Jennifer Gutiérrez, her bright smile exuding a palpable excitement for the future, joined a Zoom call with me from her Bushwick apartment, where she lives with her husband, her mom and her dog. After winning the Democratic primary last June to represent District 34 in the New York City Council, Gutiérrez, 35, is expected to be officially elected to the City Council this November. District 34 is a majority Democratic district that includes parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Ridgewood
Growing up in Queens as the daughter of Colombian immigrants, Gutiérrez started getting involved in her community early on. She said she realized that the issues her family faced were the same structural issues that affected so many New Yorkers. After college and after working as a community organizer, she went to work for District 34 in 2014, where she eventually became chief of staff for the expected incoming Brooklyn borough president, Antonio Reynoso.
Gutiérrez said that, for a while, she was not considering running for office. In fact, when asked about it, she would laugh and say, in Spanish, “No, how awful!” But during the last couple of years, she said she started to feel a strong impulse and responsibility to serve her community as a Council member.
This text has been edited for clarity. The interview was conducted in a mix of English and Spanish.
TS: How would you say that your upbringing influenced your interest in politics?
JG: When my dad got sick and became disabled when I was 10, my mom started to work as a domestic worker. I had to go to work with her sometimes because most of her bosses only spoke English. I translated and helped her negotiate her salary. Then, when my dad was in the hospital, when we had to beg insurance companies on the phone, I was the one talking and making those calls.
More than anything, after college and when I came back to the city to work, I started realizing that I wanted to dedicate myself to advocating for families like mine, like my parents. And that’s the work of a representative. It’s our responsibility to make sure that people who can’t access the services or resources that they deserve can gain access. I see this community as an extension of my family.
TS: You’ve been elected as the Democratic candidate for District 34 during a big progressive moment in the city. How does it feel to be a part of this wave?
JG: I feel proud, especially because most of us are Latinx women or women of color. At this particular moment, it’s looking like the city is going to elect a majority-woman City Council for the first time.
Being progressive is one thing, but values, at the end of the day, are what mean something to people, to my neighbor for example. My neighbor wants to know what my values are. The joy of it is that in District 34, we all have these same values. I think that staying centered in these values is going to drive us. Values like equity, equity in all aspects. Not just equality but equity.
The truth is that Latinos, people of color, immigrants, we’re never going to catch up because there are structural systems that keep us from getting there. I think and believe that because I’ve seen it. If we’re talking about creating a fair budget for next year, we also have to be talking about our community’s needs. This could be expanding resources to support legal services for tenants. It could be expanding the money allocated to CUNY Citizenship Now. It could be expanding resources for access to immigration lawyers. For me, the solutions are about reinvesting in our communities.
TS: I read your June op-ed “Zoning is not Community Planning,” where you wrote about housing and development. Would you say that housing is one of the biggest issues facing the district? If not, what would you say are the biggest issues facing the district?
JG: Housing is absolutely the number one issue. It’s all intersectional. If we’re thinking about whether families are feeling secure in their housing, they’re also likely feeling secure in their access to food, in their access to transportation, in their local schools . . . but we really have to think about planning as including all of that.
That was the inspiration behind that article. When we’re just talking about housing, and when we just allow real estate to do the planning for us, this is what we get. We get displacement. We get more people in shelters. The reality is that real estate is not here to serve us. It’s not here to serve people who look like us. It’s about their bottom dollar and we’ve just never been a part of that equation. So housing, for me, will continue to be the number one priority.
TS: You’ve worked in City Council for years and you are all but officially District 34’s next City Council member. What are your plans for the future?
JG: Well, in 2 years I have to run for City Council again. So, that’s the first goal — to get reelected. All I can say with certainty is that I want to focus on this work and keep serving the community. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as a City Council Member for 40 years. I want to serve in the capacity that I’m most needed.
Tasha Sandoval is a journalist studying in the Bilingual Journalism Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
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