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Alphonso David, Chief Counsel for NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, shares his experience of living through a military coup in Liberia when he was ten years old, and his subsequent experience of moving to the United States and being taunted and bullied by his peers. Discover how Alphonso found the courage to be true to himself and become an attorney fighting for LGBTQ rights. He also discusses the work he has done as Chief Counsel, including being instrumental in helping to get the Marriage Equality Act passed in 2011, and shares his thoughts on the current political environment and what activists need to do to create positive social change.
In this episode, you’ll discover:
- Alphonso’s experience of needing to flee Liberia as a child and what he learned from it (3:50)
- The difference between how men and women respond to crises (6:05)
- Alphonso’s diversity story of being the “other” after moving to the U.S. (11:51)
- How Alphonso found the core of his own identity (13:55)
- The Supreme Court decision that was a turning point for Alphonso’s career (22:00)
- The percentage of workers who remain closeted in the workplace (28:11)
- Why many LGBTQ employees are living in a state of fear (28:50)
- Alphonso’s experience of working on The Marriage Equality Act in New York State (32:00)
- A key emotion that is driving national and local policy (38:40)
- The real cause of job loss in the United States (42:08)
- Two investments that New York is making to boost their economy (44:50)
- The importance of infrastructure in attracting top talent (47:50)
- An important mindset shift for social change advocates (50:55)
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Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.
My guest today is Alphonso David. Alphonso currently serves as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief legal counsel and has been referred to by the Village Voice as, “The third most powerful man in New York City.” He’s also known for having led the successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in New York in 2011. He is a law school professor at Cardozo School of Law.
Alphonso, welcome to The Will to Change.
ALPHONSO DAVID: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m happy that you’re here. We’ve been friends for many years, and I have admired the work that you have done and kept tabs on your every move and all that you do to help New Yorkers and all kinds of people of difference. We’ll get into that a little bit later.
I don’t think a lot of people know your story of origin. The first time you told me, it struck me. It’s so dramatic. I’d like you take us back to those days under the age of ten. You were living a privileged life in Liberia in a certain kind of family with a certain status. Everything changed when you were ten. Take us back to life pre-change, what happened, and what happened next, if you would.
ALPHONSO DAVID: Sure. I grew up in Liberia, West Africa, as you noted. I was born in the United States, but moved to Liberia when I was one year old. I ended up spending approximately 12 or 13 years in Liberia.
My family are—or were, depending on your perspective—politicians. My uncle was the President of Liberia, and my father ran and became the first mayor of Monrovia, which is the capital city of Liberia.
Your point is well taken. I did have a fairly privileged existence, something akin to an aristocracy.
Liberia is not unique in that many other developing countries have a caste system, if you will, where there are the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your experience, I had an opportunity to participate in the “haves” and had many things that others could not have access to.
As a kid, I didn’t fully appreciate the value of things, material things, until the military coups. That occurred in April of 1980, and we lost everything. My father was incarcerated simply for serving as the mayor of Monrovia, my uncle was assassinated, and we lived under house arrest for several years.
I think that experience was formative for many reasons, but when you think about the value of money and the concept of liberty, it crystallized for me during that experience. As a ten-year-old kid, I experienced watching every type of atrocity you could see during a war, from people getting murdered in front of you to women getting raped. You appreciate how volatile the concept of democracy is, how important it is, and how fragile it is.
I went from living in a democracy to living in a dictatorship. I had to really come to grips with that as a very young kid to understand, “What does this really mean? Why is it that I can’t leave the house? What do you mean I can’t go to school? And why is it that there are no men in the house?” All of the men had been either assassinated or incarcerated.
I was surrounded by women for several years. Understanding racial politics, understanding gender politics, understanding class politics was critical for me in the very beginning of my life.
JENNIFER BROWN: You mentioned you learned some really important differences between men and women, broadly writ, in those years, spending so much time around women and watching how they deal with adversity and crises. Can you say a little bit about what that was and how it informed your understanding?
ALPHONSO DAVID: I characterized the responses that I saw from many women around me as nothing more or less than formidable—just incredible how they managed those circumstances. Their husbands had either been incarcerated or assassinated and they had children. They had to protect their cubs. They protected us with such fierce determination that I got to really respect how women respond in moments of crisis in a way that I think men may respond differently.
