Vanessa Gibson is now etched in history as the first woman elected to serve as Bronx Borough President, and the first Black lawmaker to helm it. The borough presidency is largely ceremonial, long stripped of its statutory power decades ago when the U.S. Supreme Court found New York City’s government unconstitutional.

Read More: What Does A Borough President Actually Do?

While the job might be an on-the-surface figurehead post, Gibson, who was sworn in this month, looks to leverage all her political capital to manage the city’s most impoverished borough. Home to 1.5 million residents, the Bronx suffers from high rates of asthma and diabetes, unemployment and drug abuse.

Gibson, 42, entered public service in 2001 after graduating from SUNY Albany. She interned and later worked for her mentor, the late lawmaker Aurelia Greene in her state Assembly office. She eventually succeeded Greene as the 77th Assembly District representative after being appointed deputy Bronx borough president in 2009, following a special election. After five years in the Assembly, Gibson ran and was elected to represent the 16th Council District in the west Bronx for two terms, during which time a portion of her district underwent a significant rezoning.

After defeating four candidates in the Democratic primary for borough president last summer, Gibson was elected in the November general election over two other candidates, shattering the racial and gender glass ceilings. Gibson succeeds Ruben Diaz Jr., who was term limited.

Read More: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Reflects On 27-Year Career In Politics

When she campaigned, Gibson said she knew what she was stepping into: leading a borough ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to greater unemployment, and slower housing development.

This month threw her an unexpected tragedy: a massive fire that killed 17 people, including eight children, inside a residential high-rise in the Tremont section of the Bronx. City officials called the fire the most catastrophic in more than 30 years.

Gibson sat for an interview with Gothamist/WNYC on Friday, speaking about her priorities for the Bronx during her first term in office.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hear Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson's plans for the Bronx:

What do you want to do for the people of the Bronx? What is your hope over the next four years?

We struggle with underlying health conditions that many residents face every single day — they were further exacerbated by COVID and realizing that we have to deal with making sure that people are getting quality healthcare. That has been my focus since our positivity rates are so high. And since we have a new administration with Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks and making sure that our schools are safe for children and educators and staff and making sure that our families have access to COVID testing, to mobile sites, to dealing with home kits and making sure that we really encourage Bronxites to get tested, to get the vaccine and get [the] booster. We know that, as of right now, there are well over a million Bronxites who have at least the first dose and I'm really grateful because that shows a tremendous level of collaboration by city officials, elected officials, community partners. But we know we have a lot of work to do.

In addition to that, on the campaign trail, I talked extensively about jobs and economic development and getting residents back to work, realizing that one in every four Bronxites lost their income due to the pandemic. Many of our residents are working in the hotel and retail industry, which were decimated due to the pandemic and many of them have still not returned to work.

And we also understand the trauma that Bronxites have faced and are dealing with. The COVID- 19 pandemic has also forced people to rethink returning to an in-person work setting. For those that may work in an office setting, we've been able to work remotely and we've adjusted over these two years.

And so I know there's a lot of resistance on the part of Bronxites to return to that in-person setting. So obviously making sure that we look across the spectrum at all the development projects that are underway from the Universal Hip Hop Museum to the expansion of Metro-North, to the renovation of Orchard Beach, to the Bronx Children's Museum, to the construction of housing at the old Spofford site, our La Central in the South Bronx, as well as– West Farms has a tremendous amount of housing that's already started, and we know the Fordham Landing is also coming. So there's a lot of opportunity for jobs, both temporary and permanent. We are making sure that, as we have conversations with developers, that we make sure that there are certain provisions that are always prioritized: local hiring, MWBE and making sure that we have project labor agreements and community benefits agreements to the best extent that we can, depending on the size of that project.

So there's a lot that I want to do, but obviously jobs, economic development, COVID recovery, food insecurity, housing, healthcare, education, climate change, dealing with transportation are some of my big bucket topics that we want to tackle. And, you know, certainly the first several months of our administration.

You definitely have a lot on the agenda. I recently spoke with your predecessor, Ruben Diaz Jr., about the limits to the borough presidency. He often used this phrase of making a dollar out of 15 cents. So how do you want to make the most out of a position that has a lot of limitations, at least within the City Charter?

