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Race & Politics: CB3 Chairperson Gigi Li’s Leadership Appointments Criticized (Updated 2:40 p.m.)

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File photo: Gigi Li, center, with Council members Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez.
File photo: Gigi Li (center) with Council members Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez.

The issue of racial diversity in the leadership of CB3 became a hot topic during this past Tuesday night’s full board meeting.  The conversation was initiated by an African-American board member, Ayo Harrington, who sent a letter to Gigi Li, CB3’s chairperson, voicing “strong concern about the fact that” Li has in Harrington’s words, “consistently and regularly failed to appoint any Black or Latino members of our community board as the chair of a committee, subcommittee or task force.”

Li, the first woman of Chinese descent to lead a New York City community board, faces a re-election campaign in June.  She has come under heavy criticism in the past year from a group of board members displeased with several key decisions.  Harrington’s letter, which was also sent to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, has triggered an equal opportunity investigation.

While pointing out that she was passed over to lead the Human Services and Education Committee last year, Harrington said her decision to raise the issue publicly was not personal. “It is about community board leadership and lack of inclusion from my perspective,” she argued.   White board members head 9 committees, while the remaining two are led by Asians.  The executive committee includes four elected members from ethnically diverse groups (one Black, one Latino and two Chinese including Chairperson Li).  Harrington said Li has appointed six chairpersons in the past year, and, “at no time was a Black or Latino chosen to serve as chair.”  She called the situation “unacceptable” in a very diverse community. Within Community District 3, the overall population is about 32% white, 34% Asian, 25% Hispanic and 7% Black.

In a written response, Li told Harrington. “I am deeply disturbed and appalled by the baseless allegations stated in your letter. Since joining Community Board 3 in 2009, I have worked tirelessly with our elected officials to increase diversity, in all its forms, on the board.” In her letter, Harrington asserted that Li told her she could not be appointed to lead the Human Services panel because “a member had to be on the community board for a year before being considered.”  Harrington was then dismayed to find out that Li had appointed a white co-chair of the committee who had only been on the board for six months.  Li said her position had been misrepresented but that she would not “engage in a back and forth” with Harrington, in part because an equal opportunity legal proceeding was just beginning. She acknowledged that Harrington is not the only Black board member passed over for a committee chair position.

During an hour-long debate Tuesday night, other board members chimed in on both sides of the issue. Herman Hewitt, CB3’s vice chair and a Black man, said he has never “felt slighted” in his 35 years as a board member due to racial discrimination. Speaking in support of Li, he said, “we’re talking about someone from a minority group and I see no reason that person would turn around and willfully discriminate against someone (else).”

Val Jones, an African-American member of the Human Services Committee,  said she had serious questions about the qualifications of the panel’s white co-chairs, Dominic Berg and Justin Carroll. “I have wondered what are the qualifications of the two people,” Jones said, “because they seem to know less about education, health care and what this community is about than Ayo (Harrington). So I have to say, on that committee, it feels very funny.”

Harrington emphasized that she believed the current chairs were doing a good job, and that her complaint was not with individuals chosen for leadership roles but with a “lack of transparency” and inclusiveness in Chairperson Li’s appointments.  In response to Jones’s comments, she detailed her own relevant experience, including more than six years as head of United Parents Association and a tour of duty working on education issues in the state Assembly.

Carroll, an attorney, rose to defend himself, saying he came from a family of teachers, cared for elderly relatives and served on the Connecticut governor’s education advisory council.   Carroll said he sees his role on the committee as a facilitator and a person who makes sure all voices are heard.  Dominic Berg, who preceded Li as board chairperson,  also took a turn at the microphone. As co-chair of the panel, Berg said, he offers the perspective of a gay man who’s the father of 11-year-old kids. He served on the local Community Education Council and led an effort (still underway) to bring a new school to the Essex Crossing development project on Grand Street.

Berg also talked about the challenges involved in making appointments, a responsibility that rests solely with the board chair. In his four years leading CB3, Berg explained, he experienced first-hand the difficulty of changing leadership assignments. The decisions, he said, were “politically sensitive” and under intense scrutiny, plus it wasn’t always easy to find qualified people willing to do the extra work necessary to be a committee chairperson. Berg said he understood Harrington’s point of view but argued that diversity needed to be about more than race.  Sometimes, he argued, it’s also important to appoint people committed to specific issues. As an example, Berg used his own experience, saying a key reason he chose to join CB3 was to advocate for marriage equality.

Anne Johnson, another longtime board member, said she believed former Borough President Scott Stringer had done a lot to increase the diversity of the board, so “when I heard that the current chair was not continuing that diversity… I was very upset.”  Carolyn Ratcliffe, chair of the landmarks subcommittee,  agreed, saying committee leadership should reflect the diversity of the community and that change obviously needed to occur.  Jamie Rogers, who serves on the board as assistant secretary, argued there should be a better, more transparent process for appointments in which both selection criteria and qualifications of appointees are made public. He said a change in CB3’s by-laws might be necessary to implement clear procedures.

