The 2021 New York City 40 Under 40
Recognizing the next generation of rising stars in city politics.
New York City’s political structure is in transition. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is poised to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio after emerging victorious from a crowded Democratic primary this summer. New York City Council Member Brad Lander scored an upset in the city comptroller primary, while Alvin Bragg notched a trailblazing win in the Manhattan district attorney’s race. And several new borough presidents are set to be elected – City Council members Mark Levine in Manhattan and Vanessa Gibson in the Bronx and potentially former Rep. Vito Fossella on Staten Island.
A number of fresh faces emerged during the past election cycle, too. In the New York City Council, for example, more than two thirds of the legislative body will be new come 2022, and they’ll also elect the next council speaker. Some younger New Yorkers made a mark assisting candidates this cycle, while others have moved up the ranks and made waves in positions as government appointees, advocates, attorneys, business executives, consultants, journalists and labor leaders. City & State’s New York City 40 Under 40 list highlights some of the most accomplished rising stars among them – all of them under the age of 40.
We’re pleased to introduce City & State’s 2021 New York City 40 Under 40 Rising Stars.
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When Shaun Abreu was 9 years old, his family was evicted from their home in Washington Heights. Now, at age 30, he’s come full circle as a tenants rights attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, where he fights to keep families in their homes. Come November, Abreu, the Democratic nominee for New York City Council District 7, hopes to continue serving his community as its newly elected council member.
“My keen understanding of how government can work for people – and how it can also not work for people – I think is what makes me a very uniquely qualified public servant,” Abreu says.
Abreu, who is the son of Dominican immigrants, was born and raised in District 7 and even attended college in the area at Columbia University. Although he left the city to attend Tulane Law School, Abreu says he always knew he would return to his community.
Abreu has also served as a member of his local community board and on the campaigns of lawmakers like Rep. Adriano Espaillat.
Abreu credits his close ties to the district as one of the main reasons he won his June primary, including the fact that he brought together over 100 building captains – a diverse group made up of his former classmates, college professors, tenants he’s represented in housing court, community leaders and many others – to campaign for him in their apartment complexes.
“We spoke to folks in their language, literally and metaphorically,” Abreu says. “They saw a kid who went from being evicted to becoming a tenant lawyer, someone who will now be their champion on issues they are now facing.”
– Sahalie Donaldson
During Charlie Aidinoff’s time at Kasirer, he has been especially proud of his work advising an organization called ROAR, which stands for Restaurants Organizing, Advocating & Rebuilding. The group, which was founded during the coronavirus pandemic to advocate on behalf of financially struggling restaurants and their workers, began to work with the lobbying firm in April of last year.
“Working on behalf of a group of people who are really fighting for an industry that was having some really tough times was particularly interesting and satisfying,” he says.
Aidinoff brought extensive experience in New York City government with him to Kasirer. He started his career when he joined Bill de Blasio’s 2013 successful mayoral campaign. He served as a legislative representative in the Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs, coordinating with the City Council and city agencies on public policy. In that role, he had a hand in shaping numerous pieces of legislation, including expanding access to menstrual hygiene products in schools and prisons, and repealing New York City’s Cabaret Law, an archaic and obscure law that limited dancing in bars. From there, Aidinoff headed to the New York City Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC – now known as the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health – as its legislative and intergovernmental affairs manager.
At Kasirer, Aidinoff works with a vast range of clients as a part of the firm’s corporate and legislation team. “I certainly pride myself on my ability to help these people understand who’s who in government and what you need to get things done.”
– Kay Dervishi
Keyla Antigua started her career involved in grassroots advocacy, speaking with and educating people in underserved communities who were directly affected by policy changes. “While I love that work of connecting directly with particular folks, I knew that trying to change and influence policy was probably going to be a larger-scale impact” on those communities, she says.
That interest prompted her to take on policy initiatives at Children’s Aid, a 168-year-old child welfare nonprofit in New York City. During her time at Children’s Aid, Antigua advocated for legislation on numerous issues affecting youth and families. This included working with a coalition of organizations to increase access to summer jobs for New York City youth and pushing the state to offer more support to foster children who are leaving home and entering college.
At the government relations firm Bolton-St. Johns, Antigua channels her efforts into diversifying the scope of policy and legislation she explores along with various clients.
“It really does allow me to step out of my comfort zone and become an expert in other areas,” she says, explaining how she handles a client list that ranges from the nonprofit sector to the tech industry.
Antigua is particularly proud of the work that she has done in the criminal justice reform space, such as securing funding for a client to provide incarcerated people with access to a social worker as they prepare for the parole review process.
Andrea Bowen launched her career as a researcher in the organizing department at the Iron Workers Union in Washington, D.C., collecting information that helped people organize and bring to light workers’ rights violations. At the same time, she also began to work with a volunteer transgender activist organization and advocated for the Council of the District of Columbia to pass a bill that would reduce barriers for transgender people seeking to change their names.
The bill passed unanimously – and Bowen was hooked.
She then went to New York City, working on budget advocacy with United Neighborhood Houses and continued her LGBTQ activism, helping to create NYC Unity Works, a city workforce development program designed to help LGBTQ youth.
“Getting Unity Works done was huge for me,” she says, adding that it is “the most robust workforce program that I know of for LGBTQ folks in the country, and it survived the challenge of the city’s pandemic finances.” Bowen even worked with a group in Washington, D.C., to enact a similar variation on the program there.
As a public affairs consultant for the past four years, Bowen has advised and supported clients such as worker cooperatives and the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. Whether it’s supporting advocates for LGBTQ people or labor rights, Bowen says, “Helping take part in that change means the world to me.”
