Melissa Mark-Viverito isn't your typical politician.
In 2014, after serving on the City Council in New York City for eight years, she was elected City Council Speaker, making her the first Latina (and the first Puerto Rican) ever to hold a citywide office.
Fierce and outspoken like so many Puerto Rican mujeres before her, Mark-Viverito is a staunch progressive whose mission has been to defend the rights of women, immigrants, and city workers. And now, in the era of the Trump administration, she isn't holding back when it comes to the causes that matter most to her.
Term limits dictate that she must step down from her current post after this year, but Refinery29 attended Mark-Viverito's final State of the City address last week. In it, she spoke defiantly — in English and Spanish — about women's reproductive rights, the contributions of immigrants, and why we need to fix the criminal justice system.
We also had the chance to talk to Mark-Viverito about some of the policies she plans to enact this year, what advice she has for women interested in running for office, and why we shouldn't be afraid to fight back. Here's what she had to say.
You're pushing to make birth control free for all New York City women, and for the State Legislature to pass the Reproductive Health Act. Why are these proposals important?
"Women's reproductive rights have always been under attack. Even when we have a Supreme Court decision upholding them, there's still always attempts to try to take away some of them. The national conversation is about taking away the Affordable Care Act (and specifically, the ability for women to get access to birth control), the attacks on Planned Parenthood, and what exactly does that mean for women's health care and reproductive health care.
"This is a challenge, even at the state level. We have a Republican Senate, we want them to validate the 10-Point [Women's Equality] plan.
"We have taken steps here in the city and continue to affirm a woman's right and access to birth control if she chooses to."
How does your proposal to modify sex ed classes in public schools play into affirming women's reproductive rights and empowering them?
"Sexual health education is important for both men and women. And I hope we can stop stigmatizing the issues.
"If young women have access to the right information, they make healthier decisions for themselves... hat will impact their body, their lifestyles. They'll know about access to birth control, how to look for birth control. This is important stuff and we want women to know about STDs. We want young women to know, and also young men to know, about the issue of sexual [assault.] Make sure there's safe spaces for them to look for help and resources, to know what is right and know what is wrong.
"We continue to stigmatize that, we continue to stigmatize information about our bodies. And all that does is really make it more difficult for women to lead healthier lives. I feel very strongly about improving our curriculum."
Your “21 in ‘21” campaign aims to help 21 women get elected to the City Council by 2021. What practical advice would you give to women who plan to run for office?
"That's what we're trying to do, is to create a network, locally. There are some organizations at the national level, like EMILY's List and others, but we wanted to create a network at the local, grassroots level. [We want] women who are interested in running to know there's a place for them to go. We want to encourage women to consider this as an option. A lot of times one of the reasons women run for office is because they've been asked. It's not something that comes naturally to them. We wanted them to know this is a legitimate career opportunity and we want them to see this is a way for them to contribute [and give] back to their communities.
"[If they want to run for office,] women should be interested in this. They need to look for support from other women, who can encourage them to move forward. That can give them advice, counsel them.
"You need strong role models that can really give you direction and who will know how to best help you. For me, I was approached. Strong women in my life told me, 'Melissa, you should look at this as an option and we want to help you.' We want to create that for other women."
You mentioned in your speech that you read all of the tweets you receive, even the mean ones. We know that women in particular are subject to a lot of abuse online. What would you tell a woman who wants to run for office, but is scared of being exposed like that on social media?
"That this may be scary, but it's part of the job. The more we challenge the people that try to put us down, the more we challenge the sexism and misogyny, that's the way we uproot sexism and misogyny. We can't let it overtake us, we have to push back against it. There's going to be those who don't want to see me in this position because I'm a woman, because I'm a Latina in particular. I experienced that when I was running for Speaker. So we have stop saying, 'Okay, you win.' Some of us have to take the risk and be willing to take the hit, and be willing to push back.
"This isn't easy. But if you're interested in fighting back and improving the quality of life for people who have been marginalized, people that have been discarded, for women... Then you have to be a pioneer. You have to put yourself on the front lines."