I think the office of the borough president — while many say that it doesn't have a lot of power and influence as a result of the City Charter — I think there's a lot that the president of the borough can do. I am going to be very big on public and private partnerships. I want to make sure that the private industry is infusing money and resources into the Bronx, as it relates to addressing the digital divide, capital infrastructure, bringing in necessary jobs and really creating the stability that residents rightfully deserve and need; working with the City Council delegation and the new speaker, Adrienne Adams, making sure the Bronx is prioritized as it relates to capital, protecting our cultural institutions, like the Bronx Zoo, Botanical Gardens, Wave Hill, Bronx Museum, as well as our three CUNY colleges —  Bronx Community, Hostos and Lehman [colleges] — making sure that our parks and open spaces like Van Cortlandt and Orchard Beach are protected, Pelham Bay Park. Those are our resources and our greatest treasures in the borough. And also the relationships that I've had over the years and the relationship I have with Governor [Kathy] Hochul, Lieutenant Governor [Brian] Benjamin, [Assembly] Speaker [Carl] Heastie, [Senate Majority] Leader [Andrea] Stewart-Cousins —  that's going to also, you know, wield a lot of influence and resources in the borough.

I am all about making sure that we maximize opportunities, we operate more efficiently and we make use of every dollar we get. One of the struggles that we face in government is we have to go through government processes like procurement. And sometimes projects cost a lot more than they really should because we have to go through the public review process.

So we understand that the private sector comes in with their own guidelines and they really can transform a lot of our open spaces and other important landmarks that we have here in the Bronx. So what I want to do is work with the Council on legislation, work with them on capital, resolution-a funding (discretionary funding for borough presidents) from our office.

I want to make sure that we have these public private partnerships with the Ford Foundation, with the Robin Hood Foundation. I know both of those leaders, very good friends of mine and really using the relationships I have. So I've also been able to — in my previous work as a council member — been able to cultivate a relationship with the hip hop community.

It's been great with Fat Joe, with Remy Ma, with Swizz Beatz, with Cardi B, with A Boogie, with Windows of Hip Hop, with so many of our pioneers. And a lot of them are giving back and they want to do more. They just need direction on how to do it.

So having the initiatives, digital divide, going into schools, getting connectivity working with families in shelters because we know they struggle; dealing with students with autism, with IEPs, making sure that our students are on grade level in terms of proficiency; all of these challenges that we faced. I also want to do a lot around gender equity and pay parity. I want to deal with maternal mortality and morbidity because Black and Latino women are more likely to die during childbirth. So I'm going to be working with all of our hospital providers and our [federally qualified health centers] to develop the first-ever Bronx birthing center, which we have zero of right now.

Brooklyn has a beautiful pavilion that is a birthing center and we're looking at that model. We're working with Bronx Health Link and other organizations in the Bronx because unfortunately we've had several cases of mothers who've died during childbirth and their spouses have really taken an advocacy approach to not only speak about their experiences, but also do the very best we can to prevent further tragedies from happening. As we talk about healthcare, justice and justice for birthing individuals.

During your first month in office the Bronx experienced one of the most deadly fires in decades. Where were you, and what did you do when you first learned about it?

So, last Sunday I was in church, in the Northeast Bronx, and my phone started ringing during the worship service, and I knew something was wrong because the Mayor's Office, NYPD, started to call me. I started getting a barrage of phone calls, and at first I thought it was the fire we had several days prior, that was on the [Grand] Concourse and 181st Street that was at the Caridad restaurant as a result of a lithium battery that was being used to charge an electric scooter.

But then they told me that there was a second fire and it was a five alarm and there was projected to be several dozen fatalities. And I said, "What?" I couldn't believe it. So I raced over to the scene. And at this point it's about 12:30 p.m. The fire had already been under control and I saw hundreds of firefighters, EMS, stretchers. It was a chaotic scene in front of Twin Parks North West. There were media, the street was closed. There was a lot of water damage coming from the building. It was chaotic in the sense that you had a lot of family members that were running to safety that were trying to get their loved ones into the hospital.

It was just a lot happening, a lot of activity. And we started to talk to OEM and FDNY about what happened. And then we started to obviously get details of the fire coming in at 11:00 a.m., a series of 911 calls, a third-floor apartment. They believed it potentially was a space heater in a bedroom. It was a duplex apartment on the second and third floor.

And just looking at the building, it looked like a whole building was on fire because you could see fire damage on the exterior of the building all the way up to the 19th floor. But yet the fire started on [the third floor]. So it was like, wow. No one knew the magnitude of this fire, but we knew that there were a number of residents in the hospital.

