Mino Lora: Governing Through a Social Justice Lens
I was in search of an open post office when I saw her. Despite the mask, I recognized the candidate from a recent Bronx City Council debate that impressed me with her demeanor and energy. “Mino Lora?” I asked tentatively. “Yes,” she replied.
I requested an interview on the spot, and she put me in touch with her campaign team.
Lora’s background in the arts had piqued my interest. Specifically, how she had harnessed the power of theatre as a way to interact, amplify, and “humanize” the immigrant experience in the United States. I was impressed she had leveraged a graduate thesis concept (with $400 seed money earned from waitressing) to a million-dollar organization, the People’s Theatre Project. She is Executive Director.
In addition to the other statements on policy she had shared during the debate, I wanted to know more about her trajectory from artist/activist to running for the City Council 11 seat.
Our Zoom conversation began with a run-down of the convoluted election process kicked off when sitting councilman Andrew Cohen left the job for a judgeship in December 2020. The district has been without a representative since January – hence, the March 23 special election. In June, there will be a primary that will determine which Democratic candidate runs in November.
There have been plenty of mumblings on the ground about Bronx machine party politics. In this contest, Ranked Choice Voting will be in play. So, a voter can pick up to 5 candidates in terms of preference – or just a second choice. As Lora explained, “If there is someone you wouldn’t be happy with as a representative, don’t include them.”
The political landscape has changed dramatically in New York since Trump was elected. Many voters realized that they had not only become complacent but asleep at the switch.
In 2018, people organized across the state to kick out members of the IDC and push for tangible change that would reflect their progressive values. Voters elected a wave of younger candidates in a different mold than the traditional white male contender. The results were a new set of laws.
Lora is one of many women across the country running for office who have not been afraid to push the envelope by asking, “Why not me?”
At the age of 19, Lora immigrated from the Dominican Republic on a scholarship to Manhattanville College to study English Literature and Theatre. (She also has an M.A. in Peace Studies and Conflict.) “I carry many identities,” Lora told me. “It’s a juggling and balancing act.” She acknowledges that there is a nurturing quality to who she is. For her, it’s all about “people first.” Perhaps that’s why she is comfortable looking at issues in a non-hierarchical way. “I work in collaboration to find solutions. Answers come through engagement. I’m into identifying the questions and taking a holistic view of things.”
District 11 covers ten neighborhoods with different needs and varied concerns. Recent stats show that 47 percent of the residents are Latinx, and 23 percent are Black. Lora is aware of that. “At the end of the day,” she emphasized, “we all want to live with joy and safety and good schools.” (Her two children go to public schools.)
Lora had a succinct answer for those who might question her qualifications or readiness to handle the job. “I know how to engage with multiple stakeholders – governments, local and federal.” The People’s Theatre Project page that lists corporate, foundation, and state supporters is impressive. “I’ve had a surplus every year,” she said. “You have to be creative in finding revenue. I know how to manage a budget; I know how to balance the numbers.”
After talking about her background, we moved on to specific questions. Since time was flying by, Lora sent additional comments via e-mail, as per my request.
Environment: Lora targets 2030 as the year to reach net-zero emissions. She supports retrofitting buildings and community solar. Connecting to the Green New Deal’s aspirations, Lora sees municipal jobs training as a way to help build the economy.
COVID: Lora prevailed against COVID. Emphasizing the importance of vaccination outreach and roll-out, Lora stressed, “We need to be more innovative.” She suggested the option of deploying vans for COVID testing, partnering with local organizations to get traction, and developing pop-up health centers.
Empty Storefronts: We discussed the vacant stores that remain unrented for months and sometimes years. Landlords don’t put community impact at the top of their list. Lora supports Senate Bill S44B, a commercial vacancy tax. She believes it “would incentivize landlords and developers to lower rents (rather than benefit from keeping it vacant). Lora envisions using unoccupied spaces as pop-ups for cultural entities, art galleries, and bookshops. She gave the example of Word Up, a community bookshop and arts venue that had begun as a 30-day initiative.
Culture Workers: Lora underscored the importance of contributions that creatives add to New York City’s economy. She spoke about the “trillions of dollars” that those in the arts generate for the economy. “We need to center artists,” she said. Lora would advocate for more cultural spaces, revitalizing the arts and culture sector, while promoting diversity.
Engaging Younger Voters: Lora supports automatically registering young people in school and making civics education an essential part of the curriculum. “Low voter turnout among young people has been a problem for many years. But I’ve spent my entire professional life working with young people, and I know it’s possible to get them engaged and excited about their community.”
Municipal voting rights: Lora related that she had become a citizen six years ago. Despite having been actively engaged for two decades at the community, local, and state-level – she never had the right to vote for her councilperson or mayor. “No taxation without representation is one of the founding principles of this country. Everyone who works and pays taxes should have a role in picking the government officials who decide how to spend that tax money. It’s the way to ensure that our interests are considered in those decisions.” Lora pointed out that numerous New Yorkers live with a green cards for thirty to forty years. DACA recipients don’t yet have a federal path to citizenship. “This doesn’t make these New Yorkers less invested in their home,” she said. “I believe everyone with a work permit and green card should have the right to vote in City government elections.”
Policing: Lora prefaced her response with the assertion, “As a human and a mother, I believe people deserve to be treated with respect.” She posited, “Too often there are politicians who use crime to try to scare people.” She explained her terminology by spelling out, “When I talk about defunding the police, I’m talking about having the police focus on violent crime, so we are safer. We ask the police to do too many things, and not surprisingly, they can’t do all of them well. We don’t need police officers to investigate traffic accidents. Dedicated traffic officers would take them seriously. For people with mental health problems, we need trained health care workers. For street homeless, who often also have mental health issues, we need social workers and supportive housing. For schools, we need safety officers who report to and work with educators and focus on restorative justice.” It is in this context that she supports a “reallocation of funds.” Lora added, “We also have to understand that there is less crime in healthy, vibrant neighborhoods, so safety is not just an issue of police, but of building a society that works for all of us. It is not reasonable or effective to ask police officers to handle every problem in our society.”
Transportation: Lora cited the MTA’s state management and why the city needed more control over the buses. “We need to expand services in District 11. We need to upgrade our fleet and prioritize post-COVID safety.” She is opposed to the time limit constraints on Metrocard discounts for both Seniors and Students.
At the close of the interview, Lora’s final comments summed up the clear common ground: “We can all agree on quality-of-life issues.”
Lora’s tagline is: “Represent. Reimagine. Rebuild.” Her objective is to differentiate herself through a critical theme: Achieving the goal of equity for all through a social justice lens.