Speaking Out: Diverse Black Male Voices of City Hall
In the spring of 2016, then-mayoral photographer Demetrius Freeman explored the importance of diversity in the workplace, as well as its challenges. Driven by a desire to document lived experiences of men of color, his subjects discussed the need for inclusion, a strong work ethic and the ability to overcome racial stereotypes. Though their ranks have grown in the past year, the distinguished men featured in this Black History Month series are unique in their personalities, upbringing, accomplishments and ambitions — enriching the City of New York as valued members of the Mayor de Blasio administration.
When people come to City Hall, or when they are standing outside protesting on the steps, they need to see that City government isn’t a distant and damaging force. They need to see women, people of color, and immigrants. You can’t begin to have the trust it takes to run a City unless people see themselves running the City. — Deputy Mayor Richard Buery
Demetrius Thornton was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama.
He loves CrossFit, writing, meditation, and cooking.
Who is your role model and why? I don’t have role models, just folks I admire. I have great appreciation for my mom who shows me unconditional love consistently. I also have a deep admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte for their boldness and humanity.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? Of course, as a kid from Alabama. In every decade of my life (I have just reached my 30s), I have encountered some obstacles related to racial bias. I have not had to handle it; life has done that for me. In other words, I constantly work to release any negativity associated with racial obstacles. This practice started in my mid-to-late twenties as I was carrying too much baggage about things that were simply out of my control. Perception is hard to quantify. Now I define and work towards excellence. Most times I am vindicated and elevated beyond the obstacles or people who tried to block me, and then I grab a hand to share my experience so others are aware.
This racial bias cycle usually happens every 3 to 4 years in my professional career. I try not to stay in a perpetual cycle of lack because of the obstacles, but rather an appreciation for my experience to devise solutions for a very real and complex problem.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Be more aggressive, more curious, and speak up; the quiver in your voice is truth trying to escape your mouth and you know it. Being good or politically correct does not automatically mean promotion or elevation in life or your career. Let it rip!
Quintin Haynes was born in Rockledge, Florida.
On a day off, he loves to travel.
Who is your role model and why? Barack Obama, because of his temperament and ambition.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Leaders are not responsible for the results. Leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Be patient — to whom much is given, much is required.
Chris Durosinmi is from Brownsville, Brooklyn — what he calls the best place in the world.
He spends his free time reading, working on community projects or assisting neighbors with particular issues.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? It is an exciting feeling to be a part of a progressive, ambitious administration that brings government directly to the people (Pre-K for example); something I believe changes the game for many residents in communities who may have not had the best experience receiving services from the city in the past.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? I wouldn’t quite say obstacles, however I do note there have been many settings where I would be the only person of color in the room, and, as such, felt the pressure of having to work twice, if not three times as hard to prove that I am equal, if not better than anyone else. Additionally, this is highlighted in other situations where I may not be the only person of color, but because I come from a NYCHA development from Brownsville, I would be treated a certain way. I dealt with it by doing what I do best, which is prove why I am one of the best in the business; working hard, staying humble, presenting new ideas, being an effective team player and managing any crises that may arise in an effective manner.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Work smarter, not harder.
Christopher Collins-McNeil is from Westchester County, New York.
You can find him at Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street or at the pool with an Atlantic article on his day off.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Policy, procedure and politics. Learn to work change from the inside.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? It means being a part of an administration with a proven history of being dedicated to providing equity across the entire city. It means being a part of groundbreaking legislative decisions that can literally affect the lives of 8.5 million people. It’s truly humbling.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? I’ve mostly experienced the everyday micro-aggressions that most folks of color experience, but how I learned to deal with it has been through the necessity of self-care. For so many Black people, we are taught to be strong, to move on, or to pray it away, but often times we need to take the time for ourselves, for our emotional and mental health. That’s how we win, that’s how we truly can “learn to deal with it” by taking something negative and using it to make us stronger, healthier, and safer.
Henry Greenidge is from Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
He loves searching for rare vinyl records at flea markets and record shops.
Who is your role model and why? My father is my role model. My father is a Vietnam veteran who immigrated to the U.S. from Barbados. When I was young, he left his corporate job and followed his dream of becoming a full-time artist. One of the most influential pieces of advice he gave me was to follow your passion, and did so through example.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? Mayor de Blasio has taken a major step forward for our city by including equity as the guiding principle in the work that we do. To me, equity includes equality, fairness, and justice. This type of goal setting is not only bold and ambitious — but, it is the right thing to do. Being part of this administration means you are a part of a team that is dedicated to perhaps the best aspect of public of service — a steadfast commitment to the people whom we serve.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? I would explain the virtue of patience and the importance of timing. With this in mind, I would emphasize the importance of recognizing your moment and seizing it!