Navigating the world of government has been vital to Ramón Cabral ever since he was a kid helping out his dad’s cab company by gleaning the language of city agencies and attending community board meetings. His interest in politics intensified during his first internship working for an Assembly member in the Bronx while studying at Fordham University. A subsequent internship for former Rep. José E. Serrano helped him see the direct impact of policy on his community, as he helped draft bills and attended meetings with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “It was about being exposed to the inner workings of Congress,” Cabral recalls, “and making sure that folks get money to address issues that affect your community, like we did when we gave funding to the FBI to address shootings a few years ago, and how that would then impact the Bronx.”
Cabral worked his way up in Serrano’s Bronx office, and his involvement with the Bronx Young Democrats led to him running for district leader in 2018. While he lost that race, his 2020 win in a state Democratic committee member race was a testament to his determination.
In that role, Cabral is prioritizing his community by focusing on public safety and youth education and programs. He’s also working to grow his campaign consulting company. “A young person of color in the Bronx can be not necessarily at the table right now but helping folks who are at the table,” he explains, adding that his job is to help people make decisions that are going to influence their community.
– Maryam Rahaman
Jessica Carrano is comfortable behind the scenes, from working in restaurants to engineering progressive victories.
The Brooklyn native grew up along the Jersey shore thanks to her father’s service in the U.S. Coast Guard, an experience she calls a “socialized experiment.”
“People made the same salary, shopped in the same places, and the kids all go to the same schools,” Carrano recalls. “Although, we had really nice public schools due to the taxes from people who had second homes there.”
She waited tables throughout high school and at New York University, developing the interpersonal skills to go on to canvass for candidates with the Working Families Party. “I was really good at it,” she says. “The service industry helps you become good at talking to strangers and understand what people want.”
Carrano stayed with the far-left third party for almost seven years and became its statewide political director. In 2015, Carrano left for Metropolitan Public Strategies to help Todd Kaminsky win a key state Senate seat on Long Island. A year later, she joined Red Horse Strategies, where she has cultivated candidates from historically underrepresented communities.
She was recently on the team that helped Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams win the Democratic mayoral nomination. She noted that Adams sought her opinions in meetings.
“When you’re a woman in a lot of these rooms, you’re really on your own sometimes,” Carrano says. “That desire to listen to everybody in the room made me excited to work on the campaign and think about what kind of leader he could be.”
– Aaron Short
The Bronx Democratic Party is becoming younger and featuring more women, thanks in part to Ariana Collado.
Collado, whose family moved from the Dominican Republic when she was 2 years old, grew up in Mott Haven, Westchester Square and Wakefield and attended Aquinas High School, an all-girls Catholic school in Belmont. “We had very strict schedules,” Collado says. “There was no such thing as skipping class. It allowed me to focus on school, build relationships and get a good education.”
After attending Iona College and Lehman College, Collado got odd jobs, including one selling jeans in SoHo, before becoming a scheduler to then-City Council Member Andrew Cohen. She worked her way up to chief of staff for Cohen and had the Bronx politician’s backing when she helped organize a unionization drive.
“I was blessed to have an amazing council member who supported any moves and decisions we made,” Collado says. “That wasn’t the case for a lot of staffers at City Hall.”
After state Sen. Jamaal Bailey was elected to lead the Bronx Democratic County Committee last year, he brought Collado aboard to run its operations and recruit candidates. Now, women are set to make up a majority of the borough’s City Council delegation. Collado, who has simultaneously attended CUNY School of Law, has been honing her own voice too.
“Most of the spaces I’ve been in at City Council or in different positions of power have been mostly men, and I’m making sure my opinions are heard,” she says.
Aries Dela Cruz
In 2007, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at a Columbia University forum and said there were no gays in his country.
Aries Dela Cruz, a prominent LGBTQ student leader at Columbia, noticed his phone started to blow up.
“Being on Columbia’s campus, you’re used to journalists being around and using students as sources,” Dela Cruz says. “We were in the news quite a lot for a number of causes.”
Dela Cruz, whose family emigrated from the Philippines when he was only 7, didn’t get involved in politics until 2016, when he co-founded the Filipino American Democratic Club of New York. The group connected immigrants from the Philippines to their local government officials.
When Donald Trump won the presidency, Dela Cruz was devastated, and he sought to become more involved in city government. He started working for Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, which led to stints with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and boosting 2020 census turnout.
Dela Cruz rejoined Brewer’s office early last year as the pandemic unfolded. “There wasn’t a whole lot of training because we were in an emergency, but I knew the staff and I had their respect,” Dela Cruz says. “I could anticipate what the governor’s office wanted even before they asked.”
Dela Cruz credits Brewer for his work ethic and learning to overprepare. “Gale showed me you should have high standards and, if you have information, it’s important to share it – no matter how bad it might look,” Dela Cruz says. “Being honest with people is appreciated.”
Alejandra Diaz-Houston’s position at the Greater New York Hospital Association has two major components: to analyze state and federal proposals or directives that affect health equity initiatives at hospitals; and to give technical assistance to hospitals implementing efforts to improve health equity, such as improved demographic data collection for patients or better language access for people with limited English proficiency.
“The concept of equity is inherently important to every policy discussion and in any and every implementation plan or program,” she says. It has taken on particular significance for Diaz-Houston during the coronavirus pandemic, as she has dedicated significant time to guiding and supporting hospitals.
“It’s making all of the information that’s available, digestible, so that people can actually put it into action,” she says about her work.
Her interest in health policy led her to the governor’s office, where she served as an Empire State fellow working under the state’s deputy secretary for health. She then went to the state Department of Health, working at the Center for Health Care Policy and Resource Development. While there, Diaz-Houston oversaw the Population Health Improvement Program, a statewide initiative to advance population health and reduce disparities in health care.
Diaz-Houston also chairs the transportation committee of Queens Community Board 6, which spans Forest Hills and Rego Park. “It’s really been fulfilling to volunteer in an environment where you’re focused on how we can make our community better,” she says. “And it drives some really good, productive conversations.”
