Ana María Archila Wants To Empower

Ana María Archila Wants To Empower

Ana María Archila, a lifelong immigrant advocate, and Brooklyn resident, is running for Lt. Governor’s office in this June’s primaries. Originally from Colombia, she has spent the last 20+ years working in working-class communities in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn, organizing, educating, advocating, and empowering New York’s large immigrant communities. She co-founded and led Make The Road New York and serves as a co-executive director at the Center for Popular Democracy.

Archila came to the states when she was 17 and knows firsthand how hard it can be to fit in, the power of dreams and community, and the importance of housing. We talked yesterday about why she’s running, how she hopes to reshape and empower the office of Lt. Governor and why Brooklyn residents should vote for her.  

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Ana María Archila: It wasn't until I found myself inside the immigrant rights movement, inside a community organization, that I began to feel like this country was my home. I had imagined that I would be working with young immigrants like myself. And there were, in fact, many young immigrants, overwhelmingly undocumented, there. But they were not living the lives of young people, working 10 and 12-hour days in restaurants and construction, sending money home, renting a bed, taking turns, trying to make enough money to rent a room.

I was teaching English and helping people recover unpaid wages. My class was late at night, and people would come after those long, long days and say, “All right, I'm ready to learn.”

I learned that people's dreams for themselves are very powerful. I also understood in that place that a lot of the challenges that make their lives difficult were policy choices. And so, I have devoted the last 20 years of my life to building organizations rooted in immigrant communities that allow working-class communities to be powerful, to be able to affect the participation and impact of the dialog on policies, local, state and federal, and to be taken seriously in our democracy.

Bklyner: What changed to make you consider a run for office?

Archila: The pandemic revealed how broken our systems are, whether you're talking about housing, health care, childcare, or home care. That revelation is actually an opportunity to invest and change and transform the systems that are not working.

Governor Kathy Hochul, even though she's very competent and very nice – she's not evil Cuomo – wasn't actually seizing the moment. In fact, she was offering tiny solutions for big problems, and that became very clear in her budget, which she released in January.

A budget that did not include the Excluded Workers Fund, a budget that offered tiny solutions for the climate emergency that we have, and it is an emergency. Last year, people drowned in their basement apartments. Last year, the trains flooded. This is not an emergency in the future. It is an emergency now. Very little on housing, she proposed the creation of 100,000 units when housing is the biggest issue for New Yorkers, from Buffalo to Long Island to Staten Island. I felt like her budget didn't recognize the opportunity of leaning into the future more boldly.

Then I looked to her Lieutenant Governor [Brian Benjamin, ed.]. When Gov. Hochul decided to allow the eviction moratorium to expire in the middle of the Omicron wave, he stayed quiet. When her budget excluded immigrants, he wasn’t in there lifting up his voice, when her budget was, you know, modest on climate, that he could speak up. Proximity to power ultimately doesn't help us if it's not active engagement and advocacy for the communities that need the government to work.

So that's why I decided to jump in to agitate and demand and make more visible the demands and the communities that are urgently asking the state government to focus on the issues that matter to people. To actually tackle the housing affordability crisis, to actually tackle the child care affordability crisis, to really address the fact that New York families are sandwiched between wages that are not high enough and the rising cost of everything, and the impossibility of balancing care, whether it is care for children or care for sick ones or care for elderly ones, and staying afloat.

Albany last Tuesday, where Archila joined tenant and criminal justice reform advocates to call for investments in housing and stopping rollbacks on criminal justice reform. Ana Maria for NY.

Bklyner: You believe strongly in housing stability, and the plan that you released with Jumaane Williams proposes creating a million affordable units.

Archila: Jumaane and I released a housing plan that is so ambitious because first, New Yorkers really talk about housing as the number one issue. You can look at the survey that was released a couple of days ago by New York City Speaks, which asked over 60,000 New Yorkers, 'what do you think the city should do about safety.' And people said housing, mental health services, and better policing. But people did not put policing first, and they certainly didn't put incarceration on their list. They said housing and mental health services.

Housing is the social infrastructure that helps us stabilize. We need to think about this as a movement that demands policies that stabilize people and that allow people to breathe a little easier after facing stress from years of illness, instability, economic devastation, and mental health challenges.

We need to make sure that people can stay in their homes. ‘Good cause’ legislation that would create protections from unjust and arbitrary evictions is a core policy priority, as are housing vouchers, and subsidization of rent essentially, for the lowest income in New Yorkers. Building housing that is permanently affordable, not regulated by the market forces, which in New York just means more expensive every year.

This is not something that hasn't existed in New York; one of the most popular housing program programs is the Mitchell Lama program. But it was created at a time when New York taxed the richest few more. It's all a policy choice. It's all about priorities. It's not like New York doesn't have the money. New York is the richest state in the country or the second richest. But it's also the most unequal.

If we govern by listening, and if the state focused on what New Yorkers say are the most important things, we would be using public resources differently from what we are doing right now. Jumaane and I would actually focus on what New Yorkers want the government to focus on.

Bklyner: You sound very much like you could be running for Governor yourself. Why are you running for Lt. Governor instead?