So I stayed on scene and shortly thereafter the elected officials showed up; Mayor Adams showed up and then we were able to go into the school, the local school, the TAPCO school was made available for us and we were able to get an actual brief from Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro and his team about what happened so that we could actually respond in a very clear way to the media as to what happened.

And so we were able to get that briefing and it seems like a lifetime ago. I can't believe it's already Friday. Because I remember this so vividly and we were able to start troubleshooting. So we needed the school to be an evacuation center. We needed to get in the Red Cross, OEM because we needed to find ways for people to shelter so that we could get them information.

We didn't know who anybody was. Whether you went to the hospital or not, people were at church and they got word the building was on fire. They ran back. So we ultimately had to secure the building with NYPD to make sure no one reentered and no one exited. I mean, it was, again, pure chaos for the first several hours and we stayed on the scene and then everyone started to mobilize.

A lot of organizations started to come to the site. And I said we need to have dinner, we need blankets. It's gonna start getting dark. We need Red Cross. So they set up the cafeteria for us. One section was Red Cross. One section was OEM. And then we just had people coming in.

And, again, we wanted to provide as much as we could; a lot of children, a lot of pets. So we started bringing in pet food, clothing; people need jackets, they needed footwear. And that was for the next several hours. We knew that before Sunday night ended we would have hotel accommodations for the residents. So Red Cross, and OEM, we started calling the local hotels, locking in rooms, 40 here, 40 here, 120 units in the building, but we didn't know how many people needed the actual help. So we started locking in hotel rooms. We called MTA because we needed buses that would transport the residents from the school over to their respective hotels. So a lot of moving pieces, a lot of moving pieces.

We were working very closely with the mayor's office, as well as OEM and the American Red Cross, which was really the lead agency.

Where do things stand in terms of helping the victims of that fire. Can you give me a couple of top lines of what the office has done?

So our office, myself, my deputy, we have been on site everyday since Sunday. We opened Monroe College as an evacuation service center where all city agencies and state agencies are on site; residents were relocated to temporary hotels in the neighboring areas.

And some families remained in the building. Some have been able to return in these five days because the vacate order has been lifted.

So a couple of bullet points and takeaways: number one, residents who are allowed back in their apartments because a vacate order has been lifted do not have to return. They're not going to be forced. All they need to do on site is tell the Red Cross and OEM that they do not want to go back to their apartment for various reasons. And honestly, we don't care about the reasons, whether you're traumatized, you're having nightmares, you're having anxiety, you just don't want to be in the building, it doesn't matter. If you tell them you don't want to return, then what we're doing is you go back to the hotel in which you have already been staying.

Number two: for these families that do not want to stay permanently, they don't want to return, the vacate was lifted so, technically, legally, they can go back. We have to identify long-term housing for these families. So they're going to wait in the hotels in which they're staying because that's going to take a little bit of time. We need to look at their household size, their income, the household needs, whether they have a [rental] voucher, because we know that there are several dozen families that have vouchers, whether it's HUD, HCR, NYCHA and HPD. Four different agencies control vouchers in this building. So we also need to make sure that those vouchers are transferable. So there's a lot of moving pieces.

And then the third thing I want to emphasize is the status of a resident or a family member does not matter. If you are an immigrant, if you are undocumented, if you don't speak English as a native language — it doesn't matter. We are not kicking you out of the hotel. We're not forcing you into the building. We're not doing any of that. And we know there are some…where the residents are not the head of household. The head of household may not live there. We understand that or you may not be documented. We understand that. There are all these very intricate issues that we are learning and we will deal with. But again, we're not discriminating against anyone.any families there are SNAP recipients so they're getting a brand new allotment of their SNAP as a result of this fire. So that's something that's already been worked on. HRA has been on the site since Monday. Those are the three points I want to emphasize. Everyone will have someplace to go whether you stay at Twin Parks, whether your apartment was damaged or not.

We know that the 17 units, I believe it's 17 on the third floor, have severe damage. So it's going to take quite some time for that vacate order to be lifted: extensive fire damage, smoke damage; just the hallways are completely gutted. Those families will not be able to return for quite some time. And honestly they may not want to anyway.

So we're already working with those tenants because that's a long-term vacate order that won't be lifted. And we know that we will have to find them something temporary, but more than likely it'll be permanent.

It sounds like quite the undertaking. Is there a message that you want to tell Bronx residents in terms of how they can forge ahead witnessing and seeing this tragedy unfold?