The Gateway Program might be the most complex infrastructure project anywhere in the country, but the proposed commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River doesn’t faze Brian Fritsch.
The Wisconsin native and Grinnell College graduate has been enmeshed with the inner workings of New York state politics since 2009, when he coordinated fieldwork for Scott Murphy’s successful congressional campaign. Campaign tours with prominent Queens politicians Jimmy Van Bramer and Melinda Katz followed, but it wasn’t until Fritsch helped the New York City Department of Education roll out Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program that he fully appreciated the power that government has to make people’s lives better – as long as the gears of bureaucracy shifted correctly.
“It was a tricky process to get everything done in a timely fashion,” Fritsch says. “There were barriers the bureaucracy had up that came down because people believed it was something worth doing – and that was awesome to see.”
Fritsch’s work on the high-profile prekindergarten rollout led to stints with High Achievement New York, where he worked with parents and educators on the state’s educational standards, and the Regional Plan Association, where he handled a campaign to ensure the long-delayed tunnel will get built in our lifetimes.
“(Gateway) has an impact on climate change, public health and the economy of the region,” Fritsch says. “My hope is you know it’s the most critical piece of infrastructure in the entire nation – and building it is essential.”
The first time Jeff Furticella’s father was excited about his son’s work was when he got to shoot a Chicago Bears game for The Times of Northwest Indiana.
A photographer for the paper gave a talk at Furticella’s high school, and Furticella asked to shadow him for assignments. Soon, he was shooting high school basketball games and other events while he was at Ball State University, which later led to the NFL assignment.
But he didn’t realize photo editing could become a career until he joined The Associated Press’ sports photo desk in 2011, which he likened to journalism graduate school.
“You learn every scenario that comes up,” Furticella says. "You're working with tons of photographers and reporters, you’re thrown everything, and you’re always on deadline.”
Two years later, Furticella landed at The New York Times’ sports desk before joining Metro in 2017. In his assignments, he sought to understand beats to ensure the visuals and writing complement each other while pushing photographers to advance the story.
“Photographers have the luxury of time to build relationships with people,” Furticella says. “It’s not uncommon for a photographer to bring back reporting that changes the direction of a story or surface something we haven’t previously considered.”
The coronavirus pandemic limited that access, but Furticella’s team tried to “capture the inherent fear” of life in the city then.
“You think of how the city cleared out and the eerie quiet of that place,” he says. “We wanted to show how this place is evolving right before our eyes.”
Cristina Garcia developed a passion for sustainability while studying environmental engineering at The City College of New York. That experience made it particularly meaningful when, while at the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability, she developed a new internship program designed specifically for students at local public colleges to access careers in sustainability.
“Having been able to be a part of having a direct impact on those students, I think, is something that I’m just proud of because it touches really close to home,” she says. “I was one of those students. I am a New Yorker, I am first-generation and I am Latina.”
Her experience in city government is particularly relevant to her work at the Building Electrification Institute. As an assistant director at the organization, Garcia helps cities across the country navigate labor and workforce development challenges associated with transitioning away from using fossil fuels in buildings’ systems.
Her interest in equitable workforce development goes beyond her day job: Garcia launched Latinxs in Sustainability in 2017, which offers events and opportunities for networking and mentorships to Latino professionals working in sustainability.
“A lot of minority New Yorkers that studied environmental engineering … Where are they now? … What’s happening that there’s clearly such a gap between people who pursue these degrees and then the people that make it in the rooms?” she asks. “This group is trying to elevate those stories and narratives and to raise awareness about what career opportunities look like in sustainability.”
Ellen Gustafson’s interest in politics was sparked while she was in high school. Before she went off to college, she decided to work on Daniel Garodnick’s first campaign for New York City Council.
“What was supposed to be a couple of hours to fill my time turned into a passion,” she says. After going through law school, she landed a position working in Garodnick’s office. She initially planned on a short-term stay while figuring out whether she wanted to pursue traditional legal work.
“I loved what I was doing,” she says. “I loved the community work, being involved in rezonings and the budget, and so I wound up staying for his entire last term.” While working in the City Council, she played a key role in shaping the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project and the East Midtown rezoning.
Since joining Greenberg Traurig in 2019, Gustafson has maintained a focus on handling budgetary and legislative matters for clients before the City Council. One of her favorite aspects of her job is working with nonprofit clients that provide needed social services to New Yorkers.
“What I liked about being at the City Council and what I like about being at Greenberg is no two days are the same,” she says.
When she’s not lobbying on behalf of her clients, Gustafson enjoys running, having completed 21 marathons to date.
Shahana Hanif, a community organizer and daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, made history when she was elected as the Democratic nominee for New York City Council’s 39th District. Not only will she be the first Muslim woman to be elected to the legislative body, but she will also be the first woman of color to represent her Brooklyn district.
“I’ve been reflecting a lot about how if somebody had told me 20 years ago when I was 10 – 9/11 had just taken place – that I would one day become an elected official or that a Muslim person would be in office in just two decades’ time, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Hanif says.
In addition to her years as a tenant organizer, disability rights activist and advocate against domestic violence, Hanif most recently served as the director of organizing and community engagement in Council Member Brad Lander’s office. The experience gave her the opportunity to lead grassroots initiatives where her community could have some say in how the city invested in the district.
In addition to her hopes of transforming language access in the city, advancing gender equality and addressing labor justice issues, Hanif was diagnosed with lupus when she was 17, and she plans to continue using a disability justice framework as a member of City Council.
“My talking points are not just about my community. It’s about me too as an incoming council member who is living right now with invisible disabilities … really recognizing what access looks like and what accommodations look like in our workplace,” Hanif says. “I know I’m bringing my full self into this work and our communities.”
Monika Hansen has worked for several powerful female politicians in New York – and waded through a lot of garbage along the way.
