A Conversation with Democratic Candidate for New York City Council Felicia Singh

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Democratic Candidate for New York City Council Felicia Singh
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Transcript:

Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale. Today we are so delighted to welcome democratic candidate from New York City Council Felicia Singh.

Soniya Gokhale (00:54):
Felicia Singh is a first-generation American whose parents immigrated to this country from India and Guyana, respectively. And she is a lifelong resident of Ozone Park. Felicia is a proud product of the New York City public schools, and is running to bring equity and justice to Council District 32. In a historic campaign whereby six Asian-American candidates, including Felicia, have won in the City Council primary, virtually ensuring that New York’s next City Council will not only be the most diverse in the city’s history, but for the first time ever, women will hold the majority. Felicia is focused upon giving a voice to thousands of working class families living in District 32. And if elected, she is intent upon removing barriers, which are keeping them from thriving, which includes a focus on education, climate change, transportation, housing, and healthcare, to name a few. Felicia, welcome to the show.

Felicia Singh (01:58):
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Soniya Gokhale (02:01):
Well, we are so excited to welcome you. And for those New Yorkers, or even global listeners, who may not be familiar with Felicia, you are a lifelong resident of Ozone Park, an educator, and the daughter of two working class immigrants. The first in your family to not only graduate from high school, but also the first to earn collegiate degrees. And your dad is a taxi driver from Punjab, India. Your mom is a school bus matron from Guyana, and you are running an historic campaign to represent District 32 on the New York City Council. What’s really notable about this election for City Council is that for the first time in the city’s history, just shocking to believe this, a historic six Asian-American candidates won in the City Council primary. And so there’s no question that the next City Council is poised to be the most diverse and history making as women will hold the first majority ever.

Soniya Gokhale (02:59):
And that is really striking, but perhaps what’s even more striking is what is missing from the current City Council, which you hope to change. And I will quote you directly from a previous interview, “There is no South Asian, zero, zero South Asian elected officials in New York City Council, yet our community of District 32 and neighboring communities have a large population of South Asian.” So I want to pause there a moment, because I have to say that makes your candidacy all the more exciting and so long overdue.

Felicia Singh (03:30):
Yes.

Soniya Gokhale (03:30):
What other thoughts or comments do you have on that? And how has being the daughter of immigrants to this country informed your perspective as a human being, an educator, a lifelong resident of District 32, and now a candidate for City Council?

Felicia Singh (03:45):
Well, first, I think that what we saw in the primary was absolutely revolutionary. It was amazing to see so many Asians within the diaspora win their elections and represent their Asian communities, which is so monumentous for this time. It’s 2021, and the fact that in 2021, we finally have a new City Council demographic that represents the city is really something that is both alarming and beautiful at the same time. And it tells you just right there, how difficult it is for women to run for office, for women of color to run for office and win, it takes so much more. And being a daughter of immigrants and being someone who’s coming from a working class background, South Asian background, someone who’s a teacher, our communities across the city, especially here in the 32nd City Council District are becoming more and more diverse.

Felicia Singh (04:48):
In fact, we’re the majority, not only do we have majority Democrats in my City Council District, we also have majority of communities of color. And so, because we’re the majority, it’s like, hey, we’re the majority, let’s act like it. Let’s actually make sure we’re building political power and seeking the representation we have a right to, and that’s the work that I’m doing running for office and having won my primary, which is really exciting. But the next feat is currently right now in the most competitive general election, at least in Queens, or in New York City. Some are pegging this race to be, because I’m running in the last Republican district in Queens.

Soniya Gokhale (05:31):
Well, absolutely. And your platform focuses upon centering education, equity and environmental justice. And in researching for this interview, I was deeply impressed with how uniquely qualified you are for this moment and the needs of District 32. And much of that comes from your decade long experience as an educator, which you call “The greatest honor of your life.” And I want to quote you, because this background has really informed you as a candidate, and you state, “It taught me that children, no matter where they go to school, or where they come from, or what their circumstances are, deserve a fully funded education with the resources that they need to be successful in this world.

