Meet Rita Joseph: On Education, Housing, Cops and Running to Represent Flatbush In City Council

Meet Rita Joseph: On Education, Housing, Cops and Running to Represent Flatbush In City Council
Rita Joseph at Georges Diner, March 2020. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

Rita Joseph is a local teacher running to represent her neighborhood – Flatbush / District 40 – in the City Council in this year’s election, which will be decided in the June Democratic primary.

Joseph grew up in Flatbush, but like many of its residents, was born in Haiti. Raised by her grandparents, who brought her to Brooklyn when she was just two, she grew up speaking Creole at home – which eventually led her to her current position of English as a Second Language Coordinator at PS6, where she’s taught in various positions and grades for the past 20 years.

Joseph traces her community activism back to the 1990s when it was [erroneously] believed that Haitians were bringing AIDS into the country. Then a teenager, Joseph helped organize the march across the Brooklyn Bridge to get the FDA to reverse the decision that prohibited people from Haiti from donating blood. At first, to change the world, she wanted to become a diplomat. Then, she became a teacher. Now she’d like to lift and represent her students’ and neighbors’ voices in the city council.

We talked to her about her run twice – once just as before the pandemic hit at Georges Diner and last week, via email.

For the last almost 15 years, the seat has been occupied by councilmember Mathieu Eugene who has done very little to advocate for the district and will be finally term-limited out next year. There are currently 13 candidates vying for the office. As of last week, Joseph is among the frontrunners in the district, having the most money in the bank and having raised almost as much money as Edwin Raymond in the latest filing period.

Why did you decide to run?

For years, I’ve seen decisions being made for our communities rather than with our communities. Put simply, City Hall needs more working-class people of color who are actually impacted by the decisions that politicians make. At this moment in time, it’s clear that the same old political class that got us into this mess will not be the ones to get us out of it. Something new is needed.

As an educator, I’ve gotten real results for my students. As an activist, I’ve created change. However, I think I can have an even greater impact on my community if I were to hold elected office. I’m running to represent Council District 40 because I have deep roots in the community and know it better than anywhere else in the world: I grew up in District 40, I work in District 40, and my friends and family are in District 40.

I envision building up a community that has been left behind by city leaders. For too long, the working families of Central Brooklyn have been forgotten. We need to be focused on creating opportunities for families, small businesses, working people, and everyone else to thrive in their own neighborhoods. All my values are with that vision in mind.

How have you spent the pandemic?

One of the few upsides of the pandemic has been the opportunity to spend time with my family, particularly my four sons. I have spent the pandemic fully committing myself to my teachers and families at PS6, as well as providing relief for the community through assisting with food banks, handing out PPE, and facilitating toy and backpack drives.

Have you seen a change in your district? What does Flatbush need come coronavirus recovery?

This pandemic has been personal to me. My mother got COVID-19 and was hospitalized because of it, two of my uncles passed away from it, and close personal friends have been laid off or died because of it.

District 40 has been hit hard by COVID-19. In my ZIP code alone (11226), more than 300 people have died from COVID. Through no fault of their own, many folks in the district have lost hours or even their jobs during this pandemic. We need concrete proposals to offer these folks financial support, which is why I support the following steps to immediately bring relief to regular New Yorkers:

  • Canceling residential rent for households with less than $75,000 in income and mandating temporarily reduced rents for households with incomes of $75,00.01-$150,000
  • Canceling commercial rent for small businesses (five employees or less) throughout the City so that they can pay their employees small stipends
  • Provide increased direct unemployment relief for families
  • Increase pro-bono legal and mental health resources
  • Banning residential evictions while people are financially recovering from the economic impact of the virus

We also need to make sure that there is an equitable vaccine distribution system that targets Black and Brown people across the city. COVID has overwhelmingly targeted people of color. To rectify that, we must have a bold vaccine distribution plan that gets vaccines to the people who need them most, after frontline healthcare workers and the elderly.

As a Black working-class immigrant, I know all too well how much COVID-19 has hurt marginalized communities like District 40 and people who look like me more broadly. I am fully committed to ensuring that communities that look like mine are able to recover from this pandemic to the fullest extent possible.

How will you be different from the current leadership?

In many respects, our current leadership has largely failed us. People’s faith in government is shaken right now: At the highest level, [now former] President Donald Trump has been an incompetent buffoon who has actively harmed our communities. More locally, our leaders have not stepped up to the plate.

