Interviews & Profiles

New York City’s plan to invest millions in LGBTQ+ services

During Pride Month, Chief Equity Officer Sideya Sherman talked about NYC Unity Project, the Family Acceptance Program and budget challenges facing HIV services.

New York City Chief Equity Officer Sideya Sherman is also the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice.

New York City Chief Equity Officer Sideya Sherman is also the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice. Caroline Rubinstein-Willis/Mayoral Photography Office

Amid Pride Month celebrations, New York City Mayor Eric Adams appointed Ronald Porcelli as director of the NYC Unity Project in the Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice. THe project will take an intersectional approach to addressing systemic inequalities within the LGBTQ+ community. With the help of a $6.7 million investment, the NYC Unity Project plans to expand new and established services to better serve the LGBTQ+ community.

Among several new initiatives aimed toward supporting the health, education and rights of LGBTQ+ individuals is the Family Acceptance Program for LGBTQ+ youth, which will “promote parental and family acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth.” City & State recently spoke with Sideya Sherman, New York City’s chief equity officer and the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice, to discuss the NYC Unity Project, how Pride Month is going and budget challenges facing the city. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell me about the New York City Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice and the role that the NYC Unity Project plays within it?

The Mayor’s Office of Equity and Racial Justice is a new agency. We were created as the Mayor’s Office of Equity at the beginning of this administration, and then expanded by virtue of the city charter, which charges us to be the office of racial equity, right to advance a number of racial equity mandates. Our office includes a number of other offices, such as the Commission on Gender Equity or NYC Her Future, and Unity Project is one of those units, that’s part of our office, which is specifically focused on the LGBTQ+ community. The way we see equity in the big picture is that it’s intersectional. While we are an overarching equity office with many mandates, particularly around racial equity, we have a number of units that are functional area experts that are addressing the unique needs of communities that have been marginalized. The NYC Unity Project has a long history, about 10 years, originally focusing on LGBTQ+ youth. In this administration, we’ve expanded that focus to include LGBTQ+ organizations and their capacity, as well as other populations, particularly LGBTQ+ New Yorkers of color (and) people who are trans … to dig further into the various communities within the LGBTQ+ community.

Now that we are halfway through Pride Month, how are your office’s efforts currently manifesting within New York City’s LGBTQ+ communities? Have you attended any community events?

I unfortunately have been on leave for a little bit. I haven’t been to community events. Pride is one of our favorite times of the year. I’m sad to miss a lot of events, but Ronald Porcelli, who’s (the) director of NYC Unity Project, as well as our team, have certainly been out tabling at community events. There’s a lot happening. In terms of our efforts, we’ve launched a number of new programs. When I first came on board, I was proud that one of the first things we did as an office was announce (an) over $6.7 million investment in new programs and initiatives serving the LGBTQ+ community. A lot of those programs and initiatives are taking place. This year, we’re going into the second summer of SYEP Pride, which is focused on young adults who are in (the Summer Youth Employment Program), offering them mentorship (and) career exposure to LGBTQ+ individuals who are professionals in their careers and lots of understanding of advocacy and history within New York City. We’re glad to see those efforts take shape this summer, as well as a number of other programs.

How have NYC Unity Project’s initiatives changed since the program began in 2017 or even since you began last fall?

We’ve been really excited to continue a lot of great work that was already happening in Unity. That’s a program focused on transgender youth who are experiencing homelessness, helping them find stability and connections to work. It’s a really important program that has continued. We also rolled out new programs like SYEP Pride, building on existing infrastructure to create a different experience for young people. One of the programs I am excited that we launched was NYC Unity Grant. Early in this administration, we sat down with LGBTQ+ leaders across communities, particularly small (Black, Indigenous and people of color)-led organizations. What heard consistently was a need for capacity-building grants, that can help them with volunteer recruitment, health education, sort of small-scale projects, that would really help them get off the ground. We’ve been able to roll that out with 15 organizations. We have the Family Acceptance Program, which … has been expanded to include all boroughs now. There’s some health care programs, I can go on and on. I think our expansion has certainly been continuing the core focus of Unity, which has been young people, young people of color in particular, and having a deeper emphasis around trans communities as well as organizations that are (Black, Indigenous and people of color)-led to think about other areas of the LGBTQ+ community where there’s a need for a specific focus and support. 

The mayor proposed $75 million in budget cuts to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in fiscal year 2025. Has the $5.3 million in budget cuts proposed to HIV services across the city impacted NYC Unity Project’s efforts?

