Leading From the Front: March to City Hall and Our 2018 Action Agenda!
by Briana Brown
On March 19th, the NYC Veterans Alliance kicked off our week of advocacy with a march with our members from Civic Hall to City Hall. This march symbolized the mobilization of our members as civic leaders, advocating to make NYC the best city in the country for veterans and their families. During the march, we shared the issues we were most looking forward to discussing with Council Members ranging from access to affordable housing to promoting veteran-owned businesses. Many of us were primarily focused on NYC Veterans Alliance’s priority of housing stability for veterans, ranked as the highest concern in our 2018 policy priority survey completed by members.
Our housing stability recommendations cover a full spectrum of housing issues from removing barriers to the use of the VA home loan in NYC to ensuring inclusivity and clarity around veterans property tax exemption. As a contributor to the research on the barriers that plague the VA home loan and veterans property tax exemption in NYC, I most looked forward to shedding light on these issues.
A common theme of all of our members who showed up to advocate was simply to be heard and to gain full access to the veteran benefits they were promised. As Navy veteran Giovanni Taveras puts it “…veterans have been getting the short end of the stick, I want to make sure they are getting everything they deserve.” As a civilian, advocating for better accessibility of these veteran benefits allowed me the opportunity to further extend my gratitude to a community I deeply respect. Accessibility is a primary theme throughout each policy priority as seen in our push to remove barriers to benefits, an example being our push to name the Manhattan VAMC after one the United States’ first female veterans, Margaret Corbin, in tandem with a promotion of the Deborah Sampson Act, a bipartisan bill that proposes the use of gender-inclusive language to close gaps in service to women veterans at VA facilities. Accountability was another major theme throughout each policy priority, expressed in our asks for establishing a NYS Board of Visitors for VA facilities to provide impartial reporting on VA performance. This standardization of accountability would ensure quality care of health services for veterans at VA facilities across the state. James Edward Becton, an Army veteran, noted that while there may be issues that speak more to him personally, every issue raised in the NYC Veterans Alliance’s Action Agenda is significant in raising awareness of the inequities that NYC veterans and families continue to face.
For myself and many of our members, this was our first time advocating at City Hall. We all expressed a shared appreciation for the opportunity to learn how to advocate for the veteran community through NYC Veterans Alliance’s pregame meetings and trainings. For me, these meetings and trainings allowed for opportunities to deepen my understanding of the issues as well as foster a cohesive community of advocates. Manuel Rodriguez, an Air Force veteran and an NYC Veteran Alliance Get Ready To Run Fellow, noted the significance of veterans being the ones to advocate for the veteran community stating, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil… If veterans do not advocate for veterans, things do not happen.” Several of our members also spoke to the unique set of leadership skills that veterans possess and the need for that leadership in local advocacy work. As Becton puts it “We are trained and have within our marrow the energy of leaders and it’s our responsibility to lead from the front…”. Olsen added “Veterans should use that responsibly to be civic leaders to help our other veterans… but also to help out the rest of the population.”
Overall, the City officials we met with throughout the week were both supportive and ready to get to work on our policy recommendations. Olivia Meier, NYC Veterans Alliance Director of Operations and civilian ally, noted the impact of “having our members there to tell their authentic stories about why these policy changes are important.” Their stories were at the heart of the conversation when speaking with Council Members and City officials, and are a key factor in driving real change. Members weren’t just there to tell their stories, but also to offer assistance to Council Members in digging in to the issues facing the veterans community -- “How can we help you do what you do to help veterans?”, a question offered by Rodriguez. NYC Veterans Alliance seeks to not only advocate for change but to build a supportive relationship with local government officials to assist in strategy for sustainable change. Air Force veteran and long-time veteran advocate Kevin Gill describes his experience of March to City Hall week as “very motivating and stimulating” and that “[NYC Veterans Alliance], you have it together, and to make this much progress in a two-year timespan with not that many staff members, that’s amazing.”
Our advocacy efforts are made possible by the continued engagement and support of our members. I have found that the diversity of our members as veterans, family members, and civilian allies amplifies the impact of our advocacy. To further these efforts, we will continue to pursue commitments to our policy priorities from local, state, and federal officials, ensuring their elevation in this year’s legislative agenda. We look forward to continuing the work with our members, leading from the front, and pushing towards progress for all of NYC’s veterans and family members.