On March 30, Heights resident Danielle Freire announced her candidacy for the Ward D city council seat currently occupied by Yousef Saleh. Freire, 33, sat down with me for an in-depth interview.
JCT: Can you tell us about your background?
DF: I was born and raised in Jersey City. My parents came here from Ecuador in the late sixties as teenagers, so they pretty much were raised here too. I grew up on Hancock Avenue, and now I live just up the block on Cambridge Avenue. Most of my education has been in Jersey City. I graduated from St. Paul the Cross elementary school, which is now closed, McNair Academic High School, New Jersey City University, and The New School, which is in the city. And that’s where I got my master’s in nonprofit management. I’ve been in the nonprofit sector for close to a decade now. And the majority of my career, I’ve worked on multiple issues, multiple social justice issues and supporting fundraising efforts for them. And right now I’m a development director for a fiscally sponsored project that’s focused on environmental justice.
JCT: By “fiscally sponsored” you mean that you’re using the 501(c)(3) status of another not-for-profit, and you’re associated with them?
JCT: And exactly what are you doing at that fiscally sponsored not-for-profit that you’re working at?
DF: I’m a development director. And so I lead the fundraising efforts for the organization. And just to tell you a little bit more about the organization, our mission is really to shift more resources to frontline environmental justice groups particularly in low-income Black and Brown and Indigenous communities across the country. So I work with different sectors, philanthropy, and what they call the “green sector.” That’s the NRDCs and Sierra Clubs of the world to keep them accountable and have them really internally reflect on their grant making so that they can remove those barriers to access so that more grassroots groups can get funding.
JCT: How long have you been doing that?
DF: I’ve been at this organization for about a year-and-a-half now and before that I was at another nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn with a similar model. They support participatory grant making. So that means you get directly impacted community leaders to the table to make decisions on where money should go. So, I did fundraising for that organization and that was focused more in the criminal justice space.
JCT: Shifting gears to Jersey City, what about your background makes you feel you would be a good council person?
DF: Yeah, that’s a good question. So most of my experience has been mainly in non-profit fundraising and development. And so the skills and training that I received really transfers well to the role of a city council member. So, in all of my jobs, I had to look at the issues that the organizations are trying to address. I look at who is being impacted by them, and I worked to make a compelling case so that we can invite new partnerships and get more money. So I think I know how to package a message and make sure people understand how urgent the need is. And so that’s something that I would want to do if I get the privilege of being elected city councilwoman. I want to be able to listen and elevate those issues in a way for more families to understand and get their perspective on how to address them.
JCT: That’s a good sort of segue to the next question, which is what is it that you would like to accomplish—maybe the top three priorities that you would have as a council person?
DF: I really think the top three issues for Ward D specifically are the same issues that almost everyone in Jersey City is experiencing. And what’s important to me is transparency. So, it feels like there’s a lack of transparency in our government regarding funding and understanding what the policies are that are being passed. For example, the inclusionary housing ordinance, I feel like we need better options there. And it’s been literally cited as one of the worst in the country. So, there we have a problem.
Another issue would be affordability and housing. I grew up here, and there’s a lot of change that’s happening at a pace where long-time families can’t keep up. So, affordability and more opportunities for families to stay in a place that they love is something that’s really important to me. My platform is evolving. So, to be honest, that is TBD. I’m speaking with community members, and all of their voices is what will inform what issues come to surface.
JCT: When it comes to affordability, do you have any ideas about how to keep Jersey City affordable apart from inclusionary zoning, which of course relates to new construction? What does one do with a city that is gentrifying to keep it affordable?
DF: That’s a great question. So running so far has been a really transformative experience, and the things that I’m learning on this journey have been super illuminating. So, I’m still learning all the issues, but I do know that we have options, and those options aren’t really being considered right now. But, for example, there’s a large stock of homes that are abandoned, and we can use APRA, which is the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, as a tool to potentially turn those abandoned housing stocks into affordable units. I’m still learning about that, but that would be something that can be brought to the table.
JCT: Now, you would be running against Yousef Saleh. I’m wondering whether you have a critique of the job he has done and why you feel he needs to be replaced.