Archila: First, I have a candidate for governor, Jumaane Williams. I partnered with Jumaane to make the case that we could have in New York a governor's office that is a partner to the efforts of people across the state to lift up the issues that matter to regular New Yorkers instead of being an obstacle. For as long as I have been organizing, the governor's office has been an obstacle.

I also think Lieutenant Governor's office has been severely underutilized. It has been used as a surrogate of the governor, even though it is elected by the people. In my vision, Lieutenant Governor's office acts as a check on the Governor. When the Governor veers away from the things that matter most to New Yorkers, Lt. Governor's office calls attention to that.

And the lieutenant governor also has two powers that are defined as part of their responsibilities. One is presiding over the Senate, and the other one is presiding over the economic development councils. You could use it [the office] as a more active sort of voice to remind the Senate and the public and the governor that there are urgent priorities that need to be addressed, instead of how it is used right now, which is ceremonial and the person who breaks the tie when it comes to voting. If the Democrats have a supermajority, there is not going to be a tiebreak. Maybe once in a while, but not that often.

Now, the governor is still going to be the most powerful force. But the power of the lieutenant governor does not derive from the governor but derives from the people and is directly elected by the people. So it should be embodied with that mandate.

Campaign launch/ Photo by Claudio Papapietro 

Bklyner: Is there anything you disagree with Jumaane on?

Archila: I don't think we have found points of disagreement. We are very deeply aligned on our sort of world view and understanding of the world, our understanding of the power dynamics that are necessary to transform people's lives. And we are also very aligned on the reverence of people coming from the communities that have been excluded the most. He is the child of immigrants, so we share this experience, which is a very formative experience.

Bklyner: Do you see your role as Lt. Governor changing depending on who is elected Governor?

Archila: No, my vision for the lieutenant governor's office remains the same. If Jumaane were to become the governor, we would be partnering together a lot more than, let's say, if Tom Suozzi or Kathy Hochul become the governor. Obviously, we have ideological differences, you know, the difference in worldview and priorities, especially differences in priorities. Their priorities are very much shaped by the people they are surrounded by, and the people that have surrounded me are working-class immigrants and black and brown families in New York and across the country. I don't think these are the same people that surround Kathy Hochul or Tom Suozzi.

Bklyner:  Do you think enough of them will vote?

Archila: I think that's where campaigns can make a difference. If people feel like there is nothing in it, nothing that is exciting or inspiring, of course, people don't vote.

New York has a notoriously bad turnout. In 2018, just 1.4 or 1.5 million New Yorkers voted in the primary. I'm anticipating a similar number, the general election is a really important election, and it is actually really important to have a ticket that is inspiring to people, that it's exciting to people because the Republicans are more energized, coming out of the agitation of the Trump years and the Jan.6  insurrection, and the narrative that they have been driving so hard. So I think for Democrats, it's going to be especially important to have campaigns that feel exciting, inspiring, and inclusive of the broad coalition represented in the Democratic Party.

Bklyner: Does Eric Adams being our mayor - a more centrist candidate in last year’s elections - factor into how you think about your chances?

Archila: Eric Adams won by seven thousand votes. The majority of people did not vote for Eric Adams, which is why it's unfortunate that we draw the conclusion that the majority of people want Eric Adams's policies when really most people didn't, and most people don't.  The way that he is reviving the policies of the Giuliani era, I don't think, is very popular.

I think people recognize we have a homelessness crisis, and we need to address homelessness with homes, not with jails and policing. And we have a rise in violence, and we need to address violence with things that de-escalate violence. Incarceration is not the right solution to the violence that is the product of social stress. And you know, the crimes that are crimes of poverty should be understood as that, crimes of poverty, and we should address the root causes of poverty. He is taking a very law and order, punitive approach to the most vulnerable New Yorkers. I don’t buy the narrative that New Yorkers chose a more centrist approach. New Yorkers didn't, actually. Our election system allowed someone to win without a majority.

Bklyner: Many of the most vulnerable of our neighbors do not vote or cannot vote in local elections, and many recent immigrants tend to vote more conservative. How do you appeal to them?

Archila: I think that this is where actually addressing the things that people really care about really matters because, for most people, housing is a concern. I believe in the politics of listening to people. It's a nonpartisan thought; we should listen to people. We should also have courage, right? Sometimes elected officials have to be not just elected officials, they have to be leaders, and they have to be willing to disagree with people. But in this case, I feel like, after the past year, we have seen how destabilizing the pandemic was for working-class families, working-class communities, for communities of color, and for everybody. We need to actually roll up our sleeves and focus on the things that are most stabilizing. Housing, in my opinion, is the most stabilizing social infrastructure we can have.

Bklyner: Do you think that can be done without federal support?

Archila: I think it doesn't have to be done without federal support, but it certainly cannot be done if we don't tax the rich. We have to tax the rich. We have to tax the rich more than we tax them right now. Last year, there was a very modest increase in the taxes for the rich, and well, there was a ten billion-dollar surprise surplus because the wealthiest people made a lot of money during the pandemic. So obviously, clearly, we need to do more of that so that we can make more things possible, and we need to stop spending money on the wrong things.