I think part of it may be cultural. I don’t want to suggest that it’s genetic, but I certainly will say that it’s cultural. Women respond to crises in very different ways than men do, and I think they bring a very different skill set and appreciation for how to resolve crises in a way that men don’t.
Men certainly can and do address crises every day, but I think they resolve those crises in very different strategic ways than women do. Going through the war and going through house arrest and seeing what I saw, I got to see how women respond to those crises in a way that I appreciate now in the workplace where I have a very diverse staff. I’ve worked in government for a number of years, but I’ve also had the opportunity to work in the private sector and work in the not-for-profit world.
Not to over characterize, but I’ve seen some of the distinctions and nuances in how men and women respond to crises in different ways, and how you can value those responses in a way that makes you either a better manager or a better employer.
JENNIFER BROWN: I have to ask: Women were the loudest voice in the last couple of months in obvious ways with the march and everything. Was all of that reminiscent of those early impressions of the differences in the ways the genders handle conflict? Was there anything that felt very familiar or even expected for you?
ALPHONSO DAVID: Yes. I think there were some moments during the past few months that resonated with me. You saw this movement with the march—we’ll just call it the women’s march—that was incredibly organic. Within a few days, we realized that there was a movement throughout this country where women were strategically organized to send a very strong message that they’re here and that they will protect their rights in every way possible.
For me, it was reflective of what I’ve seen throughout my life, but particularly during the war. Women mobilized in a way and responded to a moment of crisis in a way that men may have responded differently. I don’t want to focus too much on those distinctions, but to anyone who pays attention to how a room full of men and a room full of women respond to crises, they’ll see that there are significant differences.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. We need to understand more about those and have room for both distinct styles in leadership in the future.
What happened next? You fled the country and landed in Baltimore. As an African kid, what was it like parachuting into American culture at that point? How were you treated? What were your first observations about American culture?
ALPHONSO DAVID: Cold. Cold. Very cold. As a kid, I had an opportunity to travel to Germany. My father had a business trip and took the family. We went to Munich, and that was the first time I saw snow, which is great.
But then moving to the United States, formally moving back for me, but as a kid I didn’t have any memory of the U.S. I think we moved in December or January, and I remember it being incredibly cold.
We landed in Westchester County, White Plains specifically, where we stayed with my great aunt, who was the first lady at the time. We stayed with her for a few months I believe, and then we ended up in Baltimore, Maryland.
I went to school. My parents were very concerned about us leaving and going to school simply because they were afraid we would get kidnapped or attacked in some way. It was an eye-opening experience because I realized for the first time that there was a lack of awareness about the continent of Africa, about the distinctions between countries, about not only cultural, but linguistic changes or differences.
I was attacked in middle school by African-American kids, white kids, every stripe you could think of, looking for my tail. They said, “You’re from Africa; where’s your tail?” Now, this is in the mid ’80s. I was shocked when it first happened. Then it happened again and again, and I realized they knew very little about the continent itself, and certainly knew very little about my culture. They were looking for my tail because they thought I was nothing more than a monkey, and if you’re from Africa, you must have a tail, and you don’t understand how to speak English, you don’t understand anything about science, you don’t understand anything about math, philosophy, or anything else.
It was this really bizarre experience of interacting and interfacing with people who saw you as “the other.” Every single face saw you as “the other” and saw you as the alien. I had to come to grips with that very quickly to recognize that you have to appreciate and understand your true capacity. In life, you will be placed in circumstances or you will be placed in an environment where you will be challenged, your entire core will be challenged, and you have to understand and appreciate your capacity in order to get through it in one piece.
As a 13- or 14-year-old kid, I had to understand that concept. I certainly brought it with me from the war, but I had to understand it now in a different construct and push through what appeared to be nothing more than indifference. I was able to do that, but not without a fair amount of agita.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, for sure. What gave you the strength to push through that? Did you draw on the reserves in yourself to put that in its proper place, not let it take you down, and actually build character?
ALPHONSO DAVID: I think a lot of that tenacity came from my parents. My father and mother were very, very proud Africans—proud of their heritage, proud of where they came from, proud of their culture. They instilled that in us very early on. Separate and distinct from what our parents do, all of us individually at some point in our lives have to look in the mirror and either see ourselves, see a friend in that face, or we find ourselves lost.