My message to all Bronx sites is we are resilient and we are strong. We have endured the worst of the worst. Over 30 years, the most horrific fires in the city of New York have occurred in the Bronx. And that is a very telling idea. It's a very painful reality that there is something wrong with the system. This is decades of government failure and landlord neglect for many reasons. We're talking about vulnerable families, immigrant, hard-working, working class families, people that are undocumented, people that are marginalized.

You would not find a fire of this magnitude happening in affluent neighborhoods because their housing code, their housing quality is just different. But that doesn't mean that our housing quality should not be the way that everyone else is as well. From Happy Land to Highbridge, to Belmont, and now to Fordham; the worst fires in the city, all in the Bronx.

And we know that the cause of this fire was a malfunctioning space heater, just like it was in Highbridge. Those fires are a call to action and we've been in a state of emergency for a long time. So I just want Bronx residents to know that elected officials are here on the ground and we care and we are going to build, we're going to survive and we're going to help these families, but we're also going to take a real look at our housing stock in the Bronx, because there are other families in the Bronx that live in buildings where they're not given sufficient heat either. And they also use space heaters because their landlords are not doing what they're supposed to do. And sometimes their self-closing doors also don't close.

So we have to find some level of purpose in this tragedy in this pain, and we have to find an underlying lesson so that the deaths of our 17 neighbors — nine adults and eight children, the youngest being two years — are not in vain. We have to learn something from this. There is a problem when a majority of the residents are from West Africa, are Spanish from the Dominican Republic, are immigrants. There is a problem when there's an underlying reason and a lot of the victims look alike and I take this very personal because they are my neighbors and I have friends whose relatives live in Twin Parks. But most importantly, the one message I want to resonate to the Bronx is I recognize that there are other families that live just like the residents in Twin Parks. No heat, insufficient services, malfunctioning elevators and self-closing doors, no sprinkler system, fire alarms that go off, no exterior fire escapes. That's not new. And that's not with respect to just one building. So that means that we have to take a look at all of our housing stock and we're going to be very deliberate working with the electeds, working with the feds, the state, the city with Mayor Adams and the City Council because we have to do better.

We cannot accept these conditions that residents live in as normal because if we do then it is a recipe for disaster for the next fire.

It sounds like you're outraged by how vulnerable people are.

Right. We are.

I wanted to just turn back to big picture. We had spoken about the fact that you are interested in a Bronx Birthing Center. I was curious about where, if anywhere, the Kingsbridge Armory stands for you. We know that the project is essentially done. — it's not going to happen. So what lies ahead? What are you pushing for within that vacant armory?

The Kingsbridge Armory and the entire proposal to me has been very disappointing; that the developers failed to meet the obligations that they initially agreed to.

There was a lot of back and forth with the Economic Development Corporation, who is the landlord of the Kingsbridge. This being a landmark, knowing that there are certain purposes that we could ,really look at, but I want to value and respect the long work of the community advisory board that was formulated years ago that did a lot of work, a lot of labor, a lot of time invested, to put together the best plan that the community really wanted.

Community-driven plans are the best way to go. These are the residents, the merchants, the businesses, that live and work and raise their families in these communities. We should not allow big, large items and projects to come into a neighborhood without sufficient community input. That's how you build economic wealth and power.

That's how you build people power in our city. So I respect the community advisory board. And now, as I learned from the lawsuit that came forth several weeks ago that pretty much demolished the whole plan, recognizing that we have to start from scratch. We have a commitment from Governor Hochul that the money that was designated from the state will remain in the Bronx and at Kingsbridge Armory. Want to be very clear: it's $108 million, and there's a $20 million loan that we also have added to the $108 billion. That is for Kingsbridge Armory and nowhere else, because we also heard talk that there was potentially money that we would shift to other places other EDC projects. And I want to be very clear that we need to focus on Kingsbridge.

We're working closely with all the elected officials, Senator Rivera, Council Member [Pierina] Sanchez, Assemblymember [Yudelka] Tapia, Community Board 7. I mean, there's a lot of people in the northwest Bronx. A lot of folks on the ground.