DF: I think Ward D needs a representative that is listening. And this is really not about a person, this is about a system, about the way things have been run here. When it comes to Jersey City politics, it’s always the same faces. And I’m throwing my hat in. Jersey City is known to be the most diverse city in the nation. And if we were to look at Jersey City as a product, in order to have the best product, we need diverse perspectives at the table. We need people to challenge things and to have really collaborative conversations, and that’s not happening. So, I’m throwing my hat in the ring so that we have a chance to shape the city that we want.
JCT: So there’s nothing in particular that you object to in the way he has conducted himself as councilperson?
DF: I don’t want to go the personal route at all. I want to talk about it on a high level.
JCT: I’m referring to substance, policies.
DF: So, I’m a community member here, and I was one of the many that listened in in that August meeting regarding passing the budget. And there were a lot of people that came in and had questions and were pleading for us to re-examine the budget, and it got passed. So I feel like there are people who are saying what they want, and it’s not really being brought to the table.
JCT: What about the Fulop administration generally, getting away from Yousef Saleh for a second. What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong?
DF: They haven’t kicked us all out. I think the administration has been able to galvanize the highest number of independent candidates to run across the city in their neighborhoods. And that’s something to be proud of.
JCT: When you say they’ve galvanized, whom have they galvanized? Are you saying the people that are running with Team Fulop or are you saying they’ve galvanized the opposition?
DF: Yeah, not necessarily direct opposition. They’ve galvanized more community members to step up and throw in their hats in the local elections. The administration’s version of community input, which is something that they have asked for, to me it’s been performative at best, and if they want community input, here we are, people are stepping up.
JCT: I guess that’s a critique: that you feel people are stepping up to oppose the way they’re doing things. But what about things that they’re doing well? Is there anything that you would give them credit for?
DF: Well, like I mentioned I really think it’s exciting that there’s more community members that are stepping up. So they’ve been able to create an environment for folks to feel compelled to enter local politics.
JCT: How are you funding you campaign?
DF: So, my campaign is a hundred percent grassroots. We are getting individual donations, and that’s really what is making this movement. If the people back the campaign, people are investing in a chance for change. And that’s what’s really exciting for me.
JCT: Will you take money from developers?
DF: No. We strictly will not take money from developers. I feel like there are campaigns that do take developer money, and that says something. I think it speaks to values when people invest in campaigns and not special interests.
JCT: And is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you want to put out there about your campaign and your candidacy?
DF: Well, thank you, of course, for giving me the platform to be able to share a little bit more about who I am. This is my first interview, so this is a milestone moment for me. I would encourage all of us to really reflect on the Jersey City that we want it to be. We need to look towards grassroots organizations, get to know our neighbors. There’s community here. There are people who are supporting each other. There’s love for Jersey City. And I think collectively we’ve been a bit disappointed. And so we aren’t being heard. And, you know, I would encourage people to pay more attention and get involved in any way they can.
And another thing that I do want to name is why I’m running. I’m running because we are living in urgent times. You know, we all experienced 2020 together, and that was a year of reckoning when it came to institutions that haven’t been able to serve or provide the communities and particularly low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods. I saw that through my work in philanthropy. We’ve seen that through the racial justice uprisings of the summer. And I’ve seen more people make that bold step to run for local office in New York City. That’s been all inspiring.
So, for me, I think it’s important to run because it’s time to name the systemic barriers to access. It’s time to name systemic racism. It’s time to name white supremacy as real barriers and violent mechanisms that perpetuate poverty through bad policy. On a federal level, they’re talking about it, they’re naming it. So we have to do it on a local level. It’s time. We’re the most diverse city in the nation. We shouldn’t shy away from having these conversations. It is only going to make us better if we incorporate this lens.
JCT: Well, since you brought it up, is there something that you would point to going on in Jersey City that sort of needs to be attacked from that social justice perspective? Are there any particular ordinances or initiatives that you want to address in that specific light?
DF: Yeah, I mean, I feel like we’re living in different worlds in different wards. So, you know, if we look at different neighborhoods, there are things that are going on in regards to violence, and people are rightfully angry. I feel like we’re spending more time trying to make things look pretty than trying to address really hard core, systemic issues of poverty. So that’s something that we need to have conversations about. It only strengthen us as a city.
JCT: One more thing. How should people pronounce your last name? I heard you say it at a meeting and they might need some instruction.
DF: There are two Rs and you have to roll each one, which is something that people have trouble doing even one time. But it’s okay.