Emily Gallagher is the newly elected assembly person for district 50. She shocked everyone in the June Primary by unseating Joe Lentol, who had represented the area since 1972. Gallagher is the cofounder of the Greenpoint Sexual Assault Task Force, environmental justice community organizer, and has worked in arts administration and childcare.
What do you listen to in the mornings?
I used to listen to the Brian Lehrer Show religiously, but water dripped into my radio, so now I usually listen to records, depending on my mood, but there’s definitely a morning vibe. Trying not to go for the hard stuff until at least the early afternoon. The Roach Sisters is one of the things that we were listening to; it’s like 70s and early eighties folk music.
What method of voting did you use in the June Primary? (e.g. early voting, vote-by-mail/absentee, or IRL on Election Day?)
I was so concerned about the mail-in voting that I went in person, it was fun to see my name on the ballot and put it in the machine and everything.
What did you study in college? What kind of odd jobs have you had along the way?
So I started studying audio production in college because I wanted to have my own record label. Then I was much more invigorated by my art history and film classes, so I switched to media studies. I did work in [the] art [world] for a little while and I first got here, which was my original dream, but it wasn’t really what I expected. You know, I think I would have enjoyed being an art historian, but working in art galleries and art museums is very much about buying and selling, it’s very capitalistic, right?
I had a lot of odd jobs I could take up the next hour talking about odd jobs.
I worked at a small clothing store which was really transformative because I chatted with customers all day and learned a lot about what people were struggling with, different industries, and how politics impacted at all. I started getting involved in activism around that time too, in part, because I was working part-time, working for activist-artists in the community who were anti-capitalism and environmental justice-focussed, so it was all kind of going together.
I also worked with the after school program Crown Heights, Youth Collective, where I was the art history teacher. I also did a lot of tour guiding, which was my main career for a while, at first with Smithsonian Student Travel, where I took groups of school children on tours of New York City for a week. In many ways, it made me really appreciate New York, so many kids had never seen anyone from a different religion or race, and it was a good reminder of why New York’s a special place.
The tour guiding thing led me to work in history museums, which allowed me to learn about the history of New York City in an in-depth way. This was one of the things that inspired me to get into politics and learned that it’s because of younger women who organized social movements that have changed America.
Was there like one story from that history that particularly motivated you?
I have the book right over here, it’s called Common Sense and a Little Fire, and it’s about teenage girls in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. They start the first tenants’ rights movement in the city and they’re one of the reasons why we ended up with rent stabilization. They end up becoming workplace organizers, some go on to work for Presidential administrations, and it’s all about saying that if you feel like something is not working, you’re probably right.
You are the founder of the Greenpoint Sexual Assault Task Force and you have a history of activism, what inspired your activist work?
I worked with this neighborhood organizing group that had five organizing platforms housing, transportation, environment/parks, planning and history—I worked mostly on the environment part at that time, but learned a lot about the other pieces. I have some sexual assault history and have friends who had had similar experiences. In the early years of me processing that I feel like young women are often just made to feel stupid and kind of messy—when bad things happen to us, it’s kind of like, well, “why did you put yourself in that situation?” That violence is treated very casually and it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that what happened to me was serious and did matter. It did harm me and it did change my perspectives on things, even if it had been treated so lackadaisical by the people that I had reported to.
I started to hear reports in my neighborhood of folks having a hard time when they were reporting, the police wouldn’t come or when they did they’d ask, “are you sure? “It doesn’t sound that bad” Or “Is this person, your boyfriend?” Me and the core group started pushing back on the police force, we don’t like police or the carceral system, we don’t want to be exploited by rapists and harassers, but we want to be taken seriously when we’re talking about these things. How do we hold people in power accountable when we don’t even like the structure of power? How do we, how do we shift the way that survivors are treated so that they’re not constantly being retraumatized by the system?
Now, I have more clarity on what I think needs to happen, which is, we need to defund the police and we need to change the way that we think about community protection. But, in those early days, it was really about four generations of women in this community who’ve told each other not to call the police because they won’t take you seriously. That’s a big problem.