As a kid, I had to find myself. I had to find my core. I had to recognize what it was, appreciate what it was, and respect it. I did that as a young kid, and I kept going back to that place asking, “Who are you? What are you? What values do you attach to your own identity?” If you can’t recognize your own identity, appreciate it for what it is, no one else will, no one else can.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
ALPHONSO DAVID: Some of that we get from our elders, but all of us individually at some point in our lives have to find that and define ourselves, otherwise, unfortunately, others will define us.
JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. Now it gets interesting. I know about the next chapter of your professional life. There were other parts of you which you weren’t able to look in the mirror and talk about.
Tell us about your decision to become a lawyer, your decision to go to Temple, and your focus on the oral argument side. You would become a litigator, somebody who is tremendously powerful with words. How were those choices informed or directed by your earlier experiences in life? How did you feel that was such a compelling focus for you within the legal landscape?
ALPHONSO DAVID: As a kid, I romanticized medicine and the idea of becoming a surgeon. Actually, my father thought I would go to Oxford, become a doctor, return back to Liberia, and become a very successful surgeon, which I entertained for a while despite the fact that I had some issues with blood and managing blood.
During and after the war, I got to really appreciate the value of law. As young children or young people, I don’t think we fully understand the law, politics, legislation, and what governs our lives. During the war, I got to appreciate that there was one thing which governs our daily lives—the law.
You can think about it in a very myopic way, which is: When does the store open? How early can stores open? In Liberia, they could open at a certain time. Or when do the traffic lights start flickering? Instead of going from red to yellow to green, in certain parts of the world they start flickering after midnight. That’s all governed by the law. Also, what type of government do you have? What type of schools can you go to? What type of infrastructure do you have? That’s all governed by the law.
After the war, I got to really think about what I wanted to do with my life. Early on, I made a decision that I wanted to practice law. In college, I made the final decision that I would practice law, but didn’t go to law school immediately after college. Instead, I spent four years running a company.
I thought it was important to eliminate my college debt, but also learn how to be a manager, to run something. I thought that was important before going to law school. I ran a company for four years in Washington D.C. and then applied to law school.
The application process was torture because my father wanted me to go to his alma mater, Georgetown University. He went to Georgetown and Howard University. As opposed to selecting one of those two universities or those two law schools, to his dismay, I selected Temple Law School. He said, “You have an opportunity to go to prestigious law schools, but you are rejecting those and instead going to Temple Law. Why?”
I had traveled to Philadelphia, I visited Temple Law, I thought it was a fantastic law school. It was fantastic to me because I wanted to become the best trial lawyer that I could become, and Temple Law was—and I believe still is—the number-one trial advocacy law school in the country.
It was important to me to understand litigation and understand the law in the way that I could advance individual rights. Every lawyer is different, what drives people depends on your experience. There are some who go to law school to become corporate lawyers, others to do international law, others to do intellectual property. I went to law school specifically focused on becoming the best trial lawyer that I could, and also thinking about, appreciating, and mastering the constitution and how you advance and think about protecting individual rights.
I went to law school in Philadelphia, and graduated four years later—three years, I should say. Law school is three years, college is four. Three years.
JENNIFER BROWN: A long time ago.
ALPHONSO DAVID: It was a long time ago. Three years later, I graduated from law school. I was offered a federal clerkship. I clerked for a federal judge. I then joined a major corporate law firm in Philadelphia—Blank Rome. I practiced at Blank Rome for several years before running another company in California. Finally, I answered my calling and joined a not-for-profit organization, Lambda Legal, focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights. I joined Lambda Legal, and the rest is history.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Let’s pause there and discuss the back-and-forth you had before Lambda, before taking the plunge. It’s a scary plunge. I don’t know how out you were on a bigger scale before deciding to go work there. Going to work at Lambda effectively outs you, whether you like it or not.
As somebody else in the LGBT community who has gone through this process myself, we’ve all looked at our professions at some point and said, “Would I be accepted here if I really brought my full self into the frame?” I’m sure you wrestled with that mightily. I even read that a friend had a tearful conversation with you saying, “Don’t do it, Alphonso. You’ll never achieve the levels of greatness that you could if you’re honest about who you are.”
That was a huge shift for you, and you finally got there. Was there a turning point where you said, “I’ve had enough of this and I need to join my passion for civil rights with who I am as a person, and that’s an important part of my life and my success”?
