With our Ask a Reporter project, my colleagues and I have been answering questions about ways folks can become more active civic participants. We’ve answered questions about local political parties, how to get a mural in your neighborhood, and understanding the point of community boards, among others.
Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration created a new position—Chief Democracy Officer—dedicated to the task of getting people more civically engaged. Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, who previously worked as a tenants’ rights attorney, started in the new role last month.
We sat down last week for a conversation about the work so far and her plans for the future. I also shared some of the barriers to getting involved that we’ve heard from listeners and readers. She took notes!
Our conversation below has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can also hear a version of the interview on WNYC.
I know out of the gate your team has been focused on voters and getting more people registered to vote. What have you personally had a hand in and what have you been focused on?
I have been focused on getting out to every part of the city. I've been in every borough. I think my first week I was in every borough talking to voters and finding out what they felt the obstacles or the barriers are to voting and to participation more generally. My role is about voting—certainly that's a really important part of the process—but it's also about civic engagement and what it means to be fully engaged with your community and the city around you.
As part of that work, your office mistakenly sent out letters to about 30,000 people, saying that their voter status was inactive and that would mean that their names wouldn’t appear on the rolls at the polls. What happened?
My office has been working on several initiatives for several months to try to let people know what their rights are as voters and the different statuses that they may have. I think we're all familiar with the voter purge that happened in Brooklyn only two years ago when 200,000 voters were purged. So that was the place it was coming from: wanting to communicate with people to let them know their rights as voters, what their status is and how to take steps to change it.
It wasn't perfect and we will do better. It's been a learning process. But at the end of the day, hundreds of thousands of people were properly contacted and learned that their status wasn't active and could take steps to change it. And that was the purpose; that was the point. And we need to be doing more outreach, more initiatives like this, and I hope that other cities do as well. I hope that people aren't intimidated because it's a difficult process.
As you know, New York has terrible voter turnout, among the lowest in the country. And a lot of things are out of your hands, in a sense, in terms of election law that needs to change. There's no early voting here; there's no automatic voter registration. But how can you use your role to make voting easier?
Absolutely. New York state is behind the vast majority of states. Thirty seven other states have some form of early voting. How can we be in the minority of states that don't have that opportunity for students, for working parents, for seniors to vote at a time and place that's convenient for them. I'm going to be in Albany meeting with people to really move this legislation forward. I mean it's ridiculous, and there's no reason that our state should be behind.
My role as a reporter these last couple of months has been focused on answering people's questions about how they can be more civically involved in the city. And that's part of your mandate. So beyond voting, what are your plans to get people more involved in civic life?
I think there are a few different ways to do that, and I want to start out by talking to people who are already doing it. There are many groups that work on civic engagement. There are different community-based organizations all over the city. Before coming to this position, I worked as a tenants rights attorney organizing groups all over the city who had people very engaged — young people, immigrants, people who might not be eligible to vote — in improving their community. So I think first helping people to understand: What does it mean to be civically engaged? And what are the different points of contact? I think this is neighborhood-by-neighborhood—talking to people and understanding what's important to them, what's meaningful to them and how they can make a difference.
Have you been able to identify the barriers that people may see or experience in terms of getting involved? I can tell you what I’ve heard.
I didn't want to turn the tables and I don't like it when people are, like, well, you tell me. But I would love to hear what you're hearing.
There are people who have full-time jobs and young children who are not going to go to a lot of night meetings. They can't go to a City Council hearing in the middle of the day and say their piece. I think a consistent theme that's come up is people just want some more transparency from city agencies. So I'm wondering if you have sought out any of this kind of feedback, or will you be doing that?
We absolutely will. I think in this lead up to November 6th we've been very focused on getting to Election Day and getting voter turnout and registration. Voting is a piece and civic engagement is a piece and, you know, I'm hearing those challenges. We have to think of creative solutions. This is a time in the life of our country, in the life of our city and our state, when people want to be involved. They're interested. They're excited. And so I think we need to capture that and think of creative ways to allow that type of involvement. How can we use technology?
I think people at every level, for any number of reasons, are frustrated and want to get more involved. And I think that's what my position is about. I don't think I have answers here on the third week in, but I'm looking forward to working together to figure out what those solutions are.
There are other groups doing this work of getting people civically involved. Are you duplicating efforts already being made by city government and community organizations?
I really think there's a lot of work to do in this area. You pointed to the low voter participation rates in New York State. I think we've seen those on the rise in the last primary—the participation rate almost tripled here in the city, which is awesome. There is more work to do—a lot just in coordinating. I've already met with New York City Service. I've already met with the Campaign Finance Board. A lot of the good government groups I'm in contact with on an almost daily basis. We have our work cut out for us. I don't think anybody could say, “Oh civic engagement, that's taken care of.” No. We have a lot of work to do, and I certainly will be working in close collaboration with the other arms of city government and with folks outside government.
Your work at Democracy NYC is part of the mayor's office. Is there inherently a problem with that? Is there a conflict of interest there?
I don't see a conflict because I think my job is about getting New Yorkers involved in whichever way they want to be involved, whatever opinion or approach they have. So we're not pushing any particular agenda. Like I said, we're all over the city. We just want people to be able to be civically engaged to the full extent—voting and participating to the full extent—whatever their views are.
I think on a personal note, my work throughout my adult life has been focused on working in low-income communities and communities where people who may feel that they don't have a voice or a stake in their government are able to participate. And that's really the orientation that I bring—wanting to engage every single New Yorker and give every single New Yorker a voice.