Like spending money on a stadium that ultimately the city of Buffalo doesn't profit from, is wrong. It doesn't make sense. spending money on subsidizing luxury housing to get just a few units of affordable housing doesn't make sense. So, you know, we would be well-served by focusing on the things that matter to people and investing there. Obviously, the real estate industry has a tremendous influence through their very prolific political contributions; they influence the policy agenda to most people's detriment. So we need to see that clearly and name it. And elect people who are not going to be just carrying the sabers and the priorities of developers, but actually of the people that live in the buildings where rents are rising.

Bklyner: You just recently moved to Brooklyn.

Archila: I have lived most of my time in the US in Queens, but I recently moved to Downtown Brooklyn. For more than a decade, I was organizing people in Bushwick and Williamsburg, East New York.

Bklyner: Do you own or do you rent?

Archila: I co-owned my apartment and Astoria with my ex-wife. We recently sold it, and I moved in with my partner.

Bklyner: How much time have you spent outside the city?

Archila: We just launched the campaign, but I've spent a bunch of time in Albany, Newburgh, and Long Island, a little bit around New Rochelle. I am making my way to Rochester and Buffalo next week, and I'm hoping to figure out a way to just drive around the state, small towns, big towns. We're delivering our petitions tomorrow [April 7], and then I'll be on my way.

Bklyner: What has surprised you outside the city so far?

Archila: The extent to which housing is the big thing, even in places that are small cities. I just assumed that housing costs are sort of astronomical and ridiculous in New York City, but people experience that reality and have the same assessment of housing costs outside of the city. It's just been affirmed again and again when I talk to people.

The other thing that I have noticed is the level of creativity and economic activity that is infused by people. Go to the town of Newburgh, and the main road is a very big street, and every store has a restaurant, every storefront has a business, a small business that is from a different sort of national origin. It's a very diverse downtown area in the town of Newburgh, which surprised me because the narrative around Newburgh is that it's a town in decay, and it's a town that is, you know, one of the poorest. That is true in recent history. It's also true that people's dreams shine through.  I read these spaces as real examples of people's entrepreneurship and tenacity, and strength.

Bklyner: You have an incredible track record of accomplishing what you set out to do.  Has there ever been something you've set out to do that you have not been quite successful at?

Archila: Um, I have never done things alone. All of my successes have been collective. I have a hard time assuming the credit because it's never been just me. I have been very lucky to find myself inside teams of people who are just remarkable people and who work really hard, and who gave me a lot of flak.

The entire time I sort of feel like I haven't really done enough. There's a part of me that sees the things where I didn't accomplish what I couldn't accomplish, either because my efforts were insufficient or because the circumstances were hard, but from the outside, it looks like extreme success. It's an interesting struggle I have with myself, to be honest. One of the things that's nice about the campaign is that I don't have time to beat myself up because I just have to do good.

Bklyner: Given the track record of our recent governors, what do you think could bring Jumaane down if elected?

Archila: Oh my God, that is a crazy question. I don't know. Jumaane is, and I admire him a lot because he's very human. He's extremely able to both embody the strength of the communities that raised him and to be very vulnerable. Young black men in our society have to be so controlled and policed, and elegant in order to not be treated as criminals. He embodies the inner dignity of people who are undervalued.

I remember the night when he won the primary for Public Advocate. It was the celebration party, and he came to the microphone, and he talked about mental health. He talked about the fact that he had been struggling with mental health and that he was going to therapy and that it was the best thing that he had done for himself, and that he was really battling his demons. And I just felt like, Wow, what a choice to make. Be at the height of your political career and come, you know, to the mike and share it back.

I don't know that there's something that could bring him down, but everybody has something that could bring them down. I could imagine him being a powerful model of atonement and vulnerability and reflection of self-awareness if there was something in it.

Bklyner: When you said the current government was offering ‘tiny solutions for big problems,’ what's your pitch for Brooklyn residents, why they should vote for you and Jumaane Williams? What is the urgency of doing this now, as opposed to sticking with the status quo?

Archila: If there is a group of New Yorkers that is feeling the housing affordability crisis most acutely, it's the people who live in Brooklyn and the people who are displaced by the rising rents and the lack of protections for tenants. I can picture specific human beings who are no longer able to stay in Brooklyn.

Jumaane and I would be absolute allies in addressing this core priority because when people are displaced from their neighborhoods, they not only lose their homes they also lose the community that they're part of. This is not just a geographic dislocation; it's a structural social dislocation. The systems of support that people rely on to leave their daily lives get really disrupted.

Addressing housing affordability is essential for the people, as is addressing the care infrastructure that families need, whether we are talking about child care and the availability and affordability of child care or being able to access home care so that your loved one can stay connected to her or his family and not be institutionalized, that’s really hard. Across the state of New York, we have a crisis in terms of the shortage of home care workers. Elderly people become more and more vulnerable as they age because their children cannot stay in the community. So we really need to tackle that. The group of people whose votes I really want to earn is the residents of Brooklyn.