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6 Takeaways from 220+ Conversations About Local Issues with New Yorkers 

Ask New Yorkers to fill out a survey or come to a workshop, and they’ll remind you: I’ve done this before and nothing came of it. The NYC Speaks Community Conversations were an opportunity to bring survey data–3 million data points collected from 62,000 New Yorkers–back to communities to interpret and reflect on. They were an opportunity to dig into the issues New Yorkers told us they cared about most. We asked: Does this approach make sense to you? How would you approach it? What ideas would you prioritize? 

More than 4,800 New Yorkers participated in over 220 Community Conversation events online and in-person across the city this April and May. They were hosted in each borough, convened in 8 languages, and served populations that have historically been marginalized, such as Black and Brown residents, seniors, those impacted by the criminal justice system, people with disabilities, women, and the LGBTQIA+ population. As with the survey, youth spoke up: 385 high schoolers contributed through 44 Community Conversations organized by the NYC Department of Education and 37 NYC Youth Speaks Ambassadors. 

As with every aspect of NYC Speaks, this was accomplished in coalition: 50 community-based organizations received micro-grants to bring conversations to their communities. Our Policy Council members organized events focused on their issue areas in partnership with elected officials. Multiple City agencies and offices helped to organize events themselves. Some New Yorkers even stepped up to host their own.

You spoke. We listened. Community members from each event shared reactions about the data and priorities and areas of consensus for City action. NYC Speaks coded over 1,000 community insights submitted by event hosts by themes based on prioritization and frequency to determine priorities across all Community Conversations. This analysis uncovered the top community priorities from Community Conversations.

Here’s what we learned from over 220 Community Conversations across New York City.

1. Building and preserving affordable housing helps create public safety. 

Building and preserving affordable housing was the top priority identified across all Community Conversations, including Community Conversations focused on housing & neighborhoods, public safety, and civic engagement. 25% of all Community Conversations identified affordable housing as their priority for city government. This is underscored by the NYC Speaks survey findings, which revealed that New Yorkers’ top priority for improving public safety is building more affordable housing, protecting renters, and reducing homelessness. New Yorkers participating in Community Conversations shared how housing is intrinsically connected to safety, health, and well-being. For example, residents pointed out that housing instability makes it difficult to maintain roots in a community and build relationships with their neighbors, which serves as an important source of community safety. We heard ideas to create more supportive housing especially for the unhoused population in conversations dedicated to Housing and Public Safety, but also in conversations around Health & Wellbeing, Climate, and Civic Engagement. Community input further emphasizes that supportive housing is a critical policy solution that intersects and addresses multiple challenges facing the city.

2. New Yorkers overwhelmingly agreed they wanted to feel safer in their communities, but disagreed about how that safety should be achieved.

Community safety emerged as a top priority across Community Conversations, with 22% of Community Conversation events naming it as their first priority. In some Community Conversations, we heard a desire for increased police presence so people feel safer in parks, subways, and walking at night. In others, we heard that the police endanger Black and Brown communities, and should be defunded. Overall, though, New Yorkers agreed on a multi-faceted approach to public safety: (1) investing in upstream solutions like mental health and homelessness support, (2) strengthening conflict resolution and restorative justice, and (3) reforming policing for more accountability and trust. This reflects much of the debate among local leaders right now amid an increase in violence during the pandemic, but community input suggests a need to expand investments in community safety tactics.

3. Youth and adults agree: in the wake of COVID-19, “mental health is wealth.”1

One-in-five New Yorkers experience mental health crises and more than 50% of those that need care are not receiving it.2 Mental healthcare, including mental health resources in schools, was identified as the #3 community priority across all Community Conversations with 21% of Community Conversations elevating it as their first priority for city action. We heard community members emphasize the need for improved access to quality comprehensive mental health services grounded in culturally responsive practices. In particular, NYC students shared that when they are dealing with hardships outside of school, the lack of access to mental health resources prevents them from keeping up with their coursework. Ideas emerged on providing professional development and increasing pay for counselors and social workers, conducting targeted outreach to build awareness on available services, providing free or low-cost mental health services to students and their families, and guaranteeing access to social workers at every school to ensure no student is stuck on a waiting list to receive mental health treatment. The community input from NYC Speaks suggests quality mental health treatment must be scaled both in schools and through neighborhood facilities.    

4. Recovering from the pandemic’s economic effects requires job training especially for New Yorkers who have been historically marginalized.

Expanding job training and workforce programs was identified as the fourth community priority across all Community Conversations, with 14% of events prioritizing it as a top priority. Through Community Conversations, we heard concerns around the lack of availability to and accessibility of workforce programs, particularly for residents that are justice-involved, disabled, and/or foreign-born. Community Conversation participants emphasized that “increasing job security will increase public safety” and advocated for training and support for career pathways in growing fields. Relatedly, adult and youth participants prioritized actions to support youth employment. 

This input underscored the NYC Speaks survey findings that showed expanding workforce development services was a top priority for New Yorkers: when asked what actions would ensure that every New Yorker can access secure employment that provides a living wage, adult survey responses favored expanding workforce training services for jobs in growing fields like technology, healthcare, and sustainability (#3 rank). 

5. Our neighborhoods need more recreation spaces that serve  all ages and cultures.

Higher quality recreational spaces that provide enrichment programs and access to free space for community gatherings was elevated as the top community priority in 13% of Community Conversations and the fifth priority across all events. We heard from residents that greater access to public and recreational spaces would foster community for both youth and adults, bridge gaps in programming, improve public safety, and positively contribute to mental health. In particular, public housing residents emphasized the need for greater access to community spaces and recreational facilities in their neighborhoods and developments that have adequate funding for maintenance, materials for sports and arts programming, and are operated by community members. In conversations, New Yorkers directly connected a current lack of community spaces and programming to upticks in violence, in particular among youth. Youth shared that greater access to free community space after school and during the summer will provide free enrichment spaces and alternatives to violence.

New Yorkers voiced consensus around equitable investment to support the development of new centers and upgrades or repairs to existing community centers in historically disinvested communities; activating libraries and other community spaces with increased programming and extended hours; and increasing afterschool and summer programing including sports, arts, and community gardening, with adequate funding to cover required materials; among others. This priority is further emphasized by the NYC Speaks survey findings where recreation spaces emerged as a top investment priority across neighborhoods.

6.  Building accountability for city government through opportunities for civic engagement, transparent decision-making, and follow up on initiatives.

Community members engaging in the NYC Speaks process expressed both excitement in the process, and concerns that opportunities to communicate with City officials and follow up on these processes do not happen often enough. Building more transparency and accountability in city government, especially through increased access, was elevated as a priority in 13% of the conversations with residents. During Community Conversations, it was evident that community members were eager to participate in the decision making process. One resident emphasized the impact of community engagement initiatives like NYC Speaks, and wanted to see even more efforts on the part of city government to interact with residents: “My voice would be heard and I would actually get a chance to change things in my neighborhood.” 

  1. Alliance of Families for Justice
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