ALPHONSO DAVID: Yes. My turning point was the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. For some who may not be aware, that decision concluded that same-sex couples have the right to personal privacy. Two consenting adults in the intimacy of their home have a constitutional right to engage in sex.
That case was fascinating for a variety of different reasons. A number of years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had held that there is no constitutionally protected right to engage in same-sex sodomy. Several years later, the court reversed itself. Similar issue, but the question was framed differently: Is there a constitutionally protected interest in two consenting adults being intimate in the privacy of their home? The court concluded that they do have that constitutionally protected liberty interest.
What was fascinating for me personally is that the decision was issued, and I felt that I was sitting on the sidelines. I had been sitting on the sidelines in my professional life for years.
I did clerk for a very well-known judge, I did work in a very prestigious law firm, I did run a company in California, but I did all of those things by creating a really interesting demarcation line between my personal life and my professional life. My personal life did not spill over into my professional life, and vice versa. I did not talk about my personal life, I did not communicate about my interests or desires or family to anyone in the professional space.
You justify that because the idea is that it’s completely irrelevant. What you do personally is completely irrelevant to your professional success.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
ALPHONSO DAVID: After Lawrence v. Texas, I recognized that that was, for me—and I don’t want to speak for others—an excuse. It was an excuse not to really embrace the personal, and recognize that there are significant risks by embracing the personal in the professional context.
I decided that it was important enough for me in this life, if I was going to really embrace the work that I thought I wanted to do, to take the risk of coming out both personally and professionally.
Lawrence v. Texas, the decision came out. I believe either the same night or the next day, I drafted a cover letter with my resume and sent it to Lambda Legal. I believe a day later or two days later I received a phone call saying they were interested in interviewing me.
I went through the interview process. I flew to New York. I sat in a room with what seemed like 20 lawyers asking me questions about everything from Brown v. Board of Education to Lawrence v. Texas really exploring constitutional jurisprudence and trying to understand whether or not I would be a good fit for the organization.
I received an offer to join Lambda, and I spent three years there litigating cases all over the country, working with fantastic people who are so committed to making sure that LGBT people have full equality.
JENNIFER BROWN: What did it feel like to be finally in that room, to be able to relax? Did you physically feel your shoulders go down? Did you say, “I don’t have to manage or be paranoid, I just can be”? Do you remember that feeling?
ALPHONSO DAVID: I do remember that feeling, but it was only after I decided that I would risk it all. What that meant for me was risking everything—risking the potential of a future partnership in the law firm, risking other opportunities for the future. You have to remember, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, lawyers were terminated in some places of this country simply because they were LGBT. In fact, there are many parts of this country that still do not have anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT people in the workplace.
I had to make a very conscious decision that by joining an organization that fights for LGBT rights, I will be associated with LGBT litigation and advocacy, and even if I don’t come out, people will assume that I am LGBT.
I had to be comfortable with that reality and embrace it. It wasn’t only to recognize that you must be comfortable with it, you have to actually embrace the reality that you more than likely will lose opportunities in the future because of this choice.
I also had to grapple with the idea of choice. For years, people have talked about sexuality as if it was a choice, as opposed to something that’s genetic or something that is more inherent in your being. We make decisions throughout our lives, both professional and personal, and our identities are something that are relatively etched in stone. We have to make a decision whether or not we’re willing to take risks in order to honor that identity, whatever it is. I made that decision a number of years ago now, and I’m proud that I did.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank goodness. Do you think it’s very different for younger people? Statistics show that there are still many people who are choosing to remain closeted in the workplace. I usually quote 42 percent from a recent study. I would imagine the legal field is probably the same, maybe a little worse. Have things changed a whole lot? Do you look back and say, “I spent a lot of time and energy and had a lot of fear that perhaps younger people don’t”? Or are we still dealing with the same dynamics, maybe looking a little differently?
ALPHONSO DAVID: It’s a difficult question to answer, but I would say this: It depends on who you are and where you live. We live in the northeast, objectively characterized as being a progressive part of the country. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, people are still living in fear, and legitimately so because they could lose their jobs simply because of their sexuality, because of their sexual identity. Yes, I do think that in certain parts of this country it’s much easier for people to live openly, but I also would be remiss if I didn’t recognize that in many other parts of the country, people are still living in fear.
I had to go through this really unfortunate analysis. I guess some people will have to do this as well as they contemplate. Is the risk worth it?
