Interview & Article by: Joyce Keokham
Graphics by: Ann Too
Editor: Fatima Rizwan
What do we want? Accountability. When do we want it? Now.
What are we going to do if we don’t get it? Run for office.
Representatives I find myself most interested in, and perhaps most willing to trust, come with stories channelling a homegrown and grassroots spirit. Afterall, it is everyday people who understand the challenges and interests of those in their neighborhoods best.
This is how Grace Lee, a mother of three raising her kids in Lower Manhattan, found herself running for Democratic NY State Assembly for the 65th District.
When Trump was elected in 2016, Grace left the small business she had founded to help build the progressive movement rising up against the Trump administration. Grace joined progressive movement Swing Left, and helped flip the house in 2018. A year later, when Grace learned that the land across the street from her children’s school is classified as a toxic site, she wanted to know where the accountability was.
Working with other moms from the school, Grace co-founded Children First, a parentlike coalition. Together they began staging demonstrations against developers and meeting with elected officials to demand protection for their communities. When Grace realized her representatives weren’t representing their interests, she decided to run for Assemblymember herself.
On today’s ballot, Grace Lee, is a NY State Assembly Candidate for the 65th District. Her campaign supports fully funding the public school system, strengthening Lower Manhattan’s climate resiliency, securing more funding for NYCHA families, and defunding the police.
Below is Grace’s journey to the State Assembly in her own words.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joyce Keokham: Let’s get to you know a little bit, what was your first call to community activism?
Grace Lee: My first call to community activism was when Trump was elected in 2016. I was still running my small business, a beauty company that I started, when I decided to leave the company to help build the progressive movement that was rising up against the Trump administration. I joined some of my former classmates from Columbia to work on Swing Left, a progressive organization, founded to help flip the house in 2018. With Swing Left, I was their New York Events Director. We raised $11M for democratic candidates across the country and knocked on 5 million doors to help elect the most diverse democractic house of representatives in the history of this country. It was through that that I got to experience the power of organizing, the power of individuals, the passion of ideas, to go out and make a difference in this country.
Joyce Keokham: Bridging the gap from Swing Left, what compelled you to run for assembly?
Grace Lee: In 2019 a good friend of mine called me, our kids go to school together. She asked if I heard about the parking lot across the street from the school, it was purchased by a developer. It turns out that that parking lot entered into what’s called the Brownfield Cleanup Program, a New York state led program to clean up toxic sites. Obviously the idea of a toxic site across the street from your kid’s school is alarming, so us moms in the community, our friends and I we went down to the city archives and discovered that the site was formerly the home of the largest thermometer factory in the country in the late 1800s, producing over 600,000 thermometers a year. There was a ton of mercury in the soil and no laws to protect our children from sites like this. There are over 600 elementary school students going to school across the street from the lot, as well as 4,000 residents on the other side.
My mom-friends and I co-founded a parent-like coalition, Children First and have been biting back against the developer and the state agencies, demanding accountability and transparency through this process. Together we saved hundreds of children and thousands of residents from being unnecessarily exposed to toxic chemicals. We’ve been able to demand more stringent regulations around the site. Through that process I got to meet our elected officials and saw how unwilling they were to take a proactive stance to protect our community and decided if they’re not going up to Albany to fight for our families, to fight for our community, then I’m going to go up to Albany and I’m going to get it done for us. You know, it started with activism at the federal level and then kind of organically evolved as I got involved in local issues and that’s kind of what inspired me. We really need strong leadership in the government right now. We’re facing the worst economic and public health crisis of our lifetime and we need confident, mature leaders to make sure we have everything we need to get through this crisis.
Joyce Keokham: What are some of your priorities as an Assemblywoman?
Grace Lee: My community has one of the highest concentrations of public houses in all of New York City, I’m dedicated and committed to help public housing residents. One of my top priorities outside of environmental justice is fully funding public housing. In addition, I want to ensure that we have more affordable housing supply in the district overall because right now working families are getting squeezed out of our district and we need to make sure people can stay where they live.
Another priority of mine, especially as a mother of three, is education. We know public education can be improved in New York City. The state owes billions of dollars to New York City schools and we need to get that money. Especially during this crisis, where we see that education has transformed and is really different from traditional settings. We need to make sure that all the families, all the children, have the resources they need to get through this. We need to make sure every child has a technology device, every family is equipped with internet, to continue remote learning. We also need to make sure every teacher and staff has the training they need, to be able to teach effectively.
Joyce Keokham: I did see that climate resiliency is a big policy you are pushing for, what does effective climate resiliency look like?
Grace Lee: I think it’s in two parts. One, we have to recognize it’s not just mitigation, it’s adaptation. We are seeing rising sea levels and that is a huge threat for lower manhattan. Lower Manhattan was one of the most affected areas during Superstorm Sandy seven years ago. We need to make sure we have proper seawall in place to protect our community for the next storm. Outside of that, we also need to continue to work towards diminishing our reliance on fossil fuels. That means continuing to invest in public transportation and mass transit, encouraging the use of public transportation as much as possible and investing in infrastructure to make that easier for people. I think we also need to look into taking more cars off the road as well.
Joyce Keokham: With the current social climate with the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, what is your standing on defunding the police?
Grace Lee: First of all, I think this is a long time coming. I believe that Black Lives Matter and I support the protesters who have been out on the streets calling for real change. I recognize that and am very inspired by everything that has happened and how this movement has grown during this time. I have watched how the NYPD has been militarized against peaceful protesters, denying them their right to protest, and denying them their constitutional right to freedom of speech and that is unaccepted. I believe we should defund the NYPD and reallocate funds to communities of color who have been most affected by over policing in their communities. Police officers are not mental health workers, they are not social workers, they are not education experts and they should not service them. We need to reallocate funds to ensure that schools and other social service agencies have the resources they need to be able to adequately address the issues our communities are facing.
Joyce Keokham: Any last words?
Grace Lee: I really enjoyed talking about my journey to running for a political office. It wasn’t one I always had in mind, it wasn’t my dream to run for office, it was something that came out of the current political climate and this desire to really make a difference in my community and so that I think that for people who are watching you never know where your path will take you and I think that’s kind of the amazing thing about life. I’ve been able to have a really robust career and run my own company, but now I have a really incredible opportunity to represent the people in my community. It’s really exciting for me and I hope that inspires other people watching to do the same thing: to take risks and to stand up for what you believe in. I feel incredibly lucky also to have three really amazing young daughters who I’m raising in the district. I hope I am setting a good example for them and inspiring them so that when they get older, they can believe they can also do whatever they want.
Polls are open today, Tuesday, June 23 from 6AM to 9PM. Find your polling place here.