Morrisania native Chivona Newsome is drawing from her roots in a bid for Rep. Jose E. Serrano’s soon-to-be vacated seat
In the heart of the South Bronx, Chivona Newsome has grown from just another kid on the block to a Congressional hopeful. The community organizer is a political newcomer who is centering her campaign on the economic development of her home borough, with an emphasis on raising incomes for working people, affordable housing, and a green economy.
If elected to New York’s 15th Congressional district, Newsome would be taking over a seat that has been held by Rep. José E. Serrano since 1990, who is retiring. Experienced candidates who have announced so far in the crowded field include State Sen. Michael Blake, City Council members Richie Torres, and Ydanis Rodriguez, and former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, among others. In that company, the Morrisania native stands out as a political outsider. She says she will finance her campaign with contributions “from individuals and non corporate PACs.”
Newsome, 34, graduated from Franz Siegel, Roberto Clemente and Dewitt Clinton, and is best known to many as the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York.
She agreed to sit down for an interview at Papa Juan’s Cigar Room to talk about her South Bronx roots, her life in activism, and her stance on issues affecting her fellow Bronxites. The following is an abridged version of that conversation.
RG: Where did you grow up, and how does that inform your campaign for NY-15?
CN: I was born and raised in NY-15. My campaign is informed by my life experience. I understand the struggles of the district. I understand going to public school in the district. I understand “asthma alley.” The Bronx has the highest asthma rates in the city and state. I understand the need for an influx of resources in The Bronx. I grew up below the poverty line. I understand the immediate needs of the community because I’ve lived them.
RG: You’re a Congressional candidate, cofounder of Black Lives Matter NY, and a former financial advisor. What other hats do you wear?
CN: I’m [an] auntie; I’m a daughter; I’m a pet owner; and I’m a human being. So I care about a lot of causes. I’ve been on the ground for things like rent stabilization, stopping the bans on abortion for women’s reproductive rights, immigration, and stopping human sex trafficking.
RG: It’s January 21, 2021. What’s your first project?
CN: The first thing on my list is sponsoring a Universal Basic Income because with automation coming and with the median income being roughly 25,000 in NY-15, we need that influx of capital. I am one of the co-founders and organizers of the march on October 21st for UBI, where we’ll be marching from Harlem into The Bronx, districts that absolutely need, NY-13 and NY-15.
RG: How do you define the climate challenge before us, and where does The Bronx fit into the picture?
CN: What people don’t know is that climate injustice is a Black and brown issue. Low-income and people of color face the worst environmental challenges. The Bronx is home to “Asthma Alley,” where most people have respiratory problems because of the waste and bus depots. But what I want to bring to The Bronx is green jobs, because people of color and low-income people are having a hard time focusing on environmental justice when their basic [financial] needs aren’t met.
RG: What does ‘immigration reform’ mean to you and how do you move forward?
CN: Immigration reform means creating a clear path to citizenship. There are 11 million undocumented people living in the United States and we need to do something about that. Trump has turned immigration into a race war. It’s about discrimination. We need to cancel this entire system of enforcement agencies that target immigrants, because if we abolish I.C.E., another acronym will come along, and it may be worse than I.C.E. There are many people living here in fear, every time they see I.C.E. raids. I don’t want people to live in fear in America. We welcome immigrants–this is what our country was built upon.
RG: The housing crisis we’re facing in New York is similar to that facing communities across the nation. How will you rise to the challenge?
CN: We need to create affordable housing. I do not accept money from real estate people because I can’t sell out my fellow Bronxites. Our politicians have sold us out. If most campaign contributions come from real estate boards, of course there will be no affordable housing, and there will be gentrification. But I believe in revitalizing The Bronx–I want cleaner streets and greener air for our community, but I don’t think we need to price out our residents.
RG: What is another community challenge that we haven’t discussed, and what are your plans to address it?
CN: It ties into everything I’ve said–economic development. I want to ‘green-light’ The Bronx. We refer to corporations in a bad sense, but if Bronxites received jobs with full healthcare from corporations, it would change our whole dynamic. If people had better jobs, they would be able to afford better, stable housing, and their tax dollars would fund a better school system. Right now, The Bronx is at half of the national median income, so we need economic development.
Correction: New York will hold its Democratic primary election for NY-15 on June 23, 2020, not in April, as stated in a prior version of this article. The general election will follow on November 3, 2020.
The New York State Board of Elections publishes election information and voter resources online.
Editor’s Note: Prior to becoming a journalist, Roman Gressier took part in several public demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter Greater New York. That said, this interview was the first time that Newsome and Gressier met.