If you live in a state that has protections, New York is one of those states, you feel some security that you can’t be targeted because of your sexual identity. But that is not the case in some other states that have no laws. And if it’s a private employer, you have no constitutionally protected interest there because it’s a private employer. And if you have no contractual rights, in some cases you have no options.
I think things have certainly changed. We live in a culture now where the majority of Americans support LGBT equality and LGBT rights, but it’s one thing to have the support, it’s another to actually have laws on the books that ensure that you will be protected.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yes. We’ve seen that play out. You’re deeply enmeshed in New York State, and with Governor Cuomo now, and have worked your way up. You’ve worked on marriage equality. Tell us, as you have proceeded through your career now in the last decade or so, and are actually even tremendously valued for everything about who you are, it must feel validating to do the kind of work you do in a state that protects so much and is so in the vanguard. Can you share a little bit about what that’s been like, maybe the things you’re proudest of, and where does New York fit into the nationwide conversation about equality? How do you guide the governor around all those issues, and what have you seen in your time there?
ALPHONSO DAVID: I am incredibly lucky to work for and with a visionary. Governor Cuomo is and has been a leader on so many progressive issues in the state. I was fortunate enough to work for him in the attorney general’s office running his civil rights bureau. We litigated cases upstate to downstate, litigated employment discrimination cases, immigration fraud cases, housing discrimination cases—all quite successfully.
Coming to the governor’s office with him, I had the privilege of working on the marriage equality law, drafting that legislation with several others, including a very good friend of mine, Katherine Grainger. We were able to craft a piece of legislation that has stood the test of time.
When we drafted that legislation and we thought about the import of it and the importance of it, understanding that it would serve as a model for other states that were grappling with the same questions. It was a really interesting and fascinating confluence of factors where you had two black lawyers recognizing and appreciating the civil rights struggle and understanding that as you craft a piece of legislation to benefit another part of your identity, the LGBT identity, you had to make sure that you also protected the other part of your identity, which was being a minority, a black person, in this country. Appreciating that as you draft that piece of legislation, you need to do it in such a way that it does not infringe on the existing protections that protect so many people in this state.
Finally, as it relates to marriage equality, having day-in and day-out support from a governor was beyond words. We had a very, very difficult row to hoe. The law had failed year after year after year. It had been proposed by different governors, it had been proposed by the New York State Assembly. There were several members of the assembly that had pushed very, very hard to get that piece of legislation through. Unfortunately, it failed year after year.
The stakes were very high. The governor had identified marriage equality as a priority, and we needed to achieve the goal. We worked for six months. He became governor in January of 2011, and by June of 2011, marriage equality became a reality in New York. It was and remains one of the most gratifying professional and personal experiences of my life. We got to change the lives of thousands and thousands of people in this state. And we got to say something that the governor says quite often, “Marriage equality as a practical matter makes it possible for people to get married. But even more important than that, it says that their government assigns their lives value, and that is almost as important as the opportunity to fill out a marriage license.”
It’s not only providing the opportunity to fill out a marriage license, it is also recognizing that your government is saying, “You have value. You are just as important as your neighbor. Your sexual orientation does not make you less than.”
That was not only the rhetorical part of marriage equality, but it became something very real for those couples that had been essentially devalued for decades.
JENNIFER BROWN: You must have gotten just an outpouring from constituents about that shift that they felt, how important it was to them. Was it a unanimous outpouring? Does the dialogue continue? I’m sure there is still conversation around rights and equality, you’re just fighting them on different fronts.
ALPHONSO DAVID: Yes. The passage of marriage equality came with many letters of support, but we also received letters from several New Yorkers who did not support the law. They did not believe and probably still do not believe that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. They’re certainly entitled to their opinion.
From our perspective, we framed it through the lens of the law. You may have an opinion, and that opinion may have some value in some circles, but when we view individual rights through the prism of the law, it’s important for us to recognize that we cannot devalue people simply because we have a difference of opinion.
That narrative I’ve seen repeated throughout my time in the governor’s office, both as his policy maker and now as his chief counsel. We work on a variety of issues ranging from economic development to housing to immigration to something the governor announced today, “raise the age.” 16- and 17-year-old minors, primarily African American and Latino, have been treated as adults in New York for years.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ALPHONSO DAVID: They’re prosecuted and sentenced as adults. That changed today with legislation that the governor championed, working with several members of the assembly and the senate to change that reality in New York. New York was one of two states that continued to automatically treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. We brought a new reality to their lives today, to these kids who make mistakes, and they should receive the services that they need, but they should not be treated as adults and thrown into adult jails.