Eric Garvin grew up all around the United States, but lived in Maryland the longest.
He enjoys road trips to the Mid-Atlantic or hanging out on Staten Island enjoying a slice of Sicilian style grandma pizza from Giuseppe's.
Who is your role model and why? I don’t really have one but I do admire Thurgood Marshall for his tenacity and commitment to justice.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? As a law graduate, I’ve grappled with the reality that law is one of the least diverse professions in the nation, which I believe has implications for the justice system. I’m dealing with it by educating myself and others about the existence of the problem and thinking of adjustments that could be made by legal institutions to improve the situation.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? I’d tell myself not to let the perfect opportunity be the enemy of a good opportunity.
Charlemagne Tiendrebeogo is from Ouagadougou, the capital City of Burkina Faso in West Africa.
On a day off, he can be found enjoying time with his family. Whenever there is a long weekend, he doesn’t hesitate to run to the Pocono Pines in Pennsylvania to spend precious time with his family.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? If you use your hands, you will receive orders; but if you use your brain you will give orders. From my very good friend Ralph Lusich who passed away years ago.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? It means a lot to me. From being an immigrant from Africa and facing many challenges, and to become a city employee has to be a favor from this administration.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Boy, you are lucky. Whom are you thankful to?
Jordan Stockdale grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.
On a day off he loves listening to live music and playing basketball.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Cut your mohawk and go apply to teach in NYC. And apply to Princeton — you can get in.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? I have dealt with the pressures of stereotypes — commonly known as “stereotype threat.” I reduced its potential impact by reading a ton of biographies, practicing mindfulness, and taking time to appreciate my accomplishments.
Why is diversity important? Acculturation created the U.S.’s cultural capital, which can be seen and heard around the world. For example, jazz is the mixture of African rhythms and European instruments. It is through acculturation that new ideas are fostered and progress is made. Moreover, without diverse thinkers — in both background and knowledge-base — it’s nearly impossible to create a space where equity can thrive.
Dominic Williams is from East Flatbush, a predominantly West Indian neighborhood in central Brooklyn.
On a day off, he tries to spend free time finding new things and new places in the city, while never straying too far from his cell phones.
Who is your role model and why? My parents, who worked hard to make a better world for themselves and their family with humility, honor, and industriousness.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? I have had lots of experiences in life that have made me acutely aware of my race and difference. You realize that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard, and always act with recognition of the fact that your actions reflect on all who look like you, and that people may always judge you on the basis of others.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Harbor no doubts about your values and follow them wherever they guide you.
Brandon Joseph is from East New York, Brooklyn.
On a day off, you can find him sleeping somewhere or setting aside some time to unwind after a busy day.
Who is your role model and why? Aside from family members — Barack Obama. The energy surrounding his 2008 campaign inspired me (and many others, I’m sure) to get involved in public service.
Why is diversity important? I think that there’s real value in interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. Part of what makes New York a great city is its unique blend of people with different life experiences. You can learn a lot from those who don’t think the same way you do.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Don’t be afraid to try something new. The worst that could happen probably won’t happen, but, if it does, you’ll get over it.
Lance Willis is a Brooklyn boy, born and raised. While he’s done his share of travels, he always comes home to Brooklyn.
In his spare time, you can find Lance spending quality time with his girlfriend and her son. He can also be found on his personal stoop (known on the block as Club Lance) chatting with neighbors, with NPR playing in the background.
Who is your role model and why? Malcolm X. To this day, his career is steeped in controversy. Yet, at the heart of it all, Malcolm was a community organizer who taught the importance and value of loving and respecting one’s self, first and foremost, and the value of supporting the economic and cultural development of your neighborhood. His story, in no small part, crystallized my nonprofit to city government career trajectory.
Grandma Pauline — to say growing up a black woman in South Carolina in the first half of the 1900’s, and raising 2 daughters as a single parent was tough would be an incredible understatement. And when she couldn’t find work to support her family, she rode the rails, by herself, by boxcar. (Along with goods and livestock, because black people weren’t allowed to ride in passenger cars in the 40’s.) Arriving in Brooklyn, and eventually obtaining work cooking meals in the children’s ward of a local hospital, my grandmother regularly sent money back to her mother, who helped raise mom and Aunt Charlotte. I like to believe I share her sense of determination.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? I absolutely have … In those moments, Grandma Pauline’s determination kicks in … No matter the obstacle in my path, I won’t let it stop me from achieving my goals.
