Interviews & Profiles

Isa Puello brings NYC to Albany

Isa Puello

Isa Puello Submitted

Carl Heastie became the first African-American to ever serve as Speaker of the New York state assembly after he was elected to the position in 2015. Since then, he has appointed people of color to positions in government, including Isa Puello. 

Puello, appointed as secretary to intergovernmental affairs on Oct. 30, has been working under Heastie for almost ten years after finding a passion for community service and leadership as a college student. She credits Heastie’s leadership and her upbringing in what she calls the “best city in the world” for why she has pushed for change and continues to do so in communities full of families from diverse backgrounds like the neighborhood she calls home.

Are you originally from New York?

I was born in Puerto Rico but I’m from New York. I was raised in the Bronx. To a lot of people I just say I’m from New York, because I was raised here. But yeah, whenever people ask I just say, ‘The Bronx,’ because that’s all anyone needs to know, they don’t need to know anything else. 

What inspired you to work in government?

So, I remember knowing I wanted to work in the community at a young age. When I was 14 at my school they had this thing where students could be a mediator between two other students, kind of like a peer to peer thing, to resolve conflict. And I remember doing that in middle school, like 6th or 7th grade. When I got to college I did some community stuff, like coat drives or we would do prom dress giveaways and things like that. Eventually, I ran for student government and from that point on, it got more serious. I remember CUNY had this program where they would take students to Albany to work on mock cases and a lot of them would be real issues we would work on and we got to be in the office and everything.

Did you meet Carl Heastie while in college?

Yes! I remember I met Carl Heastie in Albany while I was still in college. One time when we were in Albany I remember him telling me, “you should run for office someday,” and I remember thinking, “No I don’t want to do that,” but after that I ended up interning for him. I like to think I was just in a really lucky position, but he has really been great. He’s one of those people that really cares about those that work with him. He encouraged us all to go back to school and he really genuinely cares about people and the job he does.

It’s 2020 and me and Heastie walk into rooms where we are the only people of color. That’s crazy and that’s why diversity is so important.

Are you still in school now?

Yes, so I go back and forth from the city to Albany and I start back school in January for my master’s in public administration. So, I’ll be working and trying to do homework and everything. It’s hard but I’m hoping it’ll be worth it. Heastie really encourages that we go back to school and things like that. So, I’m looking forward to it.

There has been improvement in the representation of people of color in the chambers, speaker Heastie being one of the advocates for that, but there was at one point zero committee chairs who were women of color, how have you gone about navigating political spaces of mostly white men in your career?

It’s 2020 and still Heastie and I walk into rooms where we are the only people of color. That’s crazy and that’s why diversity is so important. We should be able to have people that look like New York City and all of its incredible diversity in the room. I’m really thankful for Heastie and not just because he’s my boss, a lot of people think I say this because he’s my boss but he actually really cares about having people of color in the room with him, which is really inspiring for me to be able to see someone that looks like me. You know, he’s the first Black Speaker in Albany, which is crazy in 2020, and with his job he has a lot on his plate and is always worried about whether he’s doing it right. I think he does a really good job looking out for everyone. I really love working with Carl Heastie and he really made it a point to hire people of color especially being the speaker. In Albany we will have this game we play ‘let’s count the number of people of color in the room,’ and a lot of times it will just be me and Heastie. There are also times where I am the only woman in the room. I remember there was this one time where we were literally the only two people of color and, have you seen Get Out? It was like that. Like people were walking up to us talking about Obama and how they would vote for him for a third time and it was just really bizarre. But sometimes you’re in these spaces where they’ve never encountered a person of color before and it reminds you that the whole state is not like New York City. I remember there being a man that tried to give me a book about slavery to make me feel comfortable and kept bringing up my race. If you want to make me feel more comfortable, then stop bringing up my race so much. It’s definitely an experience. I’m glad to see that there are more people of color coming into these spaces especially post- George Floyd, where a lot of companies are focusing on diversity and inclusion.

Is there anything from the Bronx or your parents that you keep in the back of your mind when going into these spaces?

In the past a lot of black women felt they had to straighten their hair and speak in a different voice in order to get jobs. I remember, even for me, on my first day in Albany being like, “Oh my God are they going to take me seriously with my hair curly.” But at the end of the day, wearing your hair the way it grows out of your head shouldn’t matter. Now I wear braids to work if I want to, but for a lot of women of color that’s the way it was, you had to act white in order to get the job and I’m glad to see that change now. As a woman and especially as a woman of color you always have to work twice as hard because people are always wondering how you got there because unfortunately it is still a very male dominated environment. Especially being pretty, because then people wonder, “Did she just get here because someone liked her?” and it’s like, “No. I went to school. I worked hard. I interned. I did the same things as you.” I remember being a college student and coming to Albany and a lot of the times these men in suits would see all of these young girls and would not be coming to talk to you about your experience but would be coming to woo you. I’m grateful for my mom because there’s something about the way I was raised. My mom raised me by herself, and I was never phased by all of that. I see it changing more now, especially with me being at the right hand of the Speaker. They know not to say certain things to me. 

You’ve worked in various roles for Heastie for the past nine years, how have those earlier roles (senior adviser, executive administrator and scheduler) prepared you for the secretary position?

I mean it’s funny because in a way I’ve been working directly with Speaker Heastie for a long time. So, I kind of was already doing the job but without the title. I remember a lot of people were telling me like congratulations, even though I’ve already been doing the job. 

What has been your favorite part of working this job with the assembly? 

I think that what I love most about this job is when we are able to pass legislation. I’m passionate about anything having to do with criminal justice reform especially in black and brown communities. One thing I love about working with Heastie is he does a lot of work in the community. One organization I work with that focuses on suicide prevention is with girls who have been through hardships like being young moms. I get to talk with them about my story which is not something I usually do. I’m not one of those people that likes going on and on about what I’ve been through, but it was hard. I went through a lot of stuff before I got here but I don’t like to wear it on my sleeve. I’m one of those people that believes things may happen to us that are out of our control, but at the end of the day you have to decide what you do next. I wholeheartedly believe that. My mom will call me and be like, “Someone just got shot today,” and it’s like you can walk outside with that on your shoulder, or you can just be positive. I like to wake up everyday and before the pandemic I would play music and dance around a little bit everyday before I went outside just to have that energy going into my day. I don’t know, that’s just me. At the end of the day, it’s all about the choices you make for yourself too. This is the reality of what’s happening in the world right now with this pandemic. So yeah, I just try to keep it positive. 

Please talk more about the organization that focuses on suicide prevention and how the experience has been for you. 

It’s called Life is Precious, and it’s just really nice to talk to girls because I’ve been there. Raised by a single mom, I was the first person in my family to go to school and do all these things. There was a point in my life where I really could have been nothing. But something in me decided to go to school, to get to where I am today and it was hard. I remember talking to the lady who runs the organization and telling her something really personal. We cried on the phone and she was like, “You have to share this with these girls,” and I did and she said it really touched them. I just like being able to be kind of a role model for girls who look like me, to show them that no matter what you go through there can be that light at the end of the tunnel.

What is your favorite thing about New York City?

What I love the most about New York City is just its vibrancy and the diversity. You can walk from Buswick to Flatbush and it’s completely different. I’ve never been anywhere else in the world that’s like New York City and with the pandemic it was interesting, because it almost felt like old New York again. A lot of my friends have moved to places like Florida and Atlanta because they say it’s cheaper, but with all of those people gone you kind of felt the spirit of true New York again. There’s so many different people and different languages, you can go to this neighborhood and get a Greek sandwich or go to Queens and get Honduran food, and I think that’s what makes New York what it is, the melting pot.