This has been a challenging budget season for all agencies. The budget negotiations are still happening and I don’t want to get ahead of anything that’s happening there. I will say for the programs that are specifically operated through our office are funded through our office in concert with the Health Department, fortunately those programs have continued as planned. We’re glad to see that moving forward. Again, I know that the mayor and the City Council are still negotiating the budget as we speak. We know that this is an important community in a challenging fiscal environment.

Can you tell me more about the Family Acceptance Program?

One of the programs that we’re excited to expand in partnership with the Department of Health and CAMBA is the Family Acceptance Program. It’s a program designed to help families who have young people who are coming out to stay intact. When you look at the data, you see that many of our young people who are LGBTQ+ are experiencing homelessness because of family rejection. This is an upstream program that’s designed to try to keep that connectivity between families, increase acceptance, so that young people have a stable welcoming environment where they’re heard and fully welcomed into their families. We’re really glad to partner with CAMBA and with the Department of Health. It’s lifesaving, honestly, when you think about how critical family rejection can be in the trajectory of a young person’s life.

What measures is the unity program taking to speak and connect with the LGBTQ+ community? 

Ronald, as I mentioned, who is our unity director, regularly engages and convenes with community-based nonprofits. The direct service delivery itself comes from the nonprofit and that’s important. While we are funding these programs, and working with agencies to design it, certainly listening to programs, it’s important that the services are coming from capable organizations that are on the ground. The day-to-day administering of services are coming from CAMBA. As director of unity, Ronald, as well as other members of our office, are consistently out engaging our program partners and providers, as well as other members of the community. Within this administration, Ronald has also built advisory councils and task forces in various groups to make sure that LGBTQ+ organizations, particularly those that may have not been heard in the past, have a forum.

What are your current goals? What can you tell me about the progress of the citywide Racial Equity Plan?

Our collective goals for the office and for Unity are to continue expanding the work. Unity is part of our overall office, which has grown. We have added capacity to the Unity team, as part of that. We’ve rolled out a number of new programs, which are reaching target populations. Our goal within programmatic work is that we create programs that we see benefit from, and then figure out a strategy to scale these over time. The Family Acceptance Program is a great example of a program that was more concentrated in Brooklyn, which will be now reaching out to other boroughs. Unity grants has 15 providers; we’d love to be able to expand that in the future. Our goal is to listen to the community, try and test what works, serve as somewhat of an innovation hub and then begin to scale that. Additionally, Unity, as well as our other units, are part of our office particularly because of their perspective. While Unity is primarily a programmatic arm, we want to make sure that we’re incorporating the priorities, the needs, of the LGBTQ+ community as we think through all areas of equity, and that we’re leveraging all of our offices in a more intersectional way. On racial equity planning, I’m excited to say we’re full steam ahead – not easy, lots of work happening. Earlier this year, we communicated an updated timeline for that work. That’s happening. We have well over 100 city agency folks that are leading this process, of course, their respective agencies that we’ve trained, that are starting and working through their plans. We have a very tight timeline, and we look forward to sharing a draft plan with the public this fall.

Did you hear that Pride flags displayed at the Stonewall National Monument were vandalized for a second year in a row? How does your office feel about this event?

Unfortunately, I have not heard of that, again, for full disclosure, I’m just coming back from leave as of yesterday. I’m pretty sure that our office has tapped into that. Hate has no place in our city and particularly during the time such as now where we’re celebrating Pride. It’s even more important that we’re more vigilant about that. Recently, I know that we had a series of events with our partners at Stonewall to celebrate that important history. I’m sure that my colleagues across the government have certainly reached out. It’s important that we remain vigilant particularly not just during Pride, but all year-round.

Could you tell me more about those Stonewall events your office and partners have hosted?

We recently hosted an event to talk a little bit about the history of Stonewall. In partnership with ABC, we did a little bit of discussion around Unity programs, as well as some of the Stonewall history in our city and jointly discussed that as part of a recent podcast.

On the topic of Stonewall, New York is the city of Stonewall, and the LGBTQ pride movement has been one of the central movements of justice and equality in our city. Earlier I talked about SYEP Pride. One of the cool activities that we had for young people last year was a visit to Stonewall and to get that history. New Yorkers are fortunate to be in a city that’s home to such an important fight and people who are still keeping that history alive. The lessons learned from that time are still relevant today. Across our country, we see diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives under attack or threatened. It’s even more important that when we have time, such as Pride, that we lift up not only the celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, but also the hard-fought rights and protections that the community has fought for making sure that we hold those dear, given the environment that we’re in.

What’s it been like since you’ve been back?

It’s been busy, as always, but good. I’m sorry to have missed so many Pride events this year. It’s usually one of my favorite times of the year. But our team is out there, so we’re out in the street celebrating.