A Polish immigrant and self-proclaimed “trash nerd,” Hansen attended Hunter College High School and George Washington University, working at an immigration law firm in her free time. Instead of becoming an immigration lawyer, she joined Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign as a field organizer.
After Clinton’s devastating loss, Hansen dove into her volunteer work at Red Hook Community Farm. “I thought about what was the most physical job I could do and decided on composting,” she says. “It seemed I could physically make the world a better place during a dark time.”
A friend’s suggestion that she meet city Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia led to a position as a special assistant at the Department of Sanitation, where she wound up as deputy chief of staff. During the coronavirus pandemic, Hansen helped build an emergency food program that delivered a million meals a day.
A year ago, Garcia asked Hansen to run her mayoral campaign. Hansen capitalized on the first-time candidate’s reputation as an effective manager to nearly beat Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.
Hansen, who took a position as state director to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand post-primary, wishes she had more time to introduce Garcia to voters. “If we started the campaign earlier, we would have had more time to build relationships and a broader base,” she says. “The fact that (Adams) won by only 7,000 votes speaks to Kathryn’s message.”
For Eric Henry, there is little daylight between his work in the public and private sectors.
“At the end of the day, I’ve always had a career in customer service, whether it’s been a City Council office or agency at the mayor’s office,” he says. In the private sector, he says that it is just the same.
Henry has been with telecommunications company Altice for the past year. As director of government affairs in New York City, he plays a key part in managing Atlice’s franchise agreements with the city and supports the company’s work with expanding Wi-Fi access in homeless shelters in the area. Henry also coordinates with elected officials’ offices and various city agencies to field and expedite complaints from customers in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where the company operates.
Before heading to Altice, Henry worked as general counsel for the New York City Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs. He also has served as general counsel and director of intergovernmental affairs at the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services, where he shaped many resources and benefits set aside for veterans early on in the agency’s creation.
Henry volunteers his time as a board member at the New York Botanical Garden, where he was director of government relations from 2014 to 2016. He is also a member of New York City’s Panel for Educational Policy, which approves the city school system’s policy decisions.
Even as Portia Henry manages some of the region’s most complex infrastructure projects, she still harkens back to her experiences working in her grandfather’s gas station in Hampton, Virginia.
Henry was always interested in transportation, but her temporary gas station job helped her understand its role in connecting people to economic opportunities.
“I knew the value of minorities in transportation and the freedom that transportation allows,” Henry says. “That stayed with me internally as I learned about community development.”
Henry began that learning process early when, as a teenager, she served on the Hampton Youth Commission and distributed $40,000 to youth programs as its appropriations committee head.
After graduating from the University of Virginia and working for a nonprofit in Danville, Virginia, Henry attended graduate school for city planning at Rutgers and scored a coveted internship with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She was then accepted into the agency’s leadership fellows program, where she rotated between three departments, including a stint in its executive offices with former Chair John Degnan.
The fellowship led to her managing the redevelopment of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where she oversaw pre-construction activities and environmental assessments. Now she’s bringing her passion for capital programs and resilience to tackle Gateway, another multiyear infrastructure project at Amtrak that affects millions of commuters.
“Infrastructure is infrastructure but this is a brand-new challenge and definitely a step up in the world of capital programs,” Henry says.
Clement James was raised in the Baptist and Pentecostal tradition, but he connects with people from other backgrounds through the shared experience of being a first-generation New Yorker.
“I come from a place of understanding what it’s like to move to New York and pursue the American dream,” James says. “So many faith leaders call me their son or their brother.”
James, whose father emigrated from Jamaica, is fond of pointing out that he grew up in Kingston – New York’s first capital. After attending Sullivan County Community College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he worked at K2 Intelligence before joining then-President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign as a field organizer in Virginia.
“My grandmother was a big supporter but passed away in July 2012,” James says. “As a commitment to her, I wanted to go to where she was born to work on his campaign.”
After the election, James worked for the city Department of Parks and Recreation and at City Hall, where he was New York City first lady Chirlane McCray’s assistant. He also helped recruit more firefighters of color.
In the fall of 2018, he joined the governor’s office as the top liaison to the state’s faith leaders. That role put him in the middle of a crucial vaccination drive and efforts to get personal protective equipment, face masks and sanitizers to churches throughout the state.
“There’s no politics involved in providing services for people,” James says. “There’s nothing more rewarding than picking up the phone and helping someone with an issue they need.”
Jonelle Johnson has had many notable moments in her time at Charter Communications, but she says that what she enjoys most about her job at the telecommunications and media company is seeing the results of its contributions and support across New York City.
“Anytime I’ve been to an event where we get to interact with the people that we’re helping in some way, it just brings me so much pride,” she says. “Because it puts a face to the money; it puts a face to the equipment.”
As manager of government and community strategy at Charter Communications, Johnson runs the company’s community engagement efforts in New York City, including partnerships with local organizations, corporate sponsorships and outreach with the broader community, including coronavirus pandemic-era efforts such as donations to the Lower Eastside Girls Club and helping to launch educational events on the city’s new system of ranked-choice voting.
Johnson’s current position allows her to combine the skills she has gained from different roles that she has held during her career. Her first job out of college involved conducting research on policy and legislation. She also spent time working in development and fundraising for the child welfare nonprofit Rising Ground, where she assisted in the planning of galas, backpack drives and other events. At Charter, she’s now working from the opposite side while seeking the same results.
“It’s funny how it all ended up intersecting and bringing me to this point,” she says.
Rachel Kagan’s interest in politics began as an intern in state Sen. Liz Krueger’s office in high school. It was during her first summer working in her office that then-Gov. George Pataki vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage in New York – a veto that the state Senate later overruled. To Kagan, the experience vividly illustrated the importance of state and local politics.“I love the idea that even when big change happens on the national level, it’s always up to the states and localities to really implement that change,” Kagan said.