Soniya Gokhale (06:15):
And you realize that for all New Yorkers, your vocation or work shouldn’t cost people their lives, or their livelihoods, but it does for most working class communities. It does for people who don’t qualify for stimulus checks and are undocumented. And it does for so many other marginalized groups. And most notably you call out the fact that what’s really missing from City Council are people who not just advocate and talk about issues, but actually experience them, and experience systems that don’t, and have never worked for people. And much of that is actually paraphrased from quotes by you in other interviews. As you aptly point out, those are the people who know exactly what to change about our systems and that’s why you’re running. And so can you offer more about this perspective and your campaign?

Felicia Singh (07:00):
Yeah. I know the life of living paycheck to paycheck, and with unstable employment and mounting debt, and really what it’s taught us and my family, my neighbors, is that our New York City systems are built in a really complex way. There’s so much red tape. There’s so much waiting and waiting and waiting. You do the right thing as a working class person, you pay your bills, you follow the law, you take out the trash when you’re supposed to, you recycle, you do all the things of what it means to be community member. You invest in homes, or maybe you’re a renter and you try your best to pay rent on time and full. And the city systems doesn’t have anything to do with being able to give you some ease as a New Yorker.

Felicia Singh (07:51):
One of the systems that I think is really designed to fail was our medallion crisis, is our medallion system, which has caused a crisis we’re seeing right now on the ground where hundreds and thousands of taxi drivers are protesting outside Chambers Street and Murray demanding that the mayor add a city guarantee to his current plan for supposed debt relief. And this is something that the city was negligent in doing, and they are responsible for the predatory lending that has caused so many taxi drivers to file for bankruptcy, my father included. And I think it really taught me that the city doesn’t really care about the everyday New Yorker who serves our city, and has built our city. It cares about banks, it cares about corporations, and we cannot afford to have more representation that does the same.

Felicia Singh (08:52):
We need to make sure that people who represent us understand what it’s like to navigate systems because they’ve had to do that, and have had to struggle through it. And when people are in office that have had to navigate systems that don’t work for the everyday New Yorker, they’re the ones that are most likely to know how exactly it needs to be changed to better serve our communities.

Soniya Gokhale (09:15):
Well, that makes so much sense. And one of the points you’ve made throughout your campaign is that all of the issues facing New Yorkers impact each other, and you are unquestionably a candidate who understands that intersectionality plays a large role in the resources people have, or do not have in your district. And you’ve mentioned some of them, but nothing exists in a silo. And whether it is transportation, education, debt, the housing crisis, these are all occurring concurrently. And not only that, you have personally experienced these things, and you’ve been very candid and sharing some of the struggles around housing, and as you just mentioned about your father. So you’re walking the walk and experiencing this. And so can you speak to why you are really someone who’s going to center justice and place a long overdue focus upon the most marginalized and vulnerable people throughout the district?

Felicia Singh (10:11):
I think when I lead with the lens of being an educator, you have to look at people in a intersectional way, and you lead with empathy. You lead with this deep sense of courage that education plays a key role to the success of someone’s economic security, to their housing security, towards their upward mobility. We know that school systems are very much correlated to the investment communities have in their neighborhoods. Schools create communities and communities create schools is one of the most common things I love to share about the intersectionality behind policy and our people. And I put it this way, schools investing in education, you might have a harder time seeing that return rate right away, but that return rate comes back 10 years later, 20 years later when our school systems are ready deeply segregated. There’s so much infrastructure issues within our school systems, literally, and also within our systems of our schools.

Felicia Singh (11:13):
And when I talk about our school systems here in New York, particularly our school district here in District 32, I put it this way, when families want to invest in homes in a community, and they’re a new family, or they’re a new couple, they always look at a school district and decide whether or not it’s worth investing in a home in that specific school district. And they want to invest in a home where the property value is also high, so that they’re having a return rate as well. And that all goes together. Everything in terms of property value and the way a community looks has everything to do with the school system as well.

