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A product of more than a yearlong process, the changes will be in front of voters this week.
In the final days of former mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, he honored a pledge made in his 2021 State of the City address: the creation of a commission to revise the city’s governing charter through amendments, in the form of ballot measures, to “uncover and attack” institutional racism in New York City. On Tuesday, voters will decide whether or not to adopt them.
A response to the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020 over police brutality and to a pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black and brown New Yorkers, the New York City Racial Justice Commission was formally established in March 2021 as a first-of-its-kind group given a two-year mandate to “embed equity into the City’s planning, programming, and auditing processes.” The charter revision commission was assigned the mammoth task of proposing amendments to the municipal constitution that would begin the process of rooting out structural racism in the city’s government.
A product of more than a yearlong process, the ballot measures that will be in front of voters this week (who didn’t opt to vote early) were drafted after a review of the charter; meetings with experts and community leaders; and direct input from more than a thousand New Yorkers, according to the commission’s report.
“For me, the most moving moments were the testimonies of New Yorkers who struggle against a system that leaves so many behind,” Asian American Federation Executive Director Jo-Ann Yoo, a commission member, said in a press release. “Those stories will stay with me for a very long time.”
The first measure adds a statement of values to create the charter’s first preamble, guiding city government to “reimagine our foundations, structures, institutions, and laws” and remedy “past and continuing harms.” Some critics have said the measures amount to an insubstantial “empty gesture.” But, according to Darrick Hamilton, a highly regarded scholar on race and class, this trivializes the issue: “Perpetuity sets the benchmark for what we want as a city. Words have meaning, words have value, words not only set a precedent for a contemporary context but future contexts as well.”
The second measure is broader. It establishes a Racial Equity Office to create a standard for racial equity data collection and reporting; a biennial Racial Equity Plan which would require all city agencies to report short and long-term goals towards racial equity including current progress, set with data markers; and a Racial Equity Commission comprised of NYC residents, from impacted communities, to provide oversight.
And the third measure, perhaps the most consequential, would adopt a true cost of living metric. The idea is to focus on dignity rather than poverty, according to the commission, a guideline that disputes $15 an hour (which federal guidelines do not calculate as poverty-level wages) is enough to cover housing, healthcare, transportation, and childcare in the city. In making its case, the commission offers an example from a Salary Parity report by the Center for Public Affairs at the New School, noting that social service workers, the city’s “backbone,” would theoretically be able to use the true cost of living measure to bargain with city agencies for higher wages.
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