by Gwen Saffran:
The dual pandemics of the novel coronavirus and ongoing, systemic anti-Black racism has laid bare the deep inequities already present in the United States.
As much of America was shocked by the violent and wrongful death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police, Black Americans were already three to four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. In New York City, protests in support of Black lives were met with violence from the police. The devaluing of Black lives in New York extends past interactions with police: essential workers, a group heavily impacted by COVID-19, are overwhelmingly Black and brown. Public hospitals in communities of color have worse health outcomes for their patients than private hospitals in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Children of color are more likely to experience homelessness or have limited or no access to the internet, which negatively affects their ability to engage in distance learning. People of color and lower-income people are less likely to be able to work from home, either forcing them to go to work and potentially be exposed to COVID-19 or not be able to work at all, with disastrous financial consequences. COVID-19 has been called the great equalizer—and while it is true that the virus does not discriminate in its infection, its consequences only highlight and exacerbate existing inequality.
As a public servant, the last several months have been troubling, and we as city employees face a particular challenge: how can we use existing structures of government that were built on stolen Indigenous land and the labor of enslaved Africans to support and uplift the most marginalized New Yorkers? How can we make the biggest impact while operating within our limited ascribed powers? In my time pursuing an MPA at John Jay College, we examined the tension between the public sector regime values of equity and justice and the role public agencies play in creating and perpetuating systemic inequality. The critical discussions about hard choices and creative problem-solving have been invaluable to me as a public servant.
As we learn from our past, we also have incredible opportunities to improve the present and shape the future. New York City has suffered tremendous losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the tragic deaths of tens of thousands of our community members. We as public servants have a responsibility to rebuild a city that is more just and more equitable, and I am buoyed by recent efforts, including the repeal of 50-a, and the ban on the use of chokeholds by the NYPD. However, it will take far more than a few reforms to gain the trust of a traumatized community. Collaboration among government agencies, community organizations, and constituents is imperative in fostering equity and creating justice, as we all have a responsibility to create a just society. In the Office of the Public Advocate, staff includes community organizers who work with constituents and community organizations on grassroots campaigns, as well as policy and legislation. Reports, research, policy, and legislation is informed by and created in collaboration with constituents, community partners, and advocates. I am grateful for my education’s grounding in public service values—as Bryan Stevenson said, we can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds; we need conviction in our hearts.
About the author:
Gwen Saffran is a Policy Associate at the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York. She holds an MPA from John Jay College in Public Policy and Administration with a specialization in Criminal Justice Policy and a BS in Juvenile Justice/Youth Advocacy from Wheelock College. Previously, Gwen worked with Professor Nicole M. Elias as a Research Assistant in the Public Management Department at John Jay College, studying sex, gender, and issues of social equity in the public sector.
Gwen’s comments are entirely her own and may not reflect the opinions of, or be endorsed by, the Office of the Public Advocate.