I am comfortable with whatever the community comes up with. If it's not an ice hockey arena, then I'm okay with us coming out with another community plan, a community space, a community center, a community school, spacing for young people so that they have access and opportunity. I don't necessarily know that an ice arena was the very best idea for children, but I am comfortable with respecting the work of the advisory board and kind of bringing everyone back together again. But what I will not do is allow 20 years to pass and more time without making the best use of this time. We don't have time to waste. I was in the council when Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo led the effort on the Bedford Union Armory in Brooklyn, and that was a huge, controversial mess. But when I saw the end product, it's beautiful. And if we could replicate something like that, not the market level housing , of course, but there's a Major Owens Health and Wellness Center, the Carey Gabay Community Center, gorgeous, gorgeous spaces for young people. We should look at models like that and try to model some of what we believe is really what the community wants.

So there's a new school of legislators coming in. They're all young. They haven't been been in office before and obviously they're representing parts of the Bronx. What's the advice you have for them?

I'm excited to work with the Bronx City Council delegation, a majority of women, five women and four men, and I think that they will be amazing. I know all of them and their personal stories and what they bring to the table. Althea Stevens is an educator and a youth organizer. Pierina Sanchez has an incredible amount of housing experience, Marjorie Velazquez comes from the local community board and has been working as you know —  she ran for office unsuccessfully before–—  and Amanda Farias, I worked with her in the City Council when she worked for my colleague Elizabeth Crowley.

So I definitely am working with them, mentoring them and giving them a lot of advice on what to do, because I think as a new council you come in with a very ambitious agenda of what you want to do and sometimes reality hits in. And there's a new speaker, there's a new administration. When I got to the City Council in 2014, it was also a new administration. It was the de Blasio administration. But I had state legislative experience that I brought to the city. So I had a little bit of experience under my belt and I just was able to navigate how the city works.

So not every new member has that experience. So to the extent that I can, I'm helping them, whether it's with some of the community issues in their districts, learning what their predecessors have done, developing their priorities and their blueprint for their districts, and really working to support their work, letting them know that our office will be a support system for them to complement their work, both through the budget process as well as legislative-wise, also the community board appointments, and really making sure that we develop a robust agenda.

So I've already started. And before the fire I already had meetings lined up with all of the council members in the Bronx to try to get a sense of what their priorities are as we begin a budget process for FY23.

You are the first Black woman and also the first African-American to run the Bronx. What do you think about reaching that milestone?

It's an incredible honor and it's a tremendous blessing. I come to this space as a humble servant, knowing that God has blessed me to serve for such a time as this. My faith is my foundation. It is what grounds me. It is what sustains me.And it is what allows me to wake up every day to serve.

I've been through so much personally and professionally, and one of the greatest challenges I faced was last year during my campaign, when I lost my political mentor, Aurelia Greene. My heart was so broken and it's even hard to talk about her in the past tense because she was such a major part of my life, but I'm so thankful that she taught me a lot around being a legislator, being a leader and being a role model. And making history means that we're setting the standard higher, we're allowing young girls to see themselves in their leaders. And we're telling them that they can do anything they want.

The world is yours. The world is your oyster. Don't let anyone stop your dreams. Don't let anyone block your blessing, but know that you are loved and you are destined for success. If I can rise to be the Bronx borough president, so can you, and we just want to continue to reinforce that for young ladies and young men, because our young men are under so much pressure to do certain things — to join gangs and to be a part of the popular crew, the social media. They are just under so much pressure. Young people are going through so many things that a lot of us didn't go through when we were younger and it's different. And I want young people to see themselves as leaders.

I want them to see beyond their neighborhood. That they are not a statistic, but they're a success story. So being the borough president and making history means that while I'm the first, I shouldn't be the last. And also my appointment of our deputy, the first Latina that is the deputy borough president means that two women of color are running the Bronx. And we are going to not only make a difference, but we are going to show the world what it means when women lead, just like we have the first ever majority led women in the City Council led by the first black woman in Adrienne Adams. And I think it's time. Everything happens in a time and for a reason and in a season, and this is our season to shine.

And I am so grateful, even in my second week dealing with this fire, I'm still doing BP work, but my focus is on reminding the residents of the borough that they're not alone. So even in my time of struggle, when I may feel weak, I know I have to be strong for my young people, because I know they're looking at me and they're looking up to me.

And as women, sometimes we wear the world on our shoulders and sometimes people say we're too emotional. It's okay to be emotional, but I'm also about work. So I may cry a little bit, I may pray a little bit harder, but I'm about work done because that's what the residents voted for, that's what they expect, that's what they demand, and most importantly, that's what they deserve.