I’m sure there are some who may disagree with that policy. They may believe that 16- and 17-year-olds should be treated as adults. When we separate opinion from the law, it’s something that drives me in advancing the work on behalf of all New Yorkers.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. You’re so precise, Alphonso, it’s almost surgical. I was thinking your dad would be actually very proud because you use the law in a very surgical way. That’s the way it needs to be thought of, and you have been incredibly effective in protecting each vulnerability, thinking about it from every angle and making sure that it sticks. That’s why you are where you are right now.
Give us some perspective on our chaotic world wearing any hat you want. You were an immigrant to this country. As difficult as your entry was, it provided an incredible platform and place for you to do the work that you needed to do in the world.
Knowing the lessons of the coup d’état environment and the fragility of democracy, what are you watching and paying attention to with your particular lens? What gives you some encouragement right now about what you see in our society and political realm?
ALPHONSO DAVID: I will keep my professional lens on in answering that question. Unfortunately, I think we’re living in a time that is driven by fear—fear of the unknown, fear of losing something significant, fear of “the other” coming in and taking something away from us, fear of a lack of success. And we see those things manifest themselves both on the national and local level. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something we have to deal with.
Here in New York, as we think about developing policies and practices that can protect all New Yorkers, we recognize that in many cases, at least within the past several months, we are advancing policies that will address that fear. We should be operating from a place of inclusivity as opposed to a place of fear. Unfortunately, in many parts of this country, we’re operating from a place of fear.
The idea is that if you attack the other, if you remove the other—whatever the other is—you will return to the status quo. What’s fascinating is to ask, “What is the status quo, and how far back do you go?” If someone were to say, “Well, I want things to be the way they used to be.” My first question is, “Well, what timeline are we talking about?”
There was a time where I wouldn’t be considered for the job that I’m currently holding. I’m the first gay chief counsel in the history of New York State. I’m also the first black man to ever hold the job. I certainly appreciate that that change may not be something that some embrace, but I need to also appreciate it for talking about embracing the status quo. What does that really mean? The status quo for whom?
If we’re going backwards, we need to think about why we’re going backwards, and what are we hoping to attain or acquire? What I’ve found in those conversations is that the reasons why people are looking to go backwards is because they’re looking to attain something that is lost, having nothing to do with the groups that are being attacked, or a perception that the groups that are being attacked are the reasons why things have changed.
I hope that we can get beyond that with more information, more awareness about what the issues really are. The reason why certain jobs are no longer in demand is because our economy has changed; it’s not because immigrants are in the country. We have to look quite surgically at the problem and understand why we have the problem, understand the forces driving the problem, as opposed to assuming that the problem is something other than what it is.
Again, I think that drives this concept of fear that we’re struggling with. Our goal in government, and I know the governor drives this point, is to make sure that we’re informing people about the problem and also identifying the solutions. If we know what the actual problem is and what’s driving the problem, we can all work collectively in coming up with a meaningful solution.
It’s very easy to operate from a place of fear, but if you have to operate from a place of inclusivity and come up with real meaningful solutions that are actually going to achieve something, that’s much more difficult because it requires engagement, it requires analysis. You have to do that in order to create a solution that’s actually going to stick, that’s going to make a difference in people’s lives.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
ALPHONSO DAVID: That’s what this governor has been doing; that’s why I feel privileged to be in the seat that I’m in. I have an opportunity to help draft legislation, to advance legislation, to create policy, to decide to settle a piece of litigation as opposed to litigating a case—all in the interest of addressing problems and advancing individual rights.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. What do you think is the most exciting thing that New York is doing to address that really complex issue of job loss and skills and the rapid pace of technological change, artificial intelligence, and all those headwinds that we’re facing as a workforce in order to provide for our families and manage all of that? You’re on the cutting edge, you’re probably experimenting with some incredible things. What is your viewpoint on the keys that are going to unlock this transition? If we get stuck in the fear, I agree, it’s just going to devolve. It’s going to continue to be a blame game without real solutions. What are the solutions in such a fast-changing world, where it’s almost as if none of us even have the language that we will need to use in the future?
