There’s a pretty good chance you’ve never heard of the city’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, but it springs into life when, and sometimes before, the worst in New Yorkers grabs headlines.

The OPHC, housed within the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, was formed just before the onset of the pandemic. It coordinates how the city responds to local hate incidents through its Interagency Committee on Hate Crimes, comprised of over 20 city agencies and the hate crime units in all five District Attorneys’ offices.

It also funds community groups that directly deal with hate crimes in vulnerable communities.

Hassan Naveed was recently appointed the OPHC’s executive director. He assumes the role at a pivotal time. So far in 2022, there have been 469 hate crime incidents in New York City, according to NYPD data. That’s up from 414 incidents over the same period last year. He sat down with Gothamist to discuss the work of his office and how his upbringing as a young Muslim American in the wake of 9/11 helped prepare him for the job.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Most New Yorkers probably don’t know that there is an Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes. What does it do?

We're a fairly young office. We launched in 2019 and much of the reason why we launched is because we saw an increase in hate crimes that were impacting communities throughout the city as well as the country. And so in 2019, when the City Council saw that there was an increase in hate crimes, they wanted to open up an office that was seeking to intentionally address the issue of hate crimes in the prevention way.

One of the first situations that we ended up encountering in the opening of our office was the incident that occurred in Monsey, New York, that impacted many in the Jewish community here in New York City. (A Hasidic rabbi was mortally wounded in a machete attack inside his home during Hanukkah.)

When we were coming in, it was us engaging directly with communities and community organizations in that area to figure out how we can best address the needs of the community itself. And that involved engaging with the leadership there.

Then as we saw what happened in 2020 with the course of the pandemic, we worked on the anti-Asian incidents that occurred and that really was our foray into the work that we're doing today.

And now we fund more than 50 organizations that represent the immense diversity of our city, all the way from AAPI communities to LGBTQ communities that are working on hate crime prevention, as well as response.

So you're channeling funding toward communities and organizations that are on the front lines of this work?

Absolutely. The work that New York City is doing to address hate crimes is really looking at it in a comprehensive way. We have to look at it in terms of, as the mayor says, upstream and downstream. What does prevention look like? But also what does response look like?

OPHC really focuses on community-based intervention when it comes to hate crimes and bias incidents. At the same time, we're also looking to build and strengthen relationships between law enforcement and communities that are out there so people know within New York City that you can call 911 and you can speak to someone that speaks your language, and there are resources and services available for everyone here in New York City

Is there an example of funding you've channeled to an organization that you're especially proud of, or that has sort of a tangible benefit that we could understand?

There are a lot of great projects that our office is investing in, and one of them is with the JCRC, or the Jewish Community Relations Council here in New York City. The organization runs a fellowship that brings different people together from different communities, different faiths, different genders, whatever it might be, to be able to really discuss these various issues related to hate and bias, and how we collectively from diverse communities can seek to address them.

And so I think that me engaging in seeing these fellows talking to each other, being able to come up with projects that really show unity among communities themselves and community solidarity and fighting hate has been something that's been extremely inspirational to me.

Chinatown residents protest against anti-Asian hate crimes in their community.

Additionally, we also fund the Asian American Federation in their efforts to really combat the anti-Asian crimes that have impacted so many people across this country. A lot of the folks who've been affected by the anti-Asian hate crimes have been people that are older, that are women. Knowing this as a trend itself, the organization has worked on putting together a safety ambassador program that provides an elder senior or someone who may need assistance or wants to feel safe, walking from the senior center to their subway station.

These programs are grassroots, that seek in bringing this sort of service to folks to feel comfortable and safe, I think it’s so important.

Tell me about your background. Did your upbringing give you any particular insights into the problem of hate?

I grew up in the Southern California area and I grew up in a Pakistani household, that is a Muslim Pakistani household. After 9/11, the number of hate crimes that impacted Muslim communities was really an eye opener to me. I was, I think, 15 years old at that time. I felt prior to that, that community was very invisible, being Muslim was invisible.

What I saw in my family and friends was a level of fear as we saw an increase in hate crimes against Muslim communities and that having a rippling effect in the entire consciousness of a community, how safe they feel.

Hassan Naveed.

That really was something that made me realize – coming from an immigrant household, coming from a Pakistani American family that left Pakistan for opportunities in the United States, that came here for having a future for their children, myself, that was limitless – in many ways, was something that I really wanted to work towards for every community, for all families that are immigrants, all Muslim families, and really work towards building a positive image of Muslim communities in the city as well.

Growing up, how directly did your family grapple with the problem of Islamophobia?

My family's a working-class, blue-collar family, and English is not our first language. Having parents who immigrated to this country but are also learning what it means to be a part of the larger mainstream news narrative of this country, there was a lot of fear, in my mother especially.

She wanted me to keep a low profile. She wanted me to downplay in many ways my religion, my community because she was afraid of what might happen. And that was same for my siblings as well.

But I think over time, being sort of the first generation in my family to go to college and hearing about the stories of many folks through the course of their struggles — the civil rights struggle, for example and really putting themselves out there— was very inspirational and really convincing my parents as well that, you know, we have to speak up. We have to ensure a better future.

Are we coming to understand hate – and how to deter hate – any better?

I think it's a learning process. I think that it's a process that's a multi-pronged approach, right?

At OPHC we use education as a way to really work towards hate-crime prevention, whether it's in the schools or it's communities, meeting communities and learning about each other.

And then we also look at other ways.

We look towards strengthening law enforcement and the relationship that communities have with their local precincts and their police officers, so folks feel comfortable enough and know that they can call 911, and be able to communicate an issue that they're having.

A lot of what OPHC is doing is really also coordinating the city's response to hate crimes by taking in a lot of these different city agencies. We have the NYPD, the Department of Youth and Community Development, we have this city's Commission on Human Rights, we have the mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, all these entities represent communities that are vulnerable to hate crimes or work on hate crimes. But really taking all these agencies and coordinating a comprehensive, consistent response on hate crimes and bias incidents, is something that's really bread and butter for OPHC.

There’s a left-right debate when it comes to addressing hate that basically goes, "This is a social problem. We need more mental health resources and education," versus, "This is a law and order problem. We need more cops." Is it one or the other?

It's a comprehensive process. It's a multi-pronged approach, and the office really stands itself on three pillars that really drive our work.

One is community relations, which involves us investing in communities and community organizations that seek to address hate and bias.

The second one is education. We know the importance of education, whether it's in our schools or it's us providing resources to communities on these various issues where they go to if they're a victim of a hate crime.

And then it's also us engaging with laws and law enforcement as well too. You know, just recently, we saw that there was a threat on many of the synagogues in New Jersey.

Are there certain steps that you or your family take to avoid harm, or acts of hate?

I think it's important to really have these conversations with family and friends at the dinner table and at places where we're really opening up. Because I felt growing up, it was so much more like, keep a low profile, don't get out too much and don't be too Muslim. But it wasn't really a productive sort of conversation towards making it a permissible environment to have that sort of conversation and see how we can support each other.

I think it's important for us, whether it's family or friends, to be honest about the circumstances that we’re in. And that honesty also involves us checking with each other every so often, it involves us as we're leaving a party or whatever it might be, to make sure that someone makes it home safely, by a simple text. Those sorts of things are so important and those are things that I do, too.

From the perspective of your office, is there any one thing a New Yorker can do to make this a better city?

I would encourage all New Yorkers to get out of your neighborhood, go to another neighborhood in this city, engage with community organizations in the various events that they're happening across, and learn about your neighbors. Say hello to your neighbors. We wanna build a sense of community solidarity and community cohesion, and it can begin with people at their homes.