Mel Wymore Chooses People Over Politics
“When I was a kid I was a beekeeper. It was my hobby,” says Mel Wymore, a candidate for New York City Council on the Upper West Side in the 2013 elections. “I used to love just opening up the hive and staring at the bees working together as a community…. It’s also reminiscent of this feeling of being on the outside looking—when you are someone who feels different.”
Wymore navigated feeling like an outsider, as most children do at one point or another, but his journey is particularly noteworthy. If elected, he will be the first openly transgender City Council member in a major US city. And while this would certainly be a victory to be celebrated, Wymore hopes that his identity won’t distract from his qualifications as a community organizer, political activist and leader. “My challenge,” says Wymore, is that “being transgender…has the potential to become a distraction from my actual qualities as a leader.”
Upon moving from Arizona to New York City’s Upper West Side twenty-five years ago, Wymore was surprised and upset by the suicide of a tenant in the single-room occupancy (SRO) building across the street from his apartment. He and another neighbor decided to survey the SRO—Wymore inherited an activist spirit from his mother, who spent much of his childhood organizing civic groups—and went door to door asking residents about their quality of life. They discovered poor living conditions and limited access to fresh food and medical care. Wymore appealed to elected officials, organized a community advisory group and started a meal program that, at its peak, served hot meals to about 120 residents each day. In 1995, Wymore was invited to sit on the Upper West Side’s Community Board 7, which addresses local concerns, works to make city services accessible to residents, businesses and institutions and is involved in land-use and city budget planning for the Upper West Side. He’s now served on the board for about seventeen years in a variety of positions, including the first vice chair, co-chair of the Youth Committee and Green Committee, author of the District Needs Statement and Borough President’s Report and advocate for the citywide Community Board Budgets.
While serving on the board, Wymore’s interests have broadened to include education, after-school programs, land use, transportation, housing, local commerce and more. Wymore advocates for environmental sustainability, gun control, accessibility and funding for senior and youth centers. He encouraged the construction of protected bike lanes on Columbus Avenue and championed the reconstruction of the 59th Street Recreation Center, as well as the capital expansion of the West Side Y. And as Chairman of the Board (a position which he held for two terms, the limit), he orchestrated negotiations that won $20 million for local parks, a new K-8 public school for the neighborhood and changes to the Riverside Center—a 3 million square foot mixed-use development planned for the district that will accommodate residential units, a hotel, a movie theater, retail stores and a school—including securing 20 percent permanently affordable housing and design changes that optimize community access.
Wymore is running for Gale Brewer’s seat, which she’s held since 2002 with wide support. Term limits keep Brewer from running again. Four others are competing for the position: Helen Rosenthal, another Community Board 7 member; Marc Landis, a former CB7 member; Ken Biberaj, vice president at Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room restaurant and State Committeewoman Debra Cooper. With the election a little over a year away, candidates were already busy campaigning and fundraising this summer.
While all the candidates are Democrats—Rosenthal is a defender of public education who has been endorsed by Michael Moore, Landis is a lawyer and Democratic District Leader and Cooper serves on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice New York—what sets Wymore apart is his vision for a new approach to political involvement. Wymore values an inclusivity that emphasizes empowerment and uplift—for all members of the community. Or, as he puts it, “Everyone should be at the table.” He sees his district, the Upper West Side, with its vast resources and progressive cultural mentality, as uniquely positioned to tackle social and economic issues like gaps between the rich and poor and healthcare disparities that separate and isolate different groups of New Yorkers.
One way in which Wymore intends to bring everyone to the table: participatory budgeting. Citizens usually have little to say in the process of deciding how their neighborhood’s monetary resources are spent. But participatory budgeting allows citizens to directly contribute to public spending projects by identifying community needs and deliberating on what projects are funded. “There are very few opportunities where people actually roll up their sleeves and say, okay, what’s really going on here? What do I want to create?” says Wymore.
Wymore values inclusivity and creativity in governance, and he believes participatory budgeting reflects these principles powerfully and effectively. “People have lost their connection to that democratic process,” Wymore explains, “and participatory budgeting is one of the ways people are regaining faith.” Wymore recently served on the Citywide Steering Committee for New York City’s first round of Participatory Budgeting, a process by which City Council members allocate a significant portion of their discretionary funds (over $1 million each) to projects designed, and voted upon, directly by community residents. New York is the second American city, after Chicago, to try participatory budgeting, which originated in Brazil in 1989.
