- Interview by
- Oren Schweitzer
Alexa Avilés is a longtime community organizer in South Brooklyn. After a decade as president of the parent-teacher association at her daughters’ school, PS 172, she’s running for New York City Council. Endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, she is running on the New York City Democratic Socialists of America’s (NYC-DSA) DSA for the City city council slate, made up of six DSA members and working-class organizers running on a platform of taking power from the wealthy and giving it to New York’s working class.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a PAC funded by billionaire real estate developer and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross issued mailers throughout her district, fearmongering around Avilés’s calls to defund the New York Police Department (NYPD).
Avilés is running in City Council District 38 to represent the South Brooklyn neighborhoods South Slope, Sunset Park, Red Hook, and parts of Borough Park, Dyker Heights, and Windsor Terrace. District 38 is a diverse working-class community, with a large population of immigrants and Puerto Rican and Mexican families, as well as being home to Brooklyn’s Chinatown. According to a study of District 38, it has the highest rate of adults without a high-school degree in New York City and half of its single mothers with young children live in poverty.
Jacobin’s Oren Schweitzer sat down with Avilés to discuss the state of politics in New York City, what it’s like to run on a socialist slate for office, and how she hopes to build working-class power.
Why are you running for city council?
I’ve been asked for many years now by community residents if I would consider running. A few years ago, I noticed that despite how high the stakes are for our community, it felt like our leadership was not putting the community first. It was a “put up or shut up” moment for me. I decided to jump in.
I made the decision to run even before the pandemic hit. Our communities were suffering greatly. Our neighbors were being displaced. Every year, we see increasing displacement where poor people and working-class folks could no longer live in the neighborhood.
We’ve seen unemployment and insecurity, stagnating wages, food insecurity. Coming out of the Trump era, families were being detained and deported by ICE. We’re coming out of a time of fear and insecurity. It felt like we needed steadfast leadership that put people over everything else.
Before running for city council you were president of the parent-teacher association at your daughters’ school for nearly a decade. What got you involved in organizing in the first place?
I have always worked in social justice movements. When I started organizing with a parent, what I had witnessed in the New York City public school, even having been a public-school student myself, was severe inequity. The majority of the parents in the school that my daughters attended were Latino and Spanish-speaking, and almost everything was done in English. There was an expectation that people would just figure it out. But it was wholly unfair to expect elementary students to translate legal documents to their family members. That was a burden that was put on immigrant children from many different countries.
I also saw the inequities in school communities. If a child is hungry, they don’t perform well. If their family is unstable or there’s a crisis at home, they can’t concentrate on school. You see all the different needs that exist in the community manifest in a school building. As a Boricua who speaks Spanish and someone who saw the profound inequities with language and accessibility, I started to do whatever I could as someone who speaks both English and Spanish. It wasn’t fully formal translation, but I was able to walk parents through different things.
From there it kind of snowballed. That’s how organizing happens. You touch one thing and then move to another and bring parents along.
The parents were not exerting their voice and power in the building. It wasn’t just offering access to information about their children’s education that was important to them but walking them through how important their voice was in determining what happens in that building and that the public-school system was a service to the families.
We started reaching out and building a community with parents from all different backgrounds. We pushed for Muslim holidays to be celebrated and for different cultures to be celebrated in the school so people could build awareness and understanding of each other.
I stayed involved in the community and eventually landed on the community board. [In New York City, community boards advise elected officials and government agencies on matters affecting the social welfare of the district.] But I had already been working with all kinds of different organizations across the district and New York City. Organizing took me to the moment where I said yes to running for city council.
One of the big issues of your campaign is educational justice. Could you tell me about what you’re fighting for in your race?
We currently see a system rife with inequity. It was created that way and perpetuated by policy choice through the years. Specifically, one of the things falling under education justice was demanding the full funding of public schools in New York. There was a huge victory that organizers won recently in getting the state to finally meet its obligation to fully fund public schools, along with new federal funding.
Some of the determinations for me that are really important in terms of educational justice are culturally responsive education. We want an education that reflects the cultural background of our students. The culture in New York City public schools should become a positive environment for young people, not one of criminalization and a deficit mindset that views kids as needing to be fixed.
We will be advocating hard that the new education funding goes to reducing class size. We also need to fund our schools equitably so that schools can get the resources they deserve. We need to get police out of schools. We want social workers and programs that help youth live and learn. We don’t want police officers and standardized testing all over the place.
What does the political status quo look like in New York City, and how are you hoping to change it?
The political status quo is allowing capitalists to keep making money and calling the shots and allowing people to suffer. The DSA for the City slate wants to tackle systemic issues and get to the root of them.
We know that we have to defund the NYPD if we want the resources to invest meaningfully in the things that are important for our communities. Our goal is people over profit.
You mentioned needing to defund the NYPD. I saw today that a billionaire-funded PAC called Common Sense NYC is funding fearmongering mailers throughout your district. What’s your response to those mailers and the fact that you’re making the billionaire class scared?
I’m not surprised that the billionaire class and Stephen Ross are coming at me and the DSA for the City slate. If they’re afraid, I’m glad. We won’t back down. We have every intention of changing what we can change to put working-class people first and to put our communities first.
