The list of candidates running for Brooklyn Borough President in 2021 is growing. The seat is currently held by Eric Adams, who is term-limited and is running for NYC Mayor. A few months ago, Brooklyn resident and community leader Khari Edwards announced his run for the office.
Edwards has dedicated his career to community development and political action. He served as the Vice President of External Affairs at the Brookdale Hospital Medical Center, and he is one of the lead coordinators of the East Brooklyn Call to Action. He also led the creation of “It Starts Here,” a program geared to address gun violence throughout Brooklyn. We spoke to his opponent, Pearlene Fields, yesterday and will be speaking to others in the upcoming days. Some answers have been slightly edited.
Why did you decide to run now, especially during the pandemic?
I opened my committee in November 2019. I questioned whether to run after the pandemic broke because my responsibility was to Brookdale Hospital and what we went through was catastrophic. I also contracted COVID-19. Seeing everything that was happening in our borough, I became even more convinced that I needed to step up and run. Brooklyn is going through big changes right now, and it needs a leader for EVERYONE. I feel that the Brooklyn Borough President is a hands-on political office, someone who has to have the pulse of all communities, and this fits my style and my background.
How have you spent the pandemic? What has it been like for you?
The worst of the pandemic I was in ground zero. I almost lost my job because I allowed CNN into the hospital to bring light to our lack of PPE and equipment. I coordinated with small businesses and caring community members to feed not only our staff but almost 10,000 community folks who were not able to eat. We also organized community PPE giveaways and walked door to door in some cases to hand out masks.
What have you seen? Have you seen a change in Brooklyn? What does Brooklyn need for recovery?
Death and despair. I have seen the most simple of human enjoyment, family, friends, and hugging taken away, leaving people hopeless. I also have seen a need for more prioritization in personal health. Our health is never our priority until we are sick. As a diabetic, I can personally attest to this.
In the beginning, I saw us working together, supporting each other, we had a common enemy which was COVID-19. I think we’ve maintained that spirit. But sadly, I’ve seen some of my favorite businesses close, I’ve seen people I care about pass away, I see food lines for blocks and blocks, and I know too many people are wondering how to pay their rents and mortgages.
Brooklyn needs a concise plan, communication, and clear direction. The borough can open up, small businesses can thrive again, people can gather, but we have to do so with clear guidance and we have to be responsible for getting to that point.
What top three issues will you prioritize once elected, and why?
Housing/Homelessness: Brooklyn just does not have enough affordable housing, and what is often deemed affordable simply isn’t for most New Yorkers. Too often, the affordable housing available is meant for people making over one hundred thousand dollars a year. We need housing that is affordable to our fast-food workers, bus drivers, teachers, and city employees —the people who make our community work. The lack of affordable housing in Brooklyn leaves thousands of families unhoused and unstable.
Health: COVID-19 has highlighted the ongoing health disparities in Brooklyn. Low-income residents wait longer to get the care and are already more likely to have underlying conditions, making COVID-19 particularly dangerous. This inequality has cost us the lives of thousands of Brooklynites. As a borough, we must prioritize health and expand access to care.
Small Business: Small businesses are the foundation of economic growth in Brooklyn. Our small businesses, many of whom were already struggling, have been devastated by COVID-19. This impact has been especially hard on businesses owned by women and people of color. Small businesses have been responsible for pulling families into the middle class and are the backbone for our communities. It is critical that we aid their recovery.
How will you compare to the previous leadership?
I want to build on the greatness of the previous Borough Presidents. Howard Golden was a policy person, Marty was an ambassador and connector, and Eric empowered communities to have voices. I want to put all of those together and get back to making the role a coalition builder, a connector, but also using the office to create equity throughout the borough, balance school funding, improve health and housing access, and create an economic development ecosystem.
Housing and homelessness are big issues in the city. How will you address them?
Housing is my number one priority and homelessness is a direct result of a housing crisis. While working at Brookdale, I discovered a small percentage of our workforce was living in family shelters. I intend to use land use and zoning to work to get our families out of the shelter system into permanent housing and use those family shelters to house the homeless population and provide support services to prevent.
How will you address policing?
I believe in community policing. I want the NYPD to put more effort and money into ensuring that police officers are familiar with the neighborhoods they patrol. I want the NYPD to conduct customer service and diversity training. I want the NYPD to not be responding to mental health and public nuisance complaints. I want to see more money go towards violence interruption, youth services, and job training.
How do your past experiences make you fit for this position?
I have spent 20 years in public service, working in government and social service agencies. For the past eight years, I worked for a hospital whose catchment area serviced close to 1.3 million people. I have experienced all the good and bad this borough has to offer. I had to deal with gun violence at an alarming rate, feed thousands because of the lack of food in our community, fight with landlords who were endangering the welfare of my colleagues, open our hospital doors for schools that needed space to tutor failing students. Or support our areas schools with health access, especially around mental health, and go to Albany and fight for healthcare alongside our healthcare union. I was part of a team that lost almost 600 people to COVID-19. I had to do all that by bringing people together, build coalitions and teams, getting my community to trust me.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my children. My oldest Ethan graduated at 16 years old from Bedford Academy. My daughter Niah is one of the few women of color in a theatre tech program at LaGuardia High School. And my son Myles who is 12, makes sure he accompanies me to every community event where we are paying it forward.
What do you do in your free time?
My wife Jahmila and I binge watch TV shows (Money Heist, Love Craft Country, Stranger Things, and Naked and Afraid).
What is your favorite part of Brooklyn?
Conrad McCrae Basketball Court where my son grew up playing basketball from age 4 to 16.