I got involved with a lot of women of different generations at that time, and we just kept trying to have public conversations. We had a very successful event that over a hundred people came to, called “Beyond Me Too” when #MeToo was happening, and asked, “what is reporting a rape supposed to look like?” We ended up having a lot of the NYPD top brass there and had a discussion with them. It’s one of the parts of organizing that can be strange sometimes because when you’re working to be a community organizer and to have some impact, sometimes it takes a really long time to figure out what that impact should be, and it also means forming relationships with people that you don’t agree with. Even though I’m not someone who’s interested in policing—I don’t like policing, I think it’s harmful—but to change the system, we also have to talk to people.
I worked with Alex Vitale who wrote the End of Policing to develop a platform that I’m proud of in terms of criminal justice reform, and that aligns with my actual perspectives. I think a lot of times when people come into like the public eye, we don’t allow them to grow or change or to move their position. If we want people to be engaged, we make people afraid to make mistakes.
I was motivated by trying to find out what was going on with the women in my community, because I was friends with them. It was personal.
What sparked your interest in community organizing?
It’s hard to say exactly the moment, but there were a few factors that really pushed me. I was working with Brooke [Singer] and I was learning about the superfund sites in the neighborhood—I didn’t realize just how many there were—on the federal level and state level. I was thinking about that a lot when I was riding my bike around and was like, I need to know more about this if I’m going to live here. We can actually shape a community that we want to live in.
I read this story in a local paper about a very cool local activist, Craig Murphy. He was like three years older than me and led a major food pantry and started something called Great Rides, which helped women walk home at night. He was killed by a truck when he was riding his bike home at night, and I was just like, that could have easily been me, because I was a bike commuter and here’s someone who’s lived the life that I want to be my legacy. I would have loved to be his friend. We don’t have all the time that we think we have and we actually only have the time that we’re alive each day. Murphy motivated me to lookup an activist group, head on my bike, and knock on the door. It was such a different experience than my professional art world jobs because when I walked in the guy didn’t look me up to see if I was cool enough to work there, he was so grateful that I was there.
That person ended up being Peter, the founder of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.
You stated that “our democracy in New York is very broken.” We also feel this. But you just defeated Joe Lentol, who was longest-serving member of the State Assembly, and who rep’d this area of Greenpoint since 1972. What do you think about this wave of young people getting elected, like yourself, and bringing in this fresh energy? What’s changing about NYC politics?
I was in like a group chat with a couple of other women who are running for office, Sandy Nurse and Jessica Gonzales Rojas, and I was like, “Oh, I guess you have to get like a suit and I have to get like you to act a certain way, and they’re like, “Don’t sell out, just be yourself.” That is what you’re actually offering.
I had this big breakthrough at a community board meeting, when someone said to me and my friend, “You’re just kids!” And my friend looked back and he said, “I am almost 40 years old.” I think that our generation is really used to being infantilized. The economy that we’ve grown up in, the political time that we’ve grown up in, and how the job market has changed, we just haven’t had the same opportunities to receive power. I think that we’ve gotten to this breaking point where we’re like, “how much more bullshit can we take?”
Somebody wrote to me, because they were upset that I was running and said, “why don’t you intern for Joseph Lentol?” And I thought, I’m a director at a nonprofit.
I started to realize that I don’t need to have THE background, i dont need to have had collected the gold coins to cash in—all I have to do is speak the truth. And I think the election of Donald Trump has really made everybody much more aware and we want people who are really going to stand up for us. In this district, the election of Julia Salazar was really inspiring to see what that class of the No IDC, the backstabbing Democrats who were swept out, and who’ve made so much progress in two years, bills that were sitting dusty on the shelf for decades are suddenly passed. It made us realize that if we act, it happens.
Yeah, just being a Democrat is not enough anymore. We want to know what you stand for.
Right. There’s a big opportunity, because the machine in Albany was really established because people didn’t pay attention to state politics. So in New York City, it’s all done in the primary, which don’t have that high of a turnout. So if we can get people interested in the [Primary] election, and win the primary, you know, I don’t have an opponent in November.