Why is diversity important? In life, having the opportunity to interact with different people, from different backgrounds is a gift. If you open yourself up to receive that gift, it not only enriches you, but it also furthers your development — personally, professionally, and positively.
Marco A. Carrión is a proud Puerto Rican from the Bronx.
On a day off you can find him somewhere wandering this city that he never gets tired of exploring.
Who is your role model and why? My parents. My dad was a public school teacher (just retired) and mother (stay at home mom and housing/education activist). They instilled in me a sense of justice, commitment to service, to stand up to bullies and to love people.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Never lose sight of the end goal and you learn from every experience.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? It means that we are part of an incredibly dynamic, progressive NYC government experiment, the likes of which have not been seen in over 70 years — and one that engages New Yorkers in never-before-seen ways.
Antwone Roberts is from Newark, New Jersey.
On a day off you can find him in Harlem, playing basketball at Rucker Park, behind the lens of a camera, or walking his pit bull.
Who is your role model and why? My mom. She lost her mom at 14 and had me at 19. She basically raised herself, her younger sister, and me, never made excuses, just kicked down doors and made things happen.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? It means a great deal to be a part of an administration committed to diversity and equity for all New Yorkers. I take pride in knowing that the work we do improves the lives of others.
Why is diversity important? Diversity is important because representation matters. For our constituents, it matters that people who look like them are employed here. It matters because we know that our policies are not just for Manhattan, they’re for all of NYC.
Desai Baptiste was born in Trinidad and came to New York City at the age of 10.
On a day off you can find him hanging out with friends and family and enjoying New York City as a whole.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? Despite some of the negative reactions to the de Blasio Administration, I really feel that he has done a lot for NYC. Growing up on the opposite end of the park from him in Prospect Park SW, I have been the victim of stop and frisk, and appreciated him ending this bias tactic. So it is really an honor to be a part of his administration.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? Yes, but you will have a better chance getting someone to believe in UFO’s. I just shrug it off and go around or above it.
Thinking back to the start of your career, what would you tell your younger self? Life is a fight and preparation is key.
Harold Miller is from Brooklyn. Born and raised.
On a day off you can find him running around completing chores or spending time with his son at the park, movies, bowling, somewhere…
Who is your role model and why? My role model is between my grandfather, who passed away in 2004, and my uncle, because I learned about manhood from those two men the most.
What does it mean to be part of the Bill de Blasio Administration? I never considered working for an elected official, but Mayor de Blasio has an administration that is doing ‘movement’ work. As a person that worked on progressive causes and on behalf of low income families for the last 15 years, this administration has done some great to improve the lives of low and moderate income New Yorkers, and something that I am proud to be a part of.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? Being a Black man in America, racism will always exist in my career and life. Constantly overcoming stereotypes of subject matter expertise at work, and feeling obligated to think about and speak out for the interest of African-Americans and other people of African descent.
Achmat Akkad was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida with life-changing experiences in Memphis, Tennessee.
On a day off, you can find him being a foodie or a community activist in the South Bronx, fighting for more green space and development without gentrification and ethnic displacement.
Who is your role model and why? I have been inspired by the work and lives of countless civil rights icons. Huey Newton, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin are among my favorite. As far as role models, it’s impossible to credit a singular person to my success as it belongs to the entire community that raised me. The 13-year-old single mother that raised me, my widowed grandmother that worked 2 jobs my entire childhood and walked to both jobs, the neighbors that watched me because my family was too poor to afford daycare and the teachers that believed in me. Each and every one in my community is a role model.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Your Blackness is a gift, not a limitation.
Have you ever encountered any racial obstacles in your career/life? If so, how did you deal with it? I am a Black male with a Muslim name living in New York City. I am also LGBTQ, a veteran and Shiite. Discrimination is inevitable. I have accepted that life for me will be difficult. I alone can’t abolish the system that creates these injustices, however I can control how I respond to them. Their ignorance forces me to work harder. As Michelle Obama stated at the DNC convention “When they go low we go high!” Every apartment I was denied, every job I was turned down for, every slur I’ve been called has all molded me into the beautiful Black man I am today. Their ignorance makes me stronger.