Kagan went on to work in the state Senate and the state attorney general’s office before attending law school. She eventually worked in the New York City Council, where she helped support and craft criminal justice legislation, such as exploring nonmonetary forms of bail.
Now at Physician Affiliate Group of New York, Kagan ensures that doctors and health care professionals employed at New York City’s public hospitals through the organization get the support they need to continue to aid patients.
“Throughout it all, I’ve done a lot of criminal justice, a lot of economic justice, and I think of my role here as being an extension of that because of the people that we serve,” she says. “There’s so much work that I’ve done in the past that is relevant to assisting vulnerable communities that our hospitals and providers are working to help.”
Deandra Khan learned the value of work and fighting against subpar working conditions by watching her parents toil long hours for meager wages.
“My opinions on labor were shaped by seeing my parents come to this country with barely any money, no real plan – they worked their asses off,” Khan says.
Khan’s family immigrated to Richmond Hill from Trinidad in 1991 and later moved to Bellerose. Her father was a building engineer, and her mother worked as a patternmaker and technical designer.
After graduating from Townsend Harris High School in Queens – which she described as a “school for nerds” where she learned how to think critically – Khan attended Hunter College just in time to hold a degree during the Great Recession. “I really wanted a job after Hunter but had a very rude awakening,” Khan says.
She then got her master’s in social work at Hunter and landed at the New York Civil Liberties Union, where she helped teenagers stage a die-in on Staten Island to protest the police killing of Eric Garner.
The work was rewarding, but Khan wanted to tackle issues underlying poverty. Soon, she joined 32BJ SEIU and its efforts to help airport workers get health insurance. The urgency of the pandemic helped get the bill signed into law on New Year’s Eve 2020. Her efforts even spurred her father to join a union, giving them an opportunity to talk shop more often.
“I only wish they had that experience much sooner,” Khan says. “To be part of a union is to be part of a family.”
When there’s a crisis in a school, parents and teachers turn to their principal. When principals are facing a crisis, they turn to Nashanta Lamont.
Lamont, a Queens native and Adelphi University and Brooklyn College alumnus, got her start with the New York City Department of Education at the end of the Bloomberg administration. An opportunity to work with high school superintendents came up, and she soon became a family support coordinator, where she facilitated workshops for parent coordinators and principals.
“It was a great learning opportunity to find out from administrators what are the challenges we deal with in running a school community,” Lamont says. “There was always a new initiative to get involved in.”
While she was at the DOE, Lamont joined District Council 37 and organized members to get a shop steward at her location. In 2018, she enrolled in a CUNY-Cornell labor relations certificate program, and her professors encouraged her to join an education-related labor union. When a job opened at the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, she seized the opportunity.
“It was divine intervention,” Lamont says. “All my interests aligned in one role and it satisfied my itch to be involved in politics.”
Now she’s working to establish a political liaison program matching CSA reps with Council members.
“It’s a tough time to be a principal, but our members are so resilient and dedicated to the work,” Lamont says. “That’s why we provide so much support.”
When Jeffrey LeFrancois was growing up in Connecticut, the Meatpacking District was where the fictional Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte sipped cosmopolitans at uber-trendy hotspots.
The West Side neighborhood has changed since then – and LeFrancois has too. He came to the city in 2003 to study performing arts at Pace University. But he loved politics too and served on several campaigns, including John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. “Adults were joking with me whether I was going to take the theater route or do civics,” LeFrancois recalls. “I decided to study political science and kill two birds with one stone.”
He went on to become an LGBTQ liaison to Manhattan Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, whose long-standing support of same-sex marriage and ironclad commitment to good governance shaped his career trajectory.
“He’s a straight guy who represents a very gay district who has carried the flag of the LGBT community for his entire career,” LeFrancois says. “Working for him taught me what it was like to be a real public servant.”
After about a year working for then-New York City Council Member Corey Johnson, LeFrancois became operations director of the Meatpacking Business Improvement District. By 2019, he was running the BID.
The neighborhood is now a cultural anchor in the city, and LeFrancois has made it more walkable by helping to create a park on 20th Street and a seven-day-a-week open streets program. “I’m a strong believer that healthy cities are always changing,” LeFrancois says. “The Meatpacking District has been at the vanguard of change in that corner of Manhattan.”
A key part of Anthony Lemma’s job is to ensure that constituents in Rep. Grace Meng’s Queens district get the help they need – a responsibility that became all the more significant throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Over the course of the past year and a half, Lemma has overseen Meng’s district office’s relief efforts, such as distributing personal protective equipment, delivering meals and coordinating with other elected officials, nonprofits, hospitals and other community members on ongoing needs.
“It’s really about communications and accessibility, regardless of what the situation is,” he says.
Lemma brings with him a decade and a half of experience working in Congress, having previously served as a staffer for former Rep. Gary Ackerman. Among his career highlights has been helping to increase the district office’s impact throughout Meng’s nine years in office. “I like to pride myself on a very collaborative kind of leadership,” he says. “I’m bringing everyone to put together the best programs, the best ideas, the best outreach ideas. I just want everyone to feel part of it.”
Lemma’s interest in supporting the local community extends beyond his work in government. He and two colleagues founded a nonprofit to distribute menstrual hygiene products and educate underserved communities about menstrual health. During the pandemic, the organization purchased and delivered supplies to community centers in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Kristin Malek’s goal is to ensure CDW’s supply chain remains diverse and equitable by helping the company’s partners not just prosper at CDW but to thrive in general.
“What does ‘successful’ look like (for CDW’s partners)? That they are able to scale. They know their capacity. They have a strategic outlook and that they’re well-funded,” she says.
As director of business diversity at CDW, which provides technology products to government, businesses and other institutions, she leads a $3 billion program that coordinates with more than 1,100 small businesses owned by people of color, women, veterans, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged communities – a roughly tenfold increase from when the company first launched the program 15 years ago.