Felicia Singh (11:51):
And putting these key things together for people, painting that picture, has been really remarkable, because folks don’t really think in this lens. And we don’t think in this lens because the way we treat policy is piece by piece, similar to our healthcare. In our healthcare system you have healthcare for your eyes, for your teeth, for your body, and they’re all different coverages. When I’m trying to say, let’s stop doing that and let’s cover the whole person for who they are, and how we build policy is going to impact every piece of their being.

Soniya Gokhale (12:24):
Well, that makes so much sense. Absolutely. And I would say that it could be argued that the three biggest roles of City Council are oversight, New York city budget and public land use. And you are especially excited about the opportunity to run hearings on the oversight of several departments that you just spoke about. And you’ve revealed this in various interviews, you’re personally facing a housing crisis with your family because you had to file for bankruptcy in 2019. So again, you’re walking the walk and sharing the most heartbreaking personal stories and the myths of the same types of crisis others are facing in the city, and facing a system that isn’t working for people.

Soniya Gokhale (13:08):
So most notably, you mentioned in past interviews that even in the department of education, they are working with data from 2018 to predict what children need in 2021. And you boldly and rightfully question why, especially post pandemic, but as an educator, it just appears that these systems and departments don’t run for the people right now, which is, I think, what’s so important to have a candidate like yourself in the running. And especially if you could speak to fundraising and what role that plays in all of this, and certainly not for you and your candidacy.

Felicia Singh (13:45):
Fundraising in regards to fundraising to run for office?

Soniya Gokhale (13:49):
Well, I think that you’re very transparent in saying that you’re not doing this so that for the connections and allowing people to take contributions, how you raise money for your campaign so that you can check a box and say, oh, that person owes me a favor later, or vice versa. You’re very, very, I guess, open in stating that you are here as somebody that is experiencing this district as a lifelong resident. And so having that transparency and the fact that part of why you’re doing this job is really to make an impact upon the future generation of New Yorkers.

Felicia Singh (14:26):
Yes, absolutely. It’s so important that we rewrite what it means to be a politician, because for a long time, being a politician was being someone who was corrupt, someone you couldn’t trust, someone who walked around an answer and never really answered the question, and someone who was just deeply unreliable, who was just there to fill their pockets with our tax dollars. And I want to be able to teach people that, one, anyone can run for office, and that your experience is experience enough to run for office. And then two, you don’t have to do it by this playbook, by the way that they’ve been. We’ve seen politicians be portrayed in our media, on social media, in movies, in conversations, that having, even just breaking the myth, or the taboo around having political conversations is one we should start doing now, because at the end of the day, whether you vote or you don’t, or you want to run for office, or you don’t, or you trust people who are elected officials, or you don’t, someone makes decisions for what you have and what you don’t have. And that is someone with political power.

Felicia Singh (15:39):
And in reclaiming what political power looks like for us in our diaspora, as Desi women, as South Asians, or whomever is listening, however you identify, it’s really teaching folks and bringing them into what this process looks like. Particularly for women of color, who overall in the United States, when we look at the amount of women of color who hold political office, it’s very few. And then when you magnify that amount, it’s very few South Asians. And then when you magnify that, it’s like, it’s really looking at who is able to take up space in the political realm. Why isn’t it us? Why can’t we get there? And a lot of the hard work that we’ve been doing on the ground here in this race is bringing people in, and letting them know that there’s space for them no matter what in our campaign and in this run for office.

Soniya Gokhale (16:30):
Well, that is one of the reasons I absolutely wanted to speak with you, because I really, really celebrate your candidacy and your bold and brave move to put your hat in the ring for this race. And speaking with you and researching for this, I am just bowled over by what you bring to all of this. And I think that there is no question that public safety is a very hot topic, not only for New Yorkers, but really across the country, but what’s really fascinating is you offer a perspective that safety is never really been something owned own way, that is community-based. And in your estimation, the reliance upon first responders and the NYPD has grown inordinately in your opinion.