Fearmongering sometimes works. It’s a tried-and-true strategy. But what Stephen Ross and his billionaire friends forget is that we come from communities and movements, and people know who we are. They know our values. I’ve received so many messages today with people saying “Ha! The big scary mom who’s fighting for her children. She’s so dangerous.”
It shows us the billionaires are nervous. And they should be nervous. We are not running to lose. We’re running to win and to change this city. They’ll have to deal with that whether they like it or not.
There are a lot of other self-proclaimed progressives running in your race. What do you think differentiates you and your campaign from the progressives running?
I have a long tenure in this community. I came into this race with a real base of working with community members. And not because I was on a pathway to a political career, but because I was just living my values of working to support the people in my community. I’m a Brooklynite, and I think people really recognize that long-standing tenure and that I’m coming from a movement.
My interest is to improve the material conditions for working-class people here. If it means fighting Stephen Ross and the NYPD, so be it. It also means lifting up and expanding our movement. I think people are seeing those distinctions by both who I am and the coalition that we’re building. Even our far-ranging endorsements feel like an affirmation of who I am and what I represent.
Your campaign is backed by an assortment of unions, such as District Council 37, the United Federation of Teachers, the New York State Nurses Association, the Hotel Trades Council, 32BJ SEIU, as well as the New York City Central Labor Council. What has been the role of labor in your campaign? And why is it important that organized labor endorse democratic socialists?
Working-class people all want the same thing. We want workers and their families to be protected, their labor valued, an end to mistreatment, our children safe, and dignified housing. Whether you’re in organized labor or not, we all want those same things.
I didn’t grow up in a labor household. But I did see the material differences between those workers that had safety as part of the labor movement and those who didn’t and were being mistreated by corporations. For me, it was not surprising when unions came on board, because we’ve always centered working people. That’s who our community is. It was exactly the right thing for a DSA-endorsed candidate and DSA member to be partnering with the labor movement. Those two things — being a DSA member and working with the labor movement — are crucial, and I’m proud of both.
Another socialist and fellow community organizer, Marcela Mitaynes, won her election to the state assembly in your district just last summer. Has her recent win helped with your race?
I worked on Marcela’s campaign and happily supported her effort. Some of that momentum that Marcela built in her run has definitely bled into my run. She’s a DSA member and DSA-endorsed candidate, like me. We are aligned and will continue to be aligned in a vision for the future. With Nydia Velázquez, our congresswoman at the federal level, it is potentially the first time our district might have three Latina women who are facing the same direction and want to work together to tackle our community’s challenges.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you’re running on a NYC-DSA–backed slate with other working-class organizers running for city council in New York. What has been the role of NYC-DSA in your campaign? What’s it been like running as an open democratic socialist on a slate with others?
It’s been great! When I applied for the endorsement, there was a big question around “What do you think about being part of a slate?” I’ve always been really excited about that idea, because it recognizes that this is not a one-person show. You go into city council and you’re going to have to whip votes and work with people. To come in as a socialist with five other socialists, and to come in together and be able to strategize together and have each other’s back is incredible. It doesn’t mean that we may agree 100 percent, but it means that we have a commitment and a shared vision of the future.
DSA’s active membership is amazing. The fact that so many people are willing to come in and power these campaigns, from the very mundane tasks of data entry to supporting the bigger strategic questions, has made it a great partnership. I’m proud and honored to be in partnership with DSA and to be a DSA member.
People realize that we’re all fighting for each other, whether you call me this or that. At the end of the day, we want our kids to be safe. We’re fighting for affordable housing. It has been a way to engage in conversation with our community members about what it means to be a democratic socialist in this country. So far, no one in the community has said, “You’re a socialist, I don’t want to talk to you.” It’s been more like, “You’re a Democrat? Yuck!” and maybe shut the door. But it’s never been “You’re a socialist?” and someone shuts the door. I haven’t had that experience.
What was your path to democratic socialism and DSA?
Growing up, my political ideology was seeded by my mother who was a believer in Puerto Rican independence and black liberation. That’s how I always identified. When Bernie came on the scene, I was like, “Huh, this is different. Okay, I’m listening.” I slowly came in, and, in around 2019, I started to look into DSA and learn more.
My daughter, who was thirteen at the time, was asking me some hard questions about political and economic systems and pushing hard against some of the things I learned when growing up. This was coupled with learning about DSA’s platform, which is very extensive. I remember talking with some members and saying, “Y’all write some long platforms.” But having my daughters questioning and pushing on so many things and calling bullshit in ways that I had no idea how at that age, plus my own political seeds — they all came together. I told people, “I was a socialist and didn’t even know it!” Then I joined in 2019, and I continued to learn. I think that’s one of the beauties of DSA, that it is an educational and really truly democratic organization.
How do you hope to use your campaign, and your office once elected, to build working-class power in Brooklyn?
I see our campaign as a door to really reach out to the broader community and to introduce them to myself, to DSA, to organizing in a movement, and to setting the expectation that our office will be an organizing space for residents to come together and build their own power, and to hold me and others to account around that, and to demand systemic change. That is my hope: that the office will be a space for organizing and supporting our residents.
Constituent services are so critical and are also a way to build trust. We want to build strong constituent services in an office that’s representative of and responsive to this district. We want it to be a space where people can come and throw down on the issues that impact them. That will be the goal of our office.