“People, Especially Women, Should Not Talk Themselves Out Of Their Power”

Chirlane McCray's message for women who want to create change is simple: Use your power. McCray is doing just that, harnessing the power and platform she has as First Lady of New York City to promote a cause close to her own heart: increasing services, funding, and awareness surrounding mental health. Central to that goal is ThriveNYC, a plan for creating a more "effective and holistic system" of support in the nation's most populous city launched by McCray and her husband, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, last year. It's an issue that touches many of our lives. An estimated one in five people — both in New York and in the U.S. at large — experiences a mental-health disorder in any given year. McCray recently took her advocacy on the issue outside the five boroughs, highlighting the importance of expanding and funding mental-health services at an annual gathering held by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The longtime activist and mother of two sat down with Refinery29 at City Hall to talk about her work on mental-health advocacy, how to get more women involved in politics, and more. Read highlights of the interview ahead and watch the full conversation on our Vote Your Values Facebook page.
So first off, what’s it like to be First Lady? What’s your day like?
"Oh, no two days are alike. It’s fantastic to be First Lady, and I’m so happy to be able to serve and help so many people. I have a huge platform, and I’m trying to use it to the best of my ability to get stuff done. Get work done on mental health, domestic violence, and early education — those areas are so important to me. And of course I’m partners with the mayor, so we work together as well."

People, especially women, should not talk themselves out of their power.

Chirlane McCray
You and your family — and your daughter in particular — have been very open, very brave, talking about personal experiences with mental health. Why is it so important that we talk about these issues and break the stigma?
"I think you just said it. I think that the only way we can change the culture of mental health is to talk about it. It’s the most powerful way we can break through the stigma; to tackle that stigma is for people to tell their personal stories and make other people feel more comfortable. Like, ‘Oh, I have a story, I don’t have to hide it. It doesn’t have to be a secret. Look at her, she’s talking about her story and she’s still standing, people still like her.’ It’s important for people to share and to not feel afraid to tell their story."

What do you want people to know about the role of their elected officials and government in helping provide these sorts of services, providing support and helping with awareness?
"These people are very helpful in connecting people with resources. I mean, that is their job. Right? To connect the people they represent with services — whether it is a community-based organization or other sources. And the resources are out there; they’re everywhere, and a lot of people don’t know how to access them. I always tell people, ‘Talk with someone you trust.’ That’s the most important thing. Talk with somebody you trust, and that person probably will be able to connect you to the services you need, whether it is a primary-care doctor, community-based organization, or other types of resources." And what can someone, for our viewers who care about this issue, care about seeing more politicians address this issue, what can they do about it?
"Oh, there’s so much they can do. First of all, contacting them and letting them know that this initiative is important. Vote! Voting is so important! We need more young people — women especially — to be engaged, because the elected officials reflect what the people in the population want to get done. And if you’re a voter and you tell the elected official, ‘Look, I’m concerned about XYZ,' that’s their job, to work in XYZ. And I think people, especially women, should not talk themselves out of their power." Why do we do that?
"I don’t know! I think part of it is our society. We don’t see enough images of women taking the reins and being in control. We need more images of that. Also, women have so many responsibilities. We wear a lot of hats sometimes — taking care of family, taking care of our jobs. But we have more power than we use, so I think women should just get out there, connect to their passion, connect their passion to other experts and use it."
I saw a tweet you sent recently that said, “We need women in every position of power.” And you had some awesome handclap emojis — very strong emoji game. We just thought, “Amen!" This is something we talk about all the time [at Refinery29]. How do we make this happen? On all levels of government, women are vastly underrepresented.
"We need to see us in more leadership roles. I think role models play a role. I think women that are in leadership roles should mentor others and help them climb that ladder, pull them up. And women should not be shy about seeking out those opportunities and seeking out their own mentors as well." You are a Hillary Clinton supporter. Our readers, when we polled them, they were supporting Bernie Sanders. What would be your message to millennial women about why they should support Hillary Clinton?
"Well, first of all, I think they should get to know Hillary better. I think that unfortunately, so many millennials don’t know Hillary’s story. They don’t know about how she came up through the ranks. They don’t know that she was a strong partner to her husband while he was in the White House; they might even not have been born by then. They don’t know about Hillarycare, which we had before Obamacare. They don’t know who worked with the Children's Defense Fund. And Hillary is a wonderful candidate. And some candidates are better than others in getting the message out, and I don’t know that—I think she needs to reach out more to millennials... Yeah, it’s a responsibility on both sides — millennials have got to do their research; we certainly don’t want them voting for Trump. And I’m hoping Hillary will get her message out to millennials as well." In an interview earlier this year, you suggested that there was a little bit of a generational gap in your own household with millennials. Where does that stand now?
"Oh, well, they are both voting for Hillary, obviously. But I think Bernie did a good job of appealing to that generation. He did a really great job of stating what he believed and why, and of course free college appeals to everyone."

One in 5 New Yorkers experience mental health disorders.

Thrive NYC
I wanted to pivot and talk a little bit about another issue that we probably don’t talk about enough, and that’s periods. The City Council passed a bill to provide tampons for free in city schools. What kind of difference do you think this can make for students?
"You know, I think it can make a huge difference for students. Because, it’s been a while for me, but I remember how embarrassing it was to have to go and talk to the teacher, then have to go to the nurse and then have to [use the bathroom] — you know, you can’t control when a period starts. Young girls are new at it and aren’t always’s so embarrassing, unnecessarily. So I’m very happy that the city is able to provide supplies to our public schools and correctional facilities and our homeless shelters, because it should be as accessible as toilet paper."

You’ve been involved in activism and politics at various levels for a long time, for decades. What’s your advice for women who want to effect change?
"Get engaged, get engaged in any way that you can. It’s so important. Again, don’t talk yourself out of your power. You can be so powerful. Just connect to your passion, talk to an expert in the field that you’re passionate about, and do whatever feels right. Do something, because we need you. There’s not enough leadership out here, and we need you out there."

Why is it so important that women vote and are engaged in this election?
"It’s important to vote because if you don’t vote, the things that you consider a priority, the things you want to get done, may not be addressed. Because it’s your voice that matters; your vote is your voice. If you want funding for education or reproductive rights or for the potholes in the street in your community, you need to vote, because you need to be able to say, ‘I voted for you, I want to get this done.’ People won’t listen to you the same way if you don’t vote. So vote, get engaged! Get stuff done!"

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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