I pledge to be more directly engaged with the community, listen to needs, find solutions with community partners, and have a focus on expanding constituent services. If elected, I will be much more accessible for information and services. I plan to host constituents for monthly meetings as well as offer regular constituent office hours on Zoom for those who cannot make in-person meetings.

Constituent services will be a critical aspect of my office and will serve as a direct line to the people to hold me accountable for my actions in office. They will be of the highest priority for me. My staff and I will seek out constituents, rather than the other way around—I want my staff and I to be as accessible as possible.

Housing, education, and policing are big issues in the city and Flatbush. They are also your top priorities. How will you address them?

Our District deserves a Council Member that realizes some universal truths: Black Lives Matter, housing is a human right, and every child deserves a world-class education.

From my own experience as an educator, I have learned that teachers are far more than just teachers. We are mentors and community members, and the path to empowering students often begins with cultivating bonds based on life experiences. Teachers who are representative of their students are able to act as effective role models who can lead with knowledge and empathy.

Furthermore, studies show that kids do better in school when teachers look more like their students. Especially in communities of color, students are more likely to stay in school and attend college with a teacher who looks like them. We need more qualified, driven teachers of color in our public schools, which is why I support actively recruiting teachers at a wide variety of schools, including HBCUs.

My school, PS6, has many students who live semi-permanently in shelters. In a typical school year, I work with 300+ students who are homeless. One out of eight District 40 students – many of whom are my students – have experienced homelessness in the last five years.

I wish I could have a wand and make sure they have permanent housing because it creates stability for them. I’m always focused on education – that’s the foundation. If I grew up in a crappy home, it follows me everywhere I go. Sometimes it defines who I become. But if they can get on solid ground? Their outcome is different.

I support providing more affordable housing units, protecting tenants from unfair rent increases, and improving the conditions of NYCHA complexes. I support expanding rent vouchers facilitating more supportive housing opportunities, and building more affordable housing in both high and low-income areas. We also must focus on homelessness prevention.

I advocate for social welfare programs that provide free assistance and counseling to those struggling with mental illness, addiction, and other issues that affect one’s ability to maintain housing. My plan to reallocate NYPD funds to education and healthcare will also help prevent crime and drug addiction, which often leads to homelessness in our communities.

Systematic racism is inherent in our city and our country. To fight this, we need to reallocate at least $1 billion from the NYPD budget into supporting teachers, social workers, and in-school and hospital healthcare workers. Policing needs to be more community-based. We need to change our drug laws, so they don’t target BIPOC, and we need to end qualified immunity for police officers.

Flyer on Flatbush Avenue. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

How will you address policing in particular?

As the mother of four Black boys, I go to bed every night praying that my sons don’t become the next Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or George Floyd if they’re out of the house.

First, we need to limit the number of interactions that police have with the public-at-large, because time and time again, we have seen that cops cannot be trusted to not kill innocent Black and Brown people. The police should not be the judge, jury, and executioner in our criminal justice system.

Police should not have a role in mental health responses (except when the individual in question is visibly armed), homeless outreach, and other social service areas. These are situations that require mental health professionals and social workers to respond. It is unfair to the people in need of help and the NYPD to send unqualified officers into situations that they are untrained for as both parties are being set up for failure.

I support bans on the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement agencies, on partnerships and data sharing with private surveillance companies and tools, and bans on the use of predictive policing algorithms.

I also support empowering the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) so that our communities can effectively police the police. As it stands right now, the CCRB is largely toothless. The NYPD has reduced or rejected the CCRB’s recommendations for serious discipline in about 71% of the serious misconduct charges that have been brought against officers within the last 20 years. We must take tangible steps to empower the Board.

We must allow the Board to investigate misconduct, even when it does not receive a complaint. Right now, even if evidence of misconduct becomes publicly available, the CCRB has to formally receive a complaint in order to review alleged misconduct. Additionally, we must make CCRB disciplinary determinations binding. I unequivocally and absolutely support state legislation to make CCRB disciplinary determinations binding. An empowered CCRB is a powerful tool for curtailing abuse by the NYPD.

Bus lane on Church Avenue. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

How will you address transportation?

New York City has to make meaningful transportation reforms as a way to combat the climate crisis. Climate change is an existential threat, and we need concrete and meaningful action at all levels of government to combat it and all of its adverse effects. The solution: a Green New Deal — going carbon-neutral by 2030 and creating good-paying city government jobs in the process.

