Advancing the Gender Equity Agenda Locally and Globally: A Conversation with Jacqueline M. Ebanks, Executive Director of NYC CGE

By Meg Pierce, Policy and Communications Advisor, Mayor’s Office for International Affairs

March is Women’s History Month, and also marks the official convening period of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Today’s article is part of a special CSW series from GlobalNYC. Throughout the month of March, articles will highlight efforts by local and international communities to address issues of gender equity.

Jacqueline M. Ebanks, Executive Director of NYC CGE

New York City is committed to reducing gender-based discrimination and promoting gender equity. In June 2015, Mayor de Blasio established the Commission on Gender Equity (CGE) to address issues of inequity and discrimination facing girls, women, and transgender and gender non-binary persons regardless of ability, age, ethnicity/race, faith, gender expression, immigrant status, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

To put NYC’s gender equity priorities in focus, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs recently spoke with Jacqueline M. Ebanks, Executive Director of CGE. An innovative manager and policy maker with extensive experience in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, Ms. Ebanks has worked for over 30 years to promote economic and social justice for women, girls and marginalized communities. 
In the following interview, Ms. Ebanks reflects on the work of CGE and the status of women in NYC and the world, underscoring the important role international and local actors play in advancing the gender equity agenda.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Please describe your background. Why have you devoted your career to advancing gender equity?

JME: In the late 1980s, I began my career at citywide and community-based service organizations. From 2014 to 2017, I served as the Executive Director of the Women’s City Club of New York, where I guided the civic-engagement organization into its second century of activism. I also served as the Vice President of Programs at The New York Women’s Foundation and worked at Citigroup as their Vice President & Director of U.S. Partnerships and Program Development for their Global Community Relations Division, and then as their Regional Community Relations Director for the Northeast and Puerto Rico. Before that, I served as the Vice President for Community Investment at the United Way of New York City.

My career has been about equity, focused on contributing to the wellbeing of others. I’ve always been focused on advancing racial, gender, and economic justice. It stems from how I was raised: my family laid a foundation of caring, community, and togetherness.

Additionally, I was raised in Jamaica, West Indies, a country where, at the time of my upbringing, there was a focus on doing good and being of service to others. This background built my foundation of equity, and as I advanced in my career, I began to recognize the systems that interrupted equity. I therefore devoted myself to disrupting these systems, as an advocate, a grantmaker, and now as a government leader.
Please explain the work of CGE and its context within NYC.

JME: The Commission for Gender Equity’s work is multifold. As an entity, it studies the nature, extent, and impact of inequities facing women, girls and transgender and gender non-binary (TGNB) individuals in the City. It also advises on the function and composition of city agencies through a gender-based lens, and makes recommendations to the Mayor and City Council for the reduction of gender based inequality.

The importance of CGE is underscored by its name. CGE had predecessor organizations, first the Commission on the Status of Women and then the Commission on Women’s Issues. Now, it’s the Commission on Gender Equity. Mayor de Blasio changed our name to acknowledge the diversity of gender, making CGE’s role and function more contemporary and inclusive. CGE acknowledges a wider gender experience, and anchors this inclusivity within a formal city system. This marks a significant shift for NYC, a new framing. As a city, we are standing up and saying that we want everyone to prosper, and that we want everyone to benefit from the resources the city offers, regardless of gender identity, gender expression, or background. 
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing women, girls and TGNB individuals in NYC? Why it is important for local leaders to take action?

JME: It is important to recognize that we are dealing with systemic issues. The problems have been institutionalized within structural racism and sexism. These issues are present across our city, country and globe.

We can talk about addressing things like pay equity in New York, but without considering interconnected issues like safety, health, and a lack of leadership opportunities, nothing will change. There is no single response to the challenges women, girls, and TGNB individuals face in NYC. And equity is not something that’s achieved at one point in time. In fact, it requires significant time and constant vigilance to ensure that gains are not lost.

In my opinion, government is the best entity in a democratic society to create change. Government is a place where rules are made, where systemic change can be brought about. To achieve this, government should be reflective of the people it serves. The de Blasio administration, which is wholeheartedly committed to equity, has made this a priority — our city leaders are extremely diverse — 55% of our Commissioners and agency heads identify as women and/or people of color.
More broadly, what do you believe is the greatest challenge facing women, girls and TGNB individuals globally? What is the role of international actors in affecting this issue?

JME: The pace of change is possibly the greatest challenge. The pace of change has been glacial for women and persons of color. And, we can no longer doubt the urgency of this moment.

International actors play a tremendous role in advocating for gender equity, and I’m glad to be part of a city that sees itself as part of the global community. Our city is part of a dynamic global space, particularly because we host the United Nations and have a diverse international population. I’m grateful to the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs for opening doors to the global community — we have a lot to learn by bridging local and global perspectives.

I hope to continue making CGE more a part of the global dialogue on gender equity, as we have best practices to share. For example, CGE, the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, and the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence led NYC’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign at the end of last year. It’s an annual global campaign that runs from November 25 (International Day to End Violence against Women) through December 10 (International Human Rights Day).

In NYC, we participate in the campaign to raise awareness about the far-reaching consequences of gender-based violence, and to mobilize all sectors — government, community, corporate, and philanthropic groups — to develop strategies to eliminate gender-based violence.
What aspect of CGE’s work are you most proud of?

JME: I’m proudest of CGE’s strategic plan, which delivers to the city an actionable plan to advance gender equity. The plan focuses on economic mobility and opportunity, health and reproductive justice, and safety. It’s a plan built on inclusion and intersectionality, and relies on inter-agency partnerships across the City.

I believe the plan speaks to the concreteness of our work, as well as our attempts to create systemic change from within city government. Change starts locally, and that local change informs and influences a broader global agenda.