This week’s meeting was the first full board session for six new members of Community Board 3.  One of those new members, longtime community activist K Webster, said, “I feel uncomfortable when we start looking for the racist in the room… I am particularly uncomfortable when the person who is the racist in the room is a young Chinese woman who has done a brilliant job leading this board.”  Acknowledging the criticism being voiced by others, Webster argued that making mistakes is part of being  a leader.   “If you’re not making mistakes you’re not doing shit,” she said.

Lisa Kaplan, a onetime CB3 chairperson,  called the debate a “really healthy discussion.”  Kaplan added, “overall Gigi has done an excellent job,” but with board elections approaching she said Li would have the opportunity to address the diversity issue more fully and to talk about what she’d do differently in another term.

The upcoming election is weighing heavily on the minds of many board members.  For the past several months, a handful of them have been meeting regularly to discuss what group leader Chad Marlow described as “common concerns about the way the board is being run” and to talk about “what a properly functioning board would look like.”  They’ve spent a lot of time, Marlow said, weighing several controversies that have swirled around CB3.  Among them: Gigi Li’s decision to suspend the LES Dwellers, a neighborhood group, as an officially recognized organization; her appointments to a task force charged with revamping block association policies; and a proposal to co-name a section of Rivington Street for the Beastie Boys.  Some members of the group, sources tell us, oppose Li specifically; others are determined to oust Susan Stetzer, CB3’s district manager, who’s in charge of the board office (SEE BELOW FOR A CLARIFICATION REGARDING THIS POINT).

Marlow has been widely expected to run for chair against Li in June, although in an interview this week, he said no decisions have been made.  Sources tell The Lo-Down that the group intends to select a member to run for chairperson; Marlow is not the only potential candidate. Some people see the upcoming power struggle on CB3 as a preview of the District 2 City Council race; Rosie Mendez is now serving her final term in the district, which covers the East Side above Houston Street.  There’s speculation that at least two CB3 members, Marlow and Carlina Rivera (an affordable housing activist with the politically powerful GOLES organization), will run for the seat.  Harrington is president of CoDA, an East Village political club that has historically been influential in District 2 campaigns.

In addressing the latest controversy, one member, Meghan Joye, questioned why Harrington’s letter was sent to the Borough President and leaked to reporters (The Lo-Down received it April 25); many board members had not seen it until Tuesday night’s meeting.  At the end of the evening, Li said she believed the discussion was a “fruitful” one.  Li said she welcomed the conversation and argued that in her time as chairperson, she has never backed away from addressing difficult topics.

The Borough President, currently Gale Brewer, appoints members of the community boards in consultation with local City Council members. In an email exchange, Stephanie Hoo, Brewer’s press secretary, acknowledged that the office “is (also) charged with providing assistance” to the boards and noted that “conducting (Equal Employment Opportunity) investigations on complaints is part of (its) responsibility.” But Hoo said she could not comment on any specific complaint.

On Tuesday evening, Harrington told another representative of the Borough President she was unhappy that she had not been told an investigation was beginning. “Not communicating with the person who wrote the letter is not ok,” she asserted. As for Li, Harrington said, “I am not surprised by her dismissal (of her letter) but I am disappointed.” She added that the letter was intended to document her concerns about leadership diversity and to start a broader conversation. Harrington said she was being unfairly attacked for raising the issue.

 UPDATE 2:40 p.m.  We were contacted this afternoon by Chad Marlow about a specific point in this story.  He said that “no one in the group has ever called for the ouster of Susan Stetzer.”

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  1. Great article. I want to clarify that I (K Webster) don’t believe I said that I “acknowledged mistakes” made by Li. I was speaking generally about leaders. That they, we, make mistakes. That if you are not making mistakes you aren’t trying to challenge the status quo that needs to be challenged. You can’t confront what we don’t yet know and not make errors. I don’t know if Li’s appointments were the best option or not, but having known her for a time, I’d wholeheartedly give her the benefit of any doubt. I know as a woman who has been targeted by racism her whole life that this issue is not lost on her.
    What I find most troubling is the question of whether this vital issue is being used for political ambition (not the issue itself nor bringing it to the fore). But that there could be some who are hoping that the fallout from an honest struggle by people targeted by racism might afford them an opportunity for political gain. I don’t think we white folks want to be benefiting from racism – in it’s overt forms or in the internalized racism that the damage of racism creates.

  2. This seems like a terrific debate for a community board to be having. It does not seem to be personal (yet?, let’s hope not), but it is an important issue. Diversity is always an important issue, and just by looking at the people running CB3 meetings compared to those in the audience, it appears that attention to this issue can only be a good thing in the long run. Some change seems in order, and I hope the members will continue to work this out. New blood is always good, and especially for CB3. I encourage the members to keep at it.

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