What motivates Malek is having both competitive and socially conscious components to her work. “Business diversity is the best of both worlds because I get to compete to ensure that our diverse suppliers are having a chance to work side by side with CDW to serve our customers,” she says. “But I know the ripple effect of that is helping an underserved community.”
Some of Malek’s proudest work has involved collaborating with local networks of minority and female business owners in New York state and New York City. Ultimately, her greatest sense of accomplishment comes from seeing the successes of suppliers.
“What makes me proud is when a supplier calls and says they opened a second building or a second office, or they hired four more people,” Malek says. “Those are all career moments.”
Thomas McNeil began his career in politics in 2004 working for Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz before going to work on campaigns for influential elected officials in the Bronx, such as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
“From there, I really wanted a change and to find something that had that campaign feel, that 24/7 impactful work,” he says. That desire brought McNeil to the tech transportation space.
He went on to help launch the car-sharing company car2go, eventually heading its operations. His experience there helped him as he then took his expertise to Getaround, a company that allows drivers to rent cars from private car owners. McNeil helped the company kick off its expansion into New York and New Jersey and then ran market operations there as well. While at Getaround, he began advising Revel as it expanded its work to provide shared electric mopeds, which continues to this day.
McNeil takes pride in his work at Instacart, particularly given the demand for its services that emerged this past year and a half.
“I joined Instacart right at the start of the pandemic, which was not an easy time to start a new job,” he says. “But I was super excited about the opportunity, saw the instant need for a company like Instacart in New York City – so many folks not being able to access food, living in food deserts, during the pandemic, not wanting to be outside.”
Looking back on her time working in the Assembly, Kaitesi Munroe recalls that one of her proudest accomplishments was her effort on legislation to ensure that cosmetology schools provide better curricula on treating different hair textures.
“That was really a big deal for me because in college I used to walk into a lot of hair salons to get my eyebrows done, and a lot of people that would work there would look at me like I had two heads because they wouldn’t have known what to do with my hair,” she says.
It wasn’t until Munroe’s junior year of college that she traded her pre-med studies for a deeper dive into politics. After a brief, post-graduation stint working in London, she returned to New York as a staffer for Assembly Member J. Gary Pretlow, where she helped craft legislation regulating daily fantasy sports in New York.
In 2019, she brought her public sector experience to the government affairs and social impact team at Madison Square Garden Entertainment, where she managed portfolios for New York City, Chicago and the federal government while also working on corporate social responsibility initiatives. Her interest in social impact guided her early on in the coronavirus pandemic when she helped launch a $2.6 million fund to offer financial assistance to the company’s furloughed employees.
Now several months into working at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, she says her favorite aspect of being at the firm is “working for a phenomenal team that genuinely wants to make a positive impact with their clients.”
Six years ago, Ali Najmi ran a promising campaign for a New York City Council seat, even nabbing a coveted endorsement from The New York Times.
While he didn’t win his Queens contest, his hard-won experience led to an epiphany: He could use his law degree to help progressive hopefuls fight political machines. “After being a candidate, I got way more interested in election law,” Najmi says.
Najmi grew up in a self-described “bubble” in the eastern Queens neighborhood of Glen Oaks until he began commuting to the High School for Environmental Studies in Hell’s Kitchen, where, he recalls, “My friends were from all over the city, and I learned a lot about different cultures of people just by going to school.”
He departed New York for Oberlin College in Ohio but returned to attend CUNY School of Law. Although he initially focused his practice on criminal defense cases, Najmi was soon taking on so many candidates, he moved his office into the building that headquartered the New York City Board of Elections.
In the summer of 2020, Najmi obtained a statewide injunction against the Board of Elections requiring the state to count mail-in ballots that arrived within two days of the primary. He followed that victory by suing the Brooklyn Democratic Party for failing to hold its organizational meeting. He won that case as well.
“I really love the law, the practice of it, the trial aspect, and I love politics,” Najmi says. “This is the right place for me.”
Rakan Nassereddin began his career at KPMG in Atlanta, eventually moving to the accounting and consulting company’s U.S. headquarters in New York City four years ago, where he now works closely with local government agencies.
Nassereddin helps city agencies operationalize policy and identify risks in their business processes, helping them craft overall strategies to deal with the issues they are facing. During the coronavirus pandemic, Nassereddin has focused on supporting the city’s COVID-19 pandemic response initiatives as part of KPMG’s emergency management and disaster recovery group. Such projects involve the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s efforts with its Vaccine Command Center. Nassereddin helps with scheduling, staffing, communication and other back office efforts that are the backbone of the operation.
Nassereddin has also been invaluable in supporting the city’s Vaccine for All Corps initiative, which helps New Yorkers aid vaccination efforts in their communities. Nassereddin supports scheduling efforts with Vaccine for All Corps as well. “I would say getting New York City’s vaccination rate steadily up and increasing the amount of vaccines administered is my greatest accomplishment in my career,” he says. “I’ve been working for eight years, and I’ve never seen a higher purpose than this.”
For Nassereddin, working with governments means helping citizens. “For me, helping your cities is personal,” he says. “I moved here four years ago, and I love this city. I want to see it get back to its former glory.”
– Jasmine Sheena
For most of her life, Sandy Nurse had no interest in politics. She viewed political leaders as self-serving individuals who too often failed those in need. What changed her mind? Being exposed to local government and its institutions, which had been unfamiliar to her when she was growing up as a military kid. “I realized how powerful interacting with local government is through the process of developing grassroots institutions and organizing at the local level,” Nurse says.
Nurse’s work as an organizer centered around direct action and building lasting institutions for underserved communities. She helped create Mayday Space, an organizing space, and BK ROT, a composting company that serves North and Central Brooklyn. As Nurse explains it, these organizations are “trying to build the spaces that I believe represent the type of future we need to be going towards, where people are paid well and we’re considering our environment, and we are creating space for our community to come together.”
