My View

A Look at NYC’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus

“The success of a city in transition depends on how well informed people are,” says the 28-year-old executive director working to engage citizens in a minority-majority metropolis.

Alex Rias is the executive director of the New York City Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
National Journal
Nov. 22, 2013, 7:45 a.m.

As a high school ath­lete and a son of two phys­i­cians as­sist­ants, nat­ive New York­er Alex Ri­as figured he’d be­come a phys­ic­al ther­ap­ist. He chose to go to col­lege in State Uni­versity of New York-Buf­falo — a blue-col­lar city in sharp con­trast to grow­ing up in melt­ing-pot Ja­maica Queens.

Be­com­ing fas­cin­ated by psy­cho­logy, so­ci­ology, and Amer­ic­an stud­ies, he found new in­terests, mo­tiv­a­tions, and pur­pose. Now he’s two years in­to his job as dir­ect­or of the New York City Coun­cil‘s Black, Latino, and Asi­an Caucus, whose 27 mem­bers rep­res­ent 4.8 mil­lion res­id­ents in the five New York City bor­oughs. In ad­di­tion to his work with the coun­cil, he is man­aging dir­ect­or of Step­Above a per­son­al-de­vel­op­ment com­pany he cofoun­ded that seeks to in­spire youth through pos­it­ive-think­ing work­shops and ap­pear­ances that blend po­etry, step, and dance. Ri­as, 28, also holds a mas­ter’s in pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion from SUNY-Al­bany.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

I took at jour­ney. I was in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing how people think and be­have, in­di­vidu­ally but also col­lect­ively. What stim­u­lates people and de­cisions? How does that change when it in­volves two people? Or what changes when it’s a group? As I learned more about so­ci­ety and the world, that led me to want to learn about one ma­jor factor that in­flu­ences our de­cisions — which are our laws and how our laws and in­sti­tu­tions in­flu­ence our be­ha­vi­or.

While in Buf­falo, I was do­ing voter-re­gis­tra­tion drives and tak­ing part in groups do­ing polit­ic­al-ac­tion sur­veys and civic-en­gage­ment sur­veys. I star­ted to gain an ap­pre­ci­ation for the struc­tures of gov­ern­ment, and by my seni­or year I had de­cided a mas­ter’s in pub­lic af­fairs would be the next step for me.

NYC is minor­ity-ma­jor­ity, and the city coun­cil is minor­ity-ma­jor­ity [27 of the 51 mem­bers are people of col­or]. The suc­cess of a city in trans­ition de­pends on how well in­formed people are. For me, it all boils down to ac­cess. Ac­cess is a huge bar­ri­er fa­cing com­munit­ies of col­or — ac­cess to in­form­a­tion, qual­ity edu­ca­tion, health care, tech­no­logy. Everything we do [as a caucus] is about clos­ing the gap.

When I joined the caucus, I helped it cre­ate an em­ploy­ment, op­por­tun­ity, and small-busi­ness expo. It’s a self-em­power­ment event where we bring con­stitu­ents from all over the city and con­nect them to vari­ous re­sources. We split the ven­ue, so there’s work­force de­vel­op­ment — from re­sume writ­ing to in­ter­view work­shops for in­di­vidu­als — and we also have the side for small busi­nesses, from em­ploy­ment screen­ing to work­ing with the De­part­ment of Small Busi­ness Ser­vices and even help on start­ing a busi­ness.

This year our expo is Dec. 7. We’ll have all of that, but we’ll also have an Af­ford­able Care act work­shop that will fo­cus on its im­pact on small busi­ness — how it might or might not im­pact a small gro­cery, for ex­ample. Some [small busi­ness own­ers] are con­fused and wor­ried. Some have a lan­guage bar­ri­er, so we want to an­swer their ques­tions and close the gap.

So that’s one of our biggest un­der­tak­ings. It’s about com­munity em­power­ment, where we ex­pose people to re­sources they didn’t know about or how to reach them. In ad­di­tion to work­shop and screen­ings, we’ll have 30 or 40 or­gan­iz­a­tions on hand that can con­nect people with oth­er re­sources or jobs.

You see things evolve. You see them change and you see them change the com­munity. For in­stance, the re­dis­trict­ing pro­cess was very eye-open­ing for me. See­ing the shift­ing demo­graph­ics of the city made me real­ize hu­man mi­gra­tion is really af­fected by policy and eco­nom­ics. So I con­tin­ue to have my hands in shap­ing the fu­ture of the city and rep­res­ent­ing the com­munit­ies with lim­ited ac­cess.

Since I have taken this po­s­i­tion, just our col­lect­ive pres­ence as a caucus has strengthened. The pro­cess of work­ing with or­gan­iz­a­tions on budget al­loc­a­tions and fun­nel­ing city funds has im­proved and sharpened. When we’re at the table, I think it really does amp­li­fy our needs for the com­munity, and we’re able to tar­get some sub­stan­tial funds, so the cli­mate has changed. I think the level of con­scious­ness with­in the coun­cil is dif­fer­ent, and the caucus is a power­ful voice, evolving and im­prov­ing.

There’s much more that the caucus can do to en­gage our con­stitu­ents. As we see the city shift­ing, there are just more chal­lenges that need to be met. I hope to be in­volved in help­ing to do that.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICA

'MY VIEW' OF THE NEXT AMERICA

Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email us. And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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