Soniya Gokhale (17:16):
And so you want to start with a basic question, which I don’t know that others have asked necessarily before. Let’s expand, what does safety mean for people? Let’s make it bigger, because right now the definition is rather small. And so I do want to ask you on that point, you also bring up the fact that social workers and care responders, as well as EMTs and EMF are so important. And if you could speak to that.

Felicia Singh (17:44):
Absolutely. Let’s be frank here, first for our listeners, I want folks to understand what defund means, what abolish means, why this conversation even has been so big as it is right now. Defund means to reallocate a portion of money from one pool to another, and redistribute funds. Abolish means to completely get rid of, and now because of fear-mongering and examples from the Trump playbook of scaring people into believing something else, the words abolish and defund have been mixed together. Now, there are people who believe in defunding and abolishing the law enforcement budget, or police overall, and those folks exist. Then you have folks who believe in defunding the police by a certain amount that law enforcement should remain as they are, but defunding will help redistribute funds from law enforcement budget to other parts of our city budget.

Felicia Singh (18:58):
And so then you have the realm of folks who are just not about reallocating any money from the law enforcement budget that we feel like we should just add more money because crime is on the rise, and that’s the only way we can stop crime. When I talk about public safety, I talk about what it’s like to expand from the sources we already have and do something else because with a budget that’s about $5.8 billion next year, or $5.4 billion, why is it that we have all this money in this one pool and we still have crime? Why does crime exist at all? Why does gun violence exist at all if we have all of this money in this one pool? And who’s to say that if we put more there, crime will decrease? We don’t actually have evidence of that. So what I talk about, what I want to see more of, is the way we respond to certain crimes needs to change.

Felicia Singh (19:57):
And certain crimes are crimes of rape, are crimes of domestic violence, or intimate partner violence. And mental health disturbances, and anything else that could really deescalate by having someone else respond to those calls rather than the police. In District 32, in the first quarter of 2021, all three precincts had domestic violence reports rates at 50% or higher. In the second quarter, they were 52 to 60% in 2021. And what that tells us is that the more we’re responding to something, the more it is happening, that the responding to the crime, or responding to the violence is actually not decreasing the violence, it is just a response, the violence has happened already. And we’re not preventing it, more and more of this is going to be happening because the tool in which we use to respond to everything is not working.

Felicia Singh (20:56):
And we need to admit that to ourselves. We need to admit that our cures for gun violence, which is police response, police being on every corner of every street, police patrolling, police arresting. All of these really these things that police are charged with doing are actually not really correlating with the data of decreasing crime overall in the city, or in our communities. And this is really hard conversation. This is a really hard conversation because we have been trained. Our lives revolve around one way to keep us safe. And that is by calling 911 and requesting a police officer. That is the only system that exists.

Felicia Singh (21:40):
So what we’re looking at and what I try to provide comfort and solutions towards is, okay, 911 is going to exist, but what if we called 911, you told someone what the situation was and the person tells you, okay, we’re actually going to have X person respond to this because they are better equipped, and if the situation escalates to be something violent, the police will be responding, but we want to get there before it gets violent. We want to get there before it escalates to that extreme violence. And that’s important because that’s actually crime prevention. And police are responding to crime currently when the crime has already happened.

Felicia Singh (22:19):
So this is a hard conversation. It’s a difficult one. It’s one that takes a lot of nuance, it’s one that takes a lot of teaching. And that’s what I’ve been doing in the primary and now in the general, it’s just a face on conversation about the fact that we’ve actually given law enforcement as much money as we can over a history of time from 2014 to 2010 to 2021. And crime feels the same for you. Why? And people usually don’t have an answer.

