be the mayor of New York City. 

BELatina News had the pleasure of speaking with Wiley recently about her vision for New York City and her advocacy for the often excluded communities of the city, such as the Black and Latinx communities. 

Her reasoning to run for office is based on the vulnerable situation many New Yorkers, especially the youth, are currently facing.

“It was just clear to me that we are losing a generation of our kids because of lack of opportunities, because of violence, because of trauma, and because of the failure of governments to be responsive on how to make this city one for all of us,” Wiley told BELatina. “It’s time we fix what’s broken.”

“And that does mean focusing on the South Bronx, East Harlem, northern Manhattan, central Brooklyn, and all the communities in southeast Queens — all of the communities that are always left out and always hardest hit in every single crisis.”

Learning Activism Early on

Wiley, who was the first black woman to be a counsel to a New York City mayor, is also known for being an American lawyer, professor, MSNBC’s legal analyst, and civil rights activist. 

Her qualifications are impressive beyond words. 

She has worked on everything from sanctuary city legislation to women in minority business enterprise contracts to trying to establish universal broadband, where she attempted to get more broadband service to people who didn’t have access to it. 

Five years ago, she went into academia. As a faculty member, she focused on public and urban policy. She created a digital equity laboratory to continue some of the digital divide work she had been doing for a long time.

The understanding she has of systemic inequalities is deeply rooted in her upbringing. 

“I grew up in an activist family,” she said. “My parents founded the Congress on Racial Equality chapter in Syracuse, New York, where they met and where I was born.” 

“But really, their activism was always focused on racism and ending poverty.”

Her parents moved from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Washington when she was two and a half years old. The family instilled in her the importance of standing up for the issues that mattered for underrepresented communities, which has remained strong within her. 

“I went to an overcrowded, underfunded, segregated public elementary school,” she said.

“And I think all those experiences really shaped me because of who my friends were — because it’s your community, it’s your neighborhood, it’s your friends, it’s your people.”

Her experiences shaped her to stay in the same route as her family, fighting towards equality and equity.  

“I remember the rent strikes and particularly the Latino community,” she said. “There was a whole community, largely Central American, largely Nicaraguan, that got pushed out.”

Even though her family made it a point to fight for economic justice then, these situations have made an impact throughout her entire life.

“All those things struck me because I watched my whole neighborhood being torn apart.”

Focusing on Housing

Years later, the injustices in New York City’s housing system have persisted. In fact, according to The Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s in recent years. 

The housing crisis is not lost to Wiley, either.

“My own kids, you know, who were born and raised here, are wondering how they can afford to stay in the city they were born in, and that’s even more true for all their friends.”

However, this issue is a priority for her, especially since 45 percent of New Yorkers and a huge percent of Latinos and black immigrants across the board are unable to pay their rent and are often evicted.

“I want New York to stay diverse, and we need to fix this affordability crisis,” she said. “We have to build more affordable housing that people can actually afford, and that means that are at lower rents than what the private sector has been producing and affordable housing.”

This is particularly important because it is known that Black and Hispanic/Latinx New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by homelessness — Wiley said that these are the communities with the highest pending eviction cases at the moment, whose cases are heavily located in Corona, Queens, and Kingsbridge Terrace in the Bronx — something her plan would help in decreasing. 

“One thing that I’m going to do is double the size of our capital construction budget,” she devised the plan she hopes to provide New Yorkers. “That’s the city’s budget that we use to build affordable housing. And we’re going to make it more affordable.”

In our conversation, Wiley told us that it is necessary to recognize that many people, including Latinxs and immigrants, won’t be able to afford their rent right now or for a very long time because the rents are too high. In turn, this prompted her to create a plan to subsidize rents with her team.

“The city will subsidize the rent so that that family or that person is not paying more than 30 percent of their income.”

She believes that this plan would stabilize families, even those who aren’t in the eviction process. 

“We have a lot of folks facing eviction who shouldn’t be. Too many people are choosing between paying the rent and eating a meal.”

A Progressive Vision for Economic Recovery

Aside from pushing towards a more affordable city, Wiley wants to put more money in people’s pockets. With a plan called the Universal Care Plan, she proposes to give $5,000 grants, starting with one hundred thousand of the neediest families to help them with their expenses. 

“When we put money in people’s pockets, we’re giving them the ability to put that money back into the economy, allowing them to go buy more of what they need for their families, which means going to businesses that need more customers.”

She wants to create more jobs and do it as local targeted hiring, where the city can give jobs to the communities that need those jobs the most.  “And, they’ll be good jobs,” she reassured us. 

“Better paying jobs with benefits.”     

Wiley knows that inclusivity plays a big role in what she hopes to accomplish, including paying mind to New York City’s language access. 

“We’re going to be increasing city services and support community-based organizations because we have 800 languages spoken here,” she said. “If we have partnerships with our community-based organizations and start to include those who have language skills, we can make sure that folks can connect to all the opportunities we have to offer.”

Ultimately, Wiley wants to focus on uplifting a city known for its greatness and bringing that narrative back while being conscious of its unique potential. 

“I think part of being an inclusive city, part of holding on to what we love about this city, which is our diversity, which is the fact that 37 percent of our people are foreign-born, which is the fact that we have really a city that represents the world, is by really investing in and holding on to our folks.”