INTERVIEW: With Deputy Mayor Vivian Brady-Phillips

Continuing with our interviews of Mayor Steve Fulop’s appointments, JCI presents a Q&A with the second of the two deputy mayors working for the city.

Here is our exchange with Deputy Mayor Vivian Brady-Phillips, who explains how she will use her professional and educational experience to help with the city’s social services situation.

What is your educational background?

I earned my law degree (J.D.) from NYU School of Law, where I was a Root Tilden Scholar. The Root Tilden program covers a significant portion of tuition and prepares graduates for careers in public service. I earned my B.A. in political science from Hunter College and attended the Emma Willard School, an all-girls high school in upstate New York.

What is your employment history?

During my career, I’ve worked as a lawyer and for a number of nonprofit organizations that address the needs of children and families. After graduating from college, I worked at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit law firm that advocates for students at risk of discrimination in education, as an organizer for a youth-led community-based organization, and as a paralegal. While in law school, I interned at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

After graduating, I clerked for United States District Court Judge William Walls in Newark and then joined the litigation department of Simpson Thacher, a large NYC law firm where I had been a summer associate during law school. While there, I worked on a number of corporate litigation matters and did a good deal of pro bono work. I also worked at Kramer Levin, another law firm in NYC, as a litigator. I participated in a five-month externship sponsored by the firm, which allowed me to work full-time for the housing division of Brooklyn Legal Services, where I represented tenants in housing court and NY State Supreme Court. I later left the practice of law to become a program officer at New Visions, an organization that creates new NYC public schools and supports education reform efforts.

In my role there, I was part of a team that supported the creation of new small high schools and developed and implemented a grants program that funded recreation activities for students impacted by 9/11. I then became an associate at Gladstein, Reif and Meginniss, a NYC law firm that focuses on labor, employment and civil rights, where I focused on labor law. After that, I became the Chief of Staff and later the Executive Vice President for External and Legal Affairs of the NYC Leadership Academy, a nonprofit created by the City of New York to develop transformational leaders for high-need schools.

What is your new job title? What does it entail?

I am one of two Deputy Mayors. It entails working to help implement Mayor Fulop’s vision. My primary focus will be on social services.

Where are you from? Where do you live?

My family’s roots are in the Caribbean: my mother was born in Puerto Rico, but raised in East Harlem and my father was born and raised on the island of St. Thomas. I was born in the Bronx, but spent a significant part of my childhood in upstate New York, just outside of Albany, where we lived in a largely rural community for some time. So, I am a little bit rural and little bit urban. I’ve lived in Jersey City now for 20 years, and currently live in Hamilton Park with my daughter and husband.

What do you like about Jersey City?

I love that it is a vibrant, mid-size city that feels like a small town. I love its distinct neighborhoods, its people, fabulous food, and its history. We have tremendous community assets here. Even before I joined the Fulop administration I was telling everybody that they have to move here or at least come and visit. I came as a student looking for affordable housing near Manhattan, but stayed because it quickly became home. It’s my adopted hometown.

How did your career in social services get started?

I can’t pinpoint the exact starting point. I’ve always been committed to public service work, and this commitment was nurtured by my parents and teachers. My high school invited Marian Wright Edelman, the legendary founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, to speak with students and I remember thinking how great it would be to work on children’s issues. I feel lucky to have worked on a wide-range of issues over the years. As a student at Hunter College, I helped mobilize students to challenge tuition increases and budget cuts. Soon after graduating, I joined Advocates for Children, a nonprofit law firm in New York City that works to protect the educational rights of children. There, as a lay advocate, I represented students in disciplinary and special education hearings, and coordinated a program to improve school access for medically fragile students. I also worked as a community organizer for Youth Force, an organization that supported youth-led community organizing projects in under-served neighborhoods across NYC, and hosted a radio show on educational issues.

What can Jersey City expect from you in your new role?

They can expect me to listen, be responsive, do my homework and to remain focused on expanding and improving programs and services for residents.

What ideas from a previous position do you see working for Jersey City?

The importance of nurturing and strengthening public-private partnerships will be a key focus of mine as this work is critical. High-quality collaborations among government agencies, the private sector, and the nonprofit and philanthropic communities can help us expand our sphere of success, especially for our young people. These types of collaborations can help design and launch new programming and address gaps in service. This includes everything from after-school and summer youth employment programs to community beautification initiatives to programs focused on re-entry and senior populations. My last organization, the NYC Leadership Academy, began as a public-private partnership and today its hands-on approach to school leadership development has been adapted by school systems, universities and nonprofit organizations across the country. Similarly, as a program officer at New Visions, I saw firsthand just how powerful it is when schools partner successfully with like-minded nonprofit organizations to meet student needs. This spirit of collaboration and of shared mission is important across government agencies, too: we cannot get stuck in doing things a particular way. Our work has to be responsive to community needs – that really has to be the driving force. I’d also like to focus on evaluating programs to identify what’s succeeding and areas for improvement. This will help us learn how we can enhance, sustain and scale successful programs.

What changes would you make immediately if given a magic wand?

Unfortunately, there are no magic wand solutions. I think we need well-thought out responses to community needs. That said, I would want all residents to feel safe across the City and to have a sense of community pride and civic involvement. As we strengthen the interaction between the community and municipal government and offer the community a greater voice in programming and services, we will see Jersey City reach its full potential to become America’s greatest mid-size city.

What are some challenges we face in regards to social services as a city?

We need more programs for young people outside of the school day in neighborhoods across the city, both after-school and during the summer. I will be working closely with the Department of Education to identify ways the Administration can work collaboratively to support the success of our students. I also think we need to listen to our young people. We need to understand the joys and struggles of growing up in Jersey City and how we can help them create the lives they want as adults. Our City’s future is tied to improving the future for our youth.

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Photo courtesy Vivian Brady-Phillips

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.