Soniya Gokhale (22:51):
That’s pretty remarkable. I think you’re one of the first candidates I’ve interviewed that has, well, at least phrased it in that format, that you’re right, we really rely on one system, which is call 911 and law enforcement responds, but you’ve looked at the data and it hasn’t helped apparently. Now I will say that the pandemic likely exacerbated many of the issues that you pointed out just now, but as you point out, you can’t create change when you’re in the middle of this situation, that you have to step forward, and that’s what you want to do, is shed the light on what can be done with effective results, I suppose, for lack of a better word.

Soniya Gokhale (23:36):
Well, I cannot believe that we are actually approaching the end of our time together, but I do want to ask you any other topics, or any other message that you have for those listening right now? Again, just so deeply impressed by your candidacy.

Felicia Singh (23:51):
Thank you.

Soniya Gokhale (23:52):
Your work and life really has been serving and empowering people around you. And just the fact that you’re an educator with very deep immigrant roots. And the first South Asian woman, I believe, who will be City Council member, you’re hearing it here first. Share with us what other closing comments, or thoughts that you might have?

Felicia Singh (24:14):
Absolutely. We are 14 days away from November 2nd, which is election day. At the end of the day, no matter what, this is a numbers game. And it’s about how many Democrats go out and vote, and vote Democrat. And that’s a really scary feeling. It’s an uncomfortable feeling sometimes, because even though the numbers are on our side, it’s all about who has the time and the ability to go on and vote. And we want to make sure as many people can. So if you’re listening and you want to get involved in our campaign in flipping the last Republican district, loo, please join us at Felicia2021.com/events where you can sign up for phone banking, door-knocking, canvassing. We train everyone, whether you have experience in the political sphere or not. I’m in South Queens. So this is a really fun place to get involved.

Felicia Singh (25:09):
If you can’t meet us in person, please join us on the phone, so you can phone bank from anywhere across the United States and internationally. All you need is Zoom, your telephone and a laptop, that’s it. And we’ll train you how to phone bank for us with our automated dialer. And then as a last incentive, I want to offer this, the scrutiny and the standard in which I am held as a candidate in my district in comparison to my opponent is completely different. My opponent is a white woman and I am a woman of color. And I get questioned for my plans, my ideas, I get pushed and intimidated all the time, and my opponent has no plans. You go on her website where it goes to when you see agenda or you see plans, and it says error. And she is also has relationships and has kept an insurrection as a Capitol insurrectionist in power. And no one is asking for her to talk about that.

Felicia Singh (26:11):
No one talks about the fact that she’s been running since 1996, and is the head of the Queens Republican Party. She also has relationships with Board of Election because her son works there, and currently New York City’s Board of Election is under investigation. So there’s a lot of corruption behind her name and behind who she is. And she doesn’t get held to the same standard in which a woman of color has to be here in the city and here in this race. And so this is what I’m up against. I’m also up against Stephen Ross, who’s one of the biggest billionaires real estate developers has now invested in my opponent’s race, and is now sending smear mailers to everyone’s home that’s a Democrat across this district.

Felicia Singh (27:00):
And so she’s got billionaires behind her who are real estate developers. She’s got corruption behind her. I’ve got courage, joy, and I’m not leading with fear-mongering of voters to vote for me. That’s the difference here. And reaching every single voter at this point is how we’re going to win. And that’s why we need so much help from all over. So again, if you can volunteer, please do that at felicia2021.com/events. I look forward to you playing a role in helping us flip the district.

Soniya Gokhale (27:32):
Well, that is all so inspiring, and I will have a link in the podcast notes. And again, the site is www.felicia2021.com. And we cannot thank you enough. We’re going to be watching this. And as I said, I’m predicting. You are on New York City’s City Council. I cannot wait for this election and the result. And thank you so much for joining us today, Felicia.

Felicia Singh (27:56):
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Take care and be well.

Soniya Gokhale (27:59):
Thank you.

 

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