Occupation: New York City Public Advocate
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
About Letitia James
Letitia James is the Public Advocate for the City of New York, the second highest ranking elected office in the City. As Public Advocate, she serves as a direct link between New Yorkers and their government, acts as a watchdog over City agencies, and investigates complaints about City services.
Public Advocate James made history in 2014, by becoming the first woman of color to hold citywide office in New York City. In less than two years, Letitia James has transformed the Office of the Public Advocate to deliver real results and reforms for all New Yorkers.
She has her B.A. from the CUNY’s Lehman College and her J.D. from Howard University School of Law and is a licensed attorney in New York.
HIGHER HEIGHTS: What inspired you to want to work in the political arena?
PUBLIC ADVOCATE JAMES: At Lehman College, I delved into the history of our country’s social and civil justice, and learned about the movement’s great leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan and A. Philip Randolph.
It was these men and women and their accomplishments that inspired me to continue my education and go to law school, so that I could one day improve the lives of those in my community, borough, and now city. The same way I looked up to Shirley as a little girl, I also want to inspire girls to go for the dreams and to really seem themselves in me.
HIGHER HEIGHTS: What advice do you have for Black women that want to spark change?
PUBLIC ADVOCATE JAMES: As Black women, we will always be confronted by the “-isms” of life, and in these instances, it can be difficult to speak up or to act. But always remember it was the courage and action of a Black woman who led hundreds to freedom in the Underground Railroad, and Black women were the ones who started and led the successful fight to desegregate Alabama’s bus system. It was a Black woman who broke a glass ceiling and became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Now, Black women are leading the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
We have ALWAYS been change-makers when it comes to improving our communities and changing the world, but it takes confidence, courage, and persistence. None of these women, including the women in your own lives, were able to spark change without the three, so always act with confidence, lead with courage, and be persistent with completing every goal you have.
HIGHER HEIGHTS: What do you feel is the single most pressing issue facing Black women today and why?
PUBLIC ADVOCATE JAMES: There is a severe disparity between the physical and mental health of Black women and other women. Black women are significantly more likely to die from breast cancer than white women; Black women are twice as likely as white women to suffer from cervical cancer; and our children are three times as likely as white children to die of asthma.
Some of this can be linked to stigmas and stereotypes such as the “strong black woman who can put up with anything,” but much of this disparity is linked to external factors. Black women are more likely to reside in food deserts, areas with high levels of pollution, and have less access to healthcare services or affordable health insurance.
This inequality and disparity in our physical and mental health is dire. It is, quite literally, killing us. Just as we stand up for our civil rights in all other aspects of lives, so too must we stand up for fundamental right to access to healthcare, our fundamental right to access to healthy food, and our fundament right to a clean environment.
HIGHER HEIGHTS: Tell us about a woman mentor that has helped you on your journey?
PUBLIC ADVOCATE JAMES” Shirley Chisholm is a daily inspiration to me. Shirley was a woman who never took "no" for an answer. And just as importantly, she was a principled woman who could find common ground even with people who were diametrically opposed to her. She was a deeply compassionate woman, who cared about doing what was right, not what was politically expedient. She confidently and courageously broke glass ceilings for millions of women in the United States. As a native Brooklynite, from the community that Shirley represented as the first Black woman in Congress, it is humbling to follow in her legacy and it is a privilege that I never take for granted.