The primary is really where it’s at in New York. Voting in the Primary was unique this year: it was rescheduled due to a pandemic, being introduced to vote-by-mail (in a pandemic), and early voting, which was new for NYC too. You and Suraj Patel sued Governor Cuomo and the New York State Board of Elections over the invalidation of thousands of absentee ballots. Why was it important to sue and what came out of the “Gallagher Decision”?
We knew that, um, that would have major implications for our race, but also the November race. It was important to expose this in a way that was meaningful and hold the people accountable who could fix it, because that’s not something a voter has any control over. Suing always seemed really overwhelming and not something to get involved in, but the reality is that different kinds of lawsuits work in different ways. So if you’re doing a civil liberties lawsuit and you win, the state pays.
The post office in our district had already been under a lot of scrutiny, and wasn’t functioning in a timely fashion, and then we’ve got the post office being dismantled on the federal level, and the [political] machine who doesn’t really want to expose what’s going on because they just want to keep their incumbents there. So when we saw that they were going to remove ballots that had the postmarks—we have been hearing, you know, as the election was going on, like people panicking, cause it hadn’t received their ballot or it was delivered to the wrong address.
You know, we like to think that voting suppression is something that just happens in the South, but it doesn’t, it happens all over the country, especially in States like ours, where we have kind of like this machine politic legacy. So suing is a way that you can expose a problem, bring attention to it and explain how it should function, and hopefully you get a judge that sees your side.
We were able to prove that this wasn’t something that had anything to do with the voter. The thing that was crazy, was we were looking at ballots that had a received-by date and then a postmark. So there were tons of ballots that said received by June 24th—well, obviously they had to have been mailed by June 23rd, right? DUH. Why do they need both and why isn’t one enough? It was really gratifying to get those ballots put back into the system. We need to be exposing and holding people accountable as much as possible when people in power are using technicalities to win.
It’s actually part of the playbook, right. What I learned is that throwing out votes is part of the playbook. There are a lot of dirty games that happen behind the scenes that people don’t realize. Most of us don’t know what happens to our vote, because we trust the system.
What does it mean for our vote to be counted? Why is it important?
A lot of people gave up on voting and, or don’t do the research and it can feel really daunting. At the end of the day, the person that is elected holds the keys to your wellbeing. Has the power to make decisions about your housing, your transportation, your healthcare education, your work, your workers’ rights, your environment—all of that is up for discussion. They don’t have all the experiences in the world. They need to have people who can guide them to what’s wrong. Voting is a vital transformative moment.
When you think about all of the groups of people who didn’t have the right to vote for so long and what that meant for their lives. We’ve been talking about rape and sexual assault—marital rape wasn’t considered rape and was legal for a really long time. That’s a problem.
What is an issue that needs more attention from New Yorkers? How can we get more involved?
I’ve been really interested in digital privacy rights. The US has almost none. And I think this is another generational issue—it’s really going to take like digital natives to really hold that stuff accountable. All these corporations are owning our content.
What brought you to NYC, and what is one of your favorite aspects of being a New Yorker?
My dreams of working in the art world, brought me here. The other day I went on a bike ride over to the next neighborhood and I felt like I was on vacation, you know, like there’s so much going on. Even during COVID, there’s so many different kinds of people, different stories happening—New York is really made for people who are willing to fight and be gritty. You have to make it work here and you have to struggle and you have to survive here, and that’s kind of a commitment that I love. I have a relationship with this place—it’s not where I live—we’re in conversation and challenges me and then I challenge it.
Who is your dream collaborator?
I wish you Gil Scott Heron was still alive. I feel like I would love for him to help me write some cool policies, he would really have the right ideas too. He’s such a great observer of the human experience, writing from different perspectives, and he was so empathetic who talked about the environmental crisis and immigration in the 70s and 80s, you know, things that we’re still struggling with today. He was just so sharp. Yeah, I would have loved to like, get his feedback on like what he wanted to see happen here.