Earlier this year, Wymore facilitated neighborhood assemblies and worked with Community Voices Heard and the Participatory Budgeting Project to bring in new council members to the initiative. As co-facilitator of the Parks and Rec Committee, Wymore and several volunteers reviewed and developed the suggestions that came out of these neighborhood assemblies into viable capital projects. These projects, all proposed for District 8 under Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, which includes East Harlem and Manhattan Valley on the Upper West Side, were then voted on by the neighborhood to decide the winning projects, to be funded by City Council Members. New technology for a public library, installation of security cameras in housing developments, playground improvements and transportation for seniors and meals-on-wheels delivery were among the winning projects.
“It was a really concerted effort to bring into this process people who have not normally been involved,” says Wymore. “And it was fascinating to me because we had people in our group who had never participated in community board, had never gone to a hearing, had never been involved in local governance at all and two of them are clearly going to be local leaders from here on out. They’re so excited about having a voice.”
Wymore also stresses the need to shift politics from a reactive process to a proactive, future-oriented one. Influenced by his father, a mathematician who pioneered systems engineering, an interdisciplinary methodology that tackles large, complex societal problems, Wymore, sees social problems (in areas such as education, health care, housing, transportation) as design challenges rather than win-lose advocacy propositions.
Wymore’s own background in math and engineering, which he studied in college and graduate school, informs his interest in considering the various perspectives of people who will affect or be affected by a given system, inspecting that system’s interconnection with other systems, utilizing data and fostering collaborative, sustainable solutions. In each community board project he’s been involved with, Wymore says he has sought “to develop consensus around core values and principles, discuss alternatives, articulate a vision and coordinate on-going collaboration from detailed design through implementation.”
Because Wymore began his political career as an activist, he sees activism and electoral politics as necessarily intertwined. “It’s actually not a very big leap, especially at the level of City Council,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to bring people into those decisions we often think we have nothing to do with.” And with the impending danger of voter suppression in the upcoming presidential election, many voices, particularly those of the elderly, people of color, low-income citizens, immigrants and transgender people, may be stifled due to strict voter ID laws in at least thirty states. New York state considered but did not enact voter ID legislation in 2011; legislation is pending in 2012. Wymore recognizes the need to make voting, a foundational aspect of civic engagement, accessible.
Despite his credentials, it’s possible that Wymore’s gender identity, even when celebrated, will overshadow these qualifications, as any person from a marginalized group braving the terrain of “the first” (or even second, third, or fourth) experiences. Wymore, however, believes this is a false dichotomy. The two sides of his identity—transgender person and City Council candidate—are not antithetical for him. On the contrary, he sees them as intimately tied.
“It’s very important to me to highlight that the fact of being transgender is an expression of a lot of different skills and qualities that are consistent with being a good leader,” says Wymore, “like being courageous, being inclusive, being able to manage change and balance, and seeing people for who they are—all these things are assets to leadership.”
Wymore’s willingness to defy gender conventions that are so fiercely upheld in our culture offers him a unique, more comprehensive perspective. “I had a full life as a woman, including being married with children as a woman, working as a woman, being a mother and going to meetings as a woman in the power structure where men dominate,” he says. “I also recently have had a very full experience of what it feels like to be perceived of as a man, walking into a meeting as a man, having children as a man. And how the world responds differently to those two perceived people.” He goes on to say, “I’m the same person. I’m the same loving parent to my children. I have the same leadership skills in one meeting versus others, but the differences in perception I’ve experienced based on which end of the spectrum I was read on have been huge, huge differences. What people expect of me, what doors are open or closed. And I can honestly say there have been surprises.”
Staring down into the hive as a child, Wymore saw both the complexity and the sustainability of the collective. “I actually believe everyone is navigating the question [of gender identity norms] because it’s a very profound experience. Gender is the way you feel like an insider or an outsider,” says Wymore. “And through the years I have discovered that the antidote to that feeling of being an outsider is to be the inviter—to be the one that creates communities, the one that invites people in regardless of who they are—and that’s essentially who I’ve become.… And I think that becoming the inviter, the coalition builder, the community builder, as the transgender person—as the consummate outsider in certain ways—I think that’s an interesting story.”