Her New York City Council campaign platform has been built collectively with community members, prioritizing issues such as housing, public safety and climate change. She’s excited to be a part of the most diverse City Council ever. “To be a part of this cohort,” she says, “it’s going to be really historic, and I just feel so optimistic about just how much of an impact that we’ll make by just having the presence of such a diverse group of women of color who have so much skill and expertise in a wide range of areas.”
An unfulfilling stint in law school birthed Christelle Onwu’s career in social work. Moving back to New York City from San Francisco, Onwu began working at the nonprofit BronxWorks and focused on homelessness. It was there that she realized she wanted to help others, leading her to go back to school to earn a master’s degree in social work. What really cemented her interest in policy, however, was her subsequent work for the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women, an organization centered on African immigrants.
“I started realizing that the African community in New York City was not receiving the same amount of resources that every other community was receiving. I saw the gap,” she recalls.
This realization led Onwu to apply to the city Commission on Human Rights, where she has held several roles, including as a director since March 2020.
Even as she works on a variety of projects, including training Columbia University students to become social workers and policymakers, Onwu continues to advocate for the African community in New York. She helped create the African diaspora lead adviser position she currently holds, compiling data to present to her superiors at the commission to show how much work needs to be done to support the often neglected African community. Her work has led to the local African community developing a stronger voice in government discussions.
“Oftentimes, people forget that the African community is a whole continent of 55 different nations and is very complex,” she says.
The intersection of culture and politics has always been a vital part of life for 23-year-old Chi Ossé, a third-generation Brooklynite, activist and – as the District 36 Democratic nominee – the soon-to-be youngest member of the New York City Council.
Ossé, who is from Crown Heights, says part of his new job will be to protect the culture of his neighborhood, where Black residents are driven out due to gentrification.
“The people are the culture of this community. It’s a very Black community – an entire diaspora of Blackness from African to Afro Caribbean to African American – and they have added so much to this district,” Ossé says. “To see them displaced through gentrification and outpricing – it is my duty to make sure they can be here, to afford to be here, because they are the vanguards of the culture of this community.”
Ossé co-founded the activist collective Warriors in the Garden in wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and he led protests throughout the summer of 2020 calling for Black liberation. Through his organizing efforts, Ossé says, there came a point where he realized that to see the changes he wished to see within government, “we needed someone within the halls of government, putting pens to paper,” which is what led him to run for office.
“I feel like the world is dealing with multiple crises right now – and I feel like young people especially cannot stand idle while our world is changing,” he says.
Pursuing a career in the legal profession helped Sherbune Paul become more socially conscious. “What it taught me is, really look at the facts and not just judge off the initial appearance of people or their record or anything like that, because being ethical and being fair is the most important thing,” she says.
Paul, who had dreamed of becoming a lawyer since childhood, is a first-generation Haitian American who was the first in her family to attend college and law school. She started her career as an attorney at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, where she prosecuted cases of child abuse and neglect.
From there, she went on to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, where she honed her understanding of transportation law. Now, at the law firm Windels Marx Lane & Mittendorf, Paul handles litigation and regulatory advising on transportation-related matters.
“Every single mode of transportation has an impact on your life every day, whether you know it or not,” she says. “Being able to impact the safety of that transportation, being able to impact New York City as a whole is what makes the job so interesting.”
Paul is also president of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of New York. In addition to supporting Haitian Americans entering the legal field, the group is offering free legal clinics for people seeking to immigrate under temporary protected status. The association has also raised relief funds for Haiti after an earthquake struck the island in August and has called for a halt to deportations of Haitian migrants.
In his early 20s, when Paul Persaud held a sign outside Yankee Stadium that read “How may I help you?” he was thinking how he could help himself.
The Queens native and Forest Hills High School alumnus had taken culinary classes but realized he’d rather organize events than spend his life in the kitchen. That led to gigs with the New York Giants and the New York Yankees where he helped VIPs to their seats.
He wanted more, and a temp agency connected him with the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, which needed an assistant for its annual convention. Soon, Persaud was helping Sharpton choose panelists and topics for NAN events. Sometimes, Persaud only saw Sharpton for 30 minutes a day, so he learned to give concise feedback. “When I first started, I’d be terrified to speak with him, but one thing that he taught me was to only answer what he asked – don’t give extra information,” Persaud recalls.
Sharpton introduced him to New York’s political ecosystem, which led to Persaud working with New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo – where he served as director of African American affairs – before coming to Mercury. Now, he’s helping civic leaders tackle COVID-19 by expanding access to vaccines and testing in communities of color.
“Before the vaccine came out, we knew we needed a game plan to educate the community,” Persaud says. “These voices helped electeds put out drop sites for testing and do vaccine drives at churches.”
Sabrina Lucia Rezzy
Sabrina Lucia Rezzy’s childhood in the political swing state of Pennsylvania put her on the path to holding a pivotal position for a powerhouse politician in New York City.
Raised by her journalist father in Reading, a city in southern Pennsylvania, she was exposed from an early age to diverse viewpoints and political debates. Before she went to college at Temple University, she also worked as a server at an Egyptian diner and witnessed the discrimination the owner faced in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, another formative experience that taught her firsthand about social inequity.
Rezzy went on to work in law, public affairs and finance before eventually transitioning into a more political career trajectory with her current role in the office of Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, as the Brooklyn lawmaker’s director of communications and legislation. Rezzy also acts as an informal adviser to the Brooklyn Democratic Party – which Bichotte Hermelyn leads – and is the founder of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Democratic Club.
Of particular importance to Rezzy in her professional work is gender equity. Since Bichotte Hermelyn serves on both the Task Force on Women’s Issues and the Subcommittee on Oversight of Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises in the Assembly, Rezzy often pushes for legislative initiatives that empower women. Notably, she was directly involved in drafting the Jonah Bichotte Cowan Law, which requires hospitals to treat pregnant women in preterm labor.