ALPHONSO DAVID: We concluded the budget process yesterday. I’ve gone through three weeks of no sleep.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re remarkably fresh today.
ALPHONSO DAVID: To answer your question, there are two things: education and infrastructure. We’re doing both in New York.
As of yesterday, New York became the first state in the country to provide free college to New Yorkers.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes! I saw that. Incredible.
ALPHONSO DAVID: It’s an incredible accomplishment. The governor pushed for this during the legislative session during the budget season, and we were able to achieve it. He says that college is what high school was 50 years ago. In order to succeed, you need a college education—particularly in this environment where we’re building cars with a computer. If we can embrace the reality that our young people need to go to college, they need those degrees, they need the skills in order to not only participate in a new marketplace, but also be competitive. That’s what they need. They need both. You need the ability to enter the door, but you also need the ability to actively compete.
So we’re working in New York to make sure we have the most aggressive, robust, innovative education system throughout the country. The free college program is a huge step in that direction where we can get more people through the front doors so that they’re equipped with the skills that they need in order to participate and compete.
Second, we have to think about infrastructure in the way that Americans thought about infrastructure 50 years ago. Most of our infrastructure is old and dated, at least in New York, and I’m sure in many other parts of the country. We need to completely revitalize our construct that we’ve been operating in where our bridges and our roads and airports are redesigned to operate within the 21st century. Many of those structures are not designed to compete with other airports, rail stations, and bridges in other parts of the world.
Our population continues to increase. So as we think about the increase of population both in New York and other parts of the country, we need to think about more creative ways to address the increase in population size with the existing infrastructure that we have. The infrastructure that we currently have is not modern enough to actually address that need. That’s why we’ve been driving so hard to change much of the infrastructure here in New York, to make sure that we have a new, more vibrant, more effective infrastructure system in New York to address the needs that we have now and will continue to have moving forward.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s exciting. I live in downtown Manhattan. We hear a lot about “Silicon Alley” and a whole tech corridor that’s being developed here. It’s exciting to think about the attraction of tech talent to Manhattan. Silicon Valley isn’t the end-all, be-all. In fact, there are tech hubs being created in cities all over the country. They don’t get a lot of press, but they’re doing really important things. For the biggest city in the country, it would be helpful to have things be state of the art. It sounds like a subliminal message as well. I would imagine it’s symbolic as well as functionally different to have that kind of environment. You feel that it’s updated, it’s got the latest capabilities, it’s welcoming to the innovation you want, the mindset that you want to engender.
The city, of course, at the same time, is getting way more expensive, so it’s changing demographically, too, which is a loss of some of the vibrancy of the city. I think all of us know what the crumbling infrastructure feels like every time we take the subway. It’s quaint. It’s an adventure.
Alphonso, any last words? My audience is full of change agents, people who are fighting the good fight. They are fighting in whatever corner—whether corporate, academic, or entrepreneurial—for greater opportunity for expanded appreciation of all that diversity promises. It’s a really exciting time, as difficult as it’s been. We’re having some amazing conversations and having a new level of engagement in the conversation about the future that I have never seen. Any last words for folks, inspirational words, advice for that person who is trying to make a difference, wherever they sit in the ecosystem?
ALPHONSO DAVID: That’s a really difficult question.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know.
ALPHONSO DAVID: I would say this, which is something that I’ve lived by for years: Appreciate your capacity. Never forget your capacity and what you’re capable of. You’re capable of much more than you think. Always remember that in order to achieve anything, you have to work incredibly hard for things that are meaningful, for things that are rewarding. And also never forget compromise. In the context of legislation or advocacy, sometimes we forget why we’re doing what we’re doing and it must be framed through one lens in order to achieve success. Sometimes we forget that we can achieve success through a different lens. You can get to the same place via another route. And if you remember your capacity and how capable you are, the sky’s the limit.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so empowering, so resourceful. Yes. I find that comforting advice during these fraught times.
Thank you so much for your thoughts, Alphonso. We will all keep an eye on your and your meteoric rise, because I’m sure there are further delights in your path both professionally and personally. We really thank you for everything you do, the way you do it, and the world you’re creating for all of us to thrive in. Much, much love and respect to you, and thank you for joining us today.
ALPHONSO DAVID: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Alphonso David: Black, Gay, and the Third Most Powerful Man in New York
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