Haitian-Born Educator Rita Joseph Wins District 40 Council Seat, Promises Shift to the Left

“Being a Black immigrant woman, and a Black mother specifically, has shaped my worldview and my legislative priorities significantly,” says Joseph, whose district spans parts of Crown Heights, Flatbush, East Flatbush, Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.

Theodore Hamm Jul 13, 2021

Like many city council races in the recent primary, the campaign to succeed Mathieu Eugene in greater Flatbush garnered little attention from mainstream local media. But the candidate endorsed by the Haitian Times, Rita Joseph, easily defeated rivals including Josue Pierre, who was backed by Brooklyn’s Democratic Party boss Rodneyse Hermelyn Bichotte; and NYPD whistleblower Edwin Raymond, who is also Haitian-American.

“I will never forget the anger and fear I felt when I saw my son was handcuffed for driving a car registered in my name, a name we share.” 

Unlike Eugene, Joseph, an educator and community activist, is a committed progressive, who campaigned with support from Zephyr Teachout, 1199SEIU, and Make the Road Action. Joseph was born in Port-au-Prince to a father from Saint-Raphaël (in the north of Haiti) and a mother from Pétion-Ville in the capital. Joseph grew up in the Ditmas Park section of Flatbush as well as a bit further north, near Flatbush Avenue. She is currently the ESL coordinator at P.S. 6 in Flatbush.

Joseph’s victory in the primary is in many ways the definition of a grassroots success. Here are some reflections she shared with The Indy.

The Indypendent: Tell us about your campaign. How did your deep roots in the area help you?

Rita Joseph: When we began the campaign, I was fortunate to have a higher name ID than most first-time candidates because of my long history of activism and community involvement in Flatbush. That work goes back to when I was 19-years-old, when I organized a rally with a group I founded, Haitian Enforcement Against Racism. We protested the FDA’s discriminatory “bad blood” rules that prevented people of Haitian descent from donating blood.

Our election campaign was centered around coalition building. Our coalition consisted of union members, working people, retired folks, young people, students, immigrants, and native-born citizens, and progressives. My team and I campaigned throughout the district, meeting people where they were and engaging them in the democratic process. Ultimately, I believe we were victorious because people were excited by the prospect of being represented by a regular person who has lived and understands their struggles. Our campaign knew that our path to victory was reliant upon our hustle, as we didn’t benefit from the insider political support that some of our opponents had. My team and I worked our butts off during the campaign, and we intend to do the same thing once I’m sworn into office. After all, that’s when the work really matters.

Your website expresses clear support for Defund and police reform. Did you get much pushback from people in your district? 

While campaigning, I built my platform around the community’s priorities. People throughout Central Brooklyn told me time and time again that they were concerned about public safety, especially as it pertained to people of color. I myself am really focused on public safety, especially gun violence, as it’s impacted my life directly. I’ve lost friends and neighbors to gun violence, and last summer, my car was shot by stray bullets.

But as a teacher, I’m a data-driven person, and the data clearly shows us that more police do not necessarily result in safer communities. What will lead to safer neighborhoods is improving our public schools and hospitals, upgrading mental health services, investing in green infrastructure to create jobs, and bettering CUNY. People from all walks of life recognize the urgent need to reinvest money away from the NYPD directly into our communities.

What would you say are the main issues facing the city’s Haitian residents right now—and how are they similar to what other communities face? 

In many respects, the Haitian community is facing similar issues similar to other immigrant communities in NYC. We are struggling with the economic recovery from COVID. District 40, a heavily Haitian community, has been hit hard by COVID-19. In my majority-Black and heavily immigrant ZIP code alone (11226), nearly 400 people have died from COVID. One out of every 12 people in this neighborhood was diagnosed with COVID-19. Through no fault of their own, many in my district have lost hours or even their jobs during this pandemic.

Joseph insists that investing in public schools, hospitals and other institutions that serve working class people is more likely to keep a community safe than putting more police on the streets.

There’s a lot to be done, but I’m optimistic about our community’s recovery if we work with a commitment to find real, bold solutions. NYC has survived the Great Depression, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and blackouts. I’m confident we will leave this situation stronger than we began. 

On a personal note, as a Black working-class immigrant, I know all too well how much COVID-19 has hurt marginalized communities like District 40 and people who look like me more broadly. I have had friends and family die at the hands of this virus and I am fully committed to ensuring that communities that look like mine are able to recover from this pandemic to the fullest extent possible.

Listen to Rita Joseph speak with us on WBAI 99.5 FM about the assassination of Jovenel Moise and the crisis in Haiti as well as more on her campaign.

You’ll be joining a majority female city council. Does that have special meaning to you and your four sons? 

A majority female City Council is a game-changer. For too long, women have not had a seat at the table when making decisions that directly impact us, and now, that’s going to change.

I’m particularly excited about the number of women of color that will be in the council. Being a Black immigrant woman, and a Black mother specifically, has shaped my worldview and my legislative priorities significantly, and I know that my experiences will be shared by many of my peers in the Council. I will never forget the anger and fear I felt when I saw my son was handcuffed for driving a car registered in my name, a name we share. I wouldn’t be surprised if my future coworkers have witnessed similar things in their lives. Both women and people of color have been marginalized for centuries. The only way we can end this trend is if we are placed in positions of leadership, and it looks like that will happen when we are sworn in 2022.

Representation matters, and I couldn’t be more excited to work with a diverse, progressive Council in the years to come.

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