“It's easy to forget how much progress we have yet to make,” she says.
One of Pierina Sanchez’s earliest memories is of waking to smoke and screaming as her mother rushed her out of a burning apartment building that their landlord had set fire to after tenant complaints. Years of processing this story taught Sanchez a lot. “Understanding the role of abuses of power and how ... being from an underrepresented group shapes the way that you navigate through the world right – and then watching my mom and my tías and the women in my life navigate all of that – has been so inspiring,” she said.
Though Sanchez was encouraged to become a scientist or doctor, she found herself drawn to her community and back to school, ultimately getting a master’s degree in urban policy and planning. From there, she pursued her interest in just housing with the Regional Plan Association, a research nonprofit. “It was urban planning being done in a new way,” she says. “The theory was, ‘Anything that I know, anyone else can know if we take the time to teach and share.’”
Those experiences helped prepare Sanchez for her successful primary campaign for City Council in the Bronx – a win she attributes to the support of her community and labor unions. Affordable housing continues to be her top priority, but she also plans to ramp up civic engagement. “It’s going to be important that we care about centering those who have not been involved, to think of novel ways of making government accessible to them.”
H. Caleb Simmons
When the coronavirus shut down New York City, H. Caleb Simmons grabbed his camera and headed for Manhattan's near-desolate streets.
The Montclair, New Jersey, native and Montclair State University alumnus had been working at Verizon as a content strategist until he lost his job last April. Then he was cooped up in his Upper West Side apartment for weeks.
To pass the time, Simmons photographed hundreds of pandemic-era cityscapes. “It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in my life,” Simmons recalls. “It was like ‘I Am Legend’ with Will Smith. I have panoramic pictures of Times Square, FiDi and Wall Street – all empty.”
This spring, Simmons, who previously set up a youth board at Garden State Equality and was part of the National Campaign Board at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, threw himself into LGBTQ advocacy work, including interviewing mayoral hopefuls as a Stonewall Democratic Club board member.
Even though the interviews were virtual, Simmons said the experience helped him learn about a lot of different public officials in a more intimate way. “We gained an opportunity to consider candidates through a stronger, well-prepared perspective,” he says.
By August, he found work as an account marketing manager for Google, where he works with businesses that help people recover financially from COVID-19.
He’s kept up his photography, and his work during the pandemic created a permanent impression.
“I was in awe of the impenetrability of the situation,” he says. “If something like that could happen, then anything could happen.”
Before he made headlines organizing at an Amazon warehouse, Chris Smalls hoped to become a professional basketball player. The Hackensack, New Jersey, native was a three-sport athlete in high school before he was run over while he worked as a car attendant.
“It was the most upsetting thing,” Smalls says. “The driver got out of the car and looked at me and got back in the car and drove off.”
His NBA dreams over, Smalls got married at 22, had twins and toiled away working graveyard shifts. At FedEx, he loaded trucks in the hours before dawn. At Home Depot, he was a cashier, a job he hated.
In 2015, he got a job at Amazon and was promoted to assistant manager.
But he soon found himself stuck in the same role at Amazon, while people he trained were promoted over him. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he says he requested safer working conditions but was ignored. “We had masks that we were shipping out, but we weren’t getting them,” he says.
After a coworker tested positive, Smalls organized a work stoppage and walkout at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, which cost him his job. Amazon’s corporate brass subsequently discussed making Smalls the poster boy of the opposition – a position he has embraced.
He’s now leading union drives in Staten Island and beyond. “For (Bezos) to take me on, he doesn’t know what I’m capable of,” Smalls says. “That’s when I started to advocate nationally.”
An immigrant from Guinea, a country in West Africa, Ibrahima Souare calls the Bronx – where he graduated from Lehman College – his “second home.” It is this environment that set the stage for Souare’s politically and civically engaged adulthood.
Souare’s experiences have sharpened his understanding of the struggles of underprivileged communities, and he has used these insights to further community development work through his career, first at Empire State Development as a business development associate and now at the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. At LISC, he supports women- and minority-owned businesses and advocates for more funding pipelines for them by partnering with corporate entities – like Goldman Sachs and Verizon – that are interested in finding ways to give back to the local community. Souare’s current project with Verizon, for instance, aims to create an accelerator that would provide training and resources to small businesses.
To Souare, partnership is the key to community. “Being in this role of community, economic development is really understanding the importance of partnership that organizations like LISC play as an intermediary,” he says. “(We) pretty much translate what the needs are, what the intentions of these foundations and corporate organizations or government agencies are. … My mission has been pretty simple and clear: to be a strong advocate for racial equity … to do whatever is in my power, in the seats that I am in, to create more economic opportunities for minority communities.”
Timothy Tapia was exposed to social inequity firsthand as a child. Growing up with a mother struggling with addiction and a father in the criminal justice system, Tapia came to understand that the struggles of his family were due in part to policy decisions made by elected officials – a realization that made him want a seat at the table where such decisions were made.
Tapia’s desire morphed into a sustained interest in politics through his education and a series of staff positions in the New York City Council, the New York City public advocate’s office and the Office of the New York State Attorney General. He also ran for and was elected as a district leader in the Bronx.
After a variety of stints in government offices, however, Tapia eventually moved into the corporate sector when he joined AT&T, where he works on projects designed to give back to underserved communities. Recently, he supported a digital literacy program and a STEM summer camp for local students. He also was influential in creating “bridging the gap” events to bring together communities with law enforcement that AT&T is sponsoring at police precincts around the city.
Tapia hopes to be a role model for young men of color as well. “AT&T is known for connecting devices, but I feel like, based off of its history of always giving back to communities, that we (are) helping bridge the gap with communities,” he says.
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