A critical part of a Green New Deal will be transforming our transportation. We need to make all public transportation low-carbon emissions. We have to make subways and buses 100% free and fight for gas taxes at the state level.

We have to increase the quality and quantity of bike and bus lanes. We need to reduce the city’s vehicle fleet by a very significant margin, especially the NYPD’s vehicle fleet. Lastly, we also need to stop the rampant placard abuse in NYC.

Prioritizing bikes and pedestrians is a critical part of making our city greener. For too long, NYC has not been bike or pedestrian-friendly. I support expanding Citi Bike to all neighborhoods. While Citi Bike has pledged to expand the number of bikes they have to the outer-boroughs, it has failed to reach communities like District 40, who could stand to benefit from its expansion the most.

Do you think we should have a dedicated bus lane on Flatbush Avenue as the MTA has asked for?

I fully support a dedicated bus lane on Flatbush. On transit more broadly, we need to transition away from a car-centric transportation system as soon as possible as part of a larger Green New Deal.

Are you pro-development?

It has to be beneficial. I’m about social responsibility. You come into the neighborhood, you have to give back as well as not just take.

Corner of Cortelyou Road and E16th Street. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

How do you think about development? Let’s say the request for upzoning to redevelop the Key Food lot on Cortelyou Road?

I believe that all development must be viewed on a case by case basis, and decisions surrounding individual buildings must take into account significant community input. I am supportive of projects that will increase the affordable housing supply, be environmentally friendly, and create new jobs.

I am deeply concerned about gentrification, so it is absolutely crucial that any proposed developments do not result in residents being priced out of their neighborhoods. Smart landmarking is an important tool to preserve the history of our neighborhoods, but we need to make sure it is used just for the sake of NIMBYism.

Specifically, about the Cortelyou Road project, I am opposed to the Key Food upzoning. The city needs more affordable housing, and this project only offers 20% affordable units, which is the bare minimum that the city requires. This is unacceptable. We have an obligation to oppose this upzoning because it does not adequately supply enough affordable units. We need to increase the affordable housing supply throughout the city and in Brooklyn, but this project is not the right way to go about it.

Housing is a human right, and I’m deeply concerned that this project will not meaningfully improve the affordable housing market. The solution is not simple, but I believe that the project should be denied unless it pledges to make a substantially higher portion of its units affordable housing.

The Flatbush Savings Bank building and adjacent Kings Theatre in November 2020 (Photo: Liena Zagare/Bklyner)

Since you’d be effectively the Mayor of Flatbush – how do you see your role in promoting the town?

District 40 needs to have more public spaces and events to help revitalize the local economy. Central Brooklyn goes unrecognized far too often despite its rich diversity and exceptional character.

For instance, Kings Theatre is an absolute gem, and it deserves more attention from all New Yorkers, not just Brooklynites.

For our small businesses, I support providing tax incentives for new businesses that want to relocate to lower-income communities, fighting for assistance for small businesses dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increase funding for women and minority-owned businesses to start & maintain their businesses, among other steps. On the retail vacancy front, I am open to a vacancy tax concept to disincentivize landlords from fixing prohibitively high rents.

Rita Joseph on Cortelyou Road. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

How have your past experiences prepared you for this position?

As an educator, I know what needs to be done to make the classroom a better learning environment for all students. As a mom of four Black boys, I know the fear that Black people face when confronted by law enforcement. Growing up as an immigrant, I know what it is like to face discrimination simply because I was not born here.

These experiences coupled together have prepared me to become an elected official that will fight for ALL New Yorkers regardless of their creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, or immigration status.

What do you do in your free time?

I love spending time at Greenlight Bookstore, where I’ve spent many afternoons looking for good reads. I also love eating at restaurants all over Brooklyn; some of my favorite places in the neighborhood are Golden Krust, Natural Blend, Fisherman’s Cove, Venus Restaurant, Risbobk, Brooklyn Perk, and Zen. I also love to see live theater. My favorite show is The Lion King, and I can’t wait for Broadway to reopen again.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of raising my four boys and seeing the wonderful young men they are becoming. I am also proud to be an educator. Very few things are more exciting to me than seeing one of my former students and learning about all the great things they have accomplished. Lastly, I am proud of the resilience of our city throughout this terrible pandemic. I have full faith we’ll come back from this stronger than before. It’s always a mistake to bet against New Yorkers.