Rafael Espinal is the Executive Director of the Freelancer’s Union, Bernie Sanders delegate, and former City Council member. In the mornings he bounces between inspirational quotes, Brian Lehrer Show, and a mix of soul, rock, and hip hop.
When did voting become important to you?
9/11 happened in my final year in highschool and I remember feeling helpless when President Bush decided to launch the war on Iraq. I saw a lot of my friends, young people of the BIPOC community be preyed upon by army recruits in and around my highschool. The recruits were selling them the idea that they will get a free ride through college and have a steady job. It angered me. I was personally against the idea of war and military spending and knew that the only way to prevent it was by electing a leader that shared similar views. As soon as I turned 18, I made it my duty to vote in every election to play my role in influencing elections towards candidates I believed would provide a better opportunity for members of my community. I don’t think I’ve missed an election since.
What inspired you to get involved in politics?
Aside from being concerned about the national and international issues playing out in the news, I was never involved in or aware of the politics in our local government. It wasn’t until I was 23 years old, a fresh college graduate with an arts degree from Cypress Hills, Brooklyn that a community leader led me to an opportunity to work in the office of a local City Council Member.
I was always passionate about the idea of inspiring and educating my neighbors through film & media so I never thought I would stay working in the City Council Member’s office long, but that’s where I learned the responsibility and true power of civic engagement. I saw an opportunity to inspire and bring change to people’s lives through different medium. The role allowed me to begin my work and journey in fighting for my neighborhood, which was disinvested in my entire life.
I say this to stress that 1. It’s never too late to get involved or to educate yourself in civics and 2. You don’t have to be a political science buff to run for office or make a difference.
How did you cast your vote in the June Primary? (early voting, vote-by-mail/absentee, or IRL?)
Early voting! I was excited to do it for the first time, but also used it as an excuse to safely get out of the house in this pandemic.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved in politics?
Aside from doing your research on who your local electeds are, when civic meetings are happening in your neighborhood and voting, my advice would be to focus on the issues you are passionate about, learn to become a better listener and team player and always look for opportunities you can be of support to an individual, organization or a cause. For me that’s what it has always been about.
What does it mean to vote during a pandemic?
This is it! There’s no greater time to get involved in the issues of our time: The Black Lives Matter movement, income inequality, health disparities in communities, climate justice. While we’ve been locked in our homes with zero entertainment and distractions these are the issues that have become hard to ignore. It has become so much clearer to everyone. We have to cease this opportunity to create change, and we can start by voting.
What do you find unique about NYC? (Unique enough to run for office)
This is one of the most diverse cities in the country filled with grit and opportunities. It is the city that everyone around the world wants to be in, so it’s also the epicenter of innovation and ideas. What happens in New York City is looked at under a microscope and often replicated across the globe and because of that, running for office in NYC means being an agent of change not only in your community, but communities around the world. You don’t get that anywhere else.
What is an issue that needs more attention from New Yorkers? How can we get more involved?
Food and climate justice has always been a big issue for me. Growing up in a food insecure community with high obesity and asthma rates, I’ve seen first hand how that correlates with not having education on wellness, access to fresh fruits and vegetables and living in a polluted community. There are a lot of great organizations based out of community gardens, parks and in our schools doing the work. They’re often underfunded and at threat of closing because of a lack of political will. Find them, go to their meetings, donate to their causes and demand legislators to give them more attention.
What would you say to someone that is hesitant to vote or feels their vote doesn’t matter?
Some of the most effective candidates of our time won their elections by small margins. I’ve seen candidates win or lose elections by 2 votes. I understand that in Presidential races, if you live in a state like New York it might feel that your vote doesn’t have much impact, but in local elections and primaries it makes all of the difference between a progressive left or a conservative candidate. Voting is the simplest way you can influence change and it shouldn’t be taken for granted!
In January, you left the NYC City Council and became the Executive Director of the Freelancers Union, a national organization. What has been a takeaway since making this pivot and having to navigate freelancer-woes during a pandemic?
It was a tough decision. I was in elective office for 8 years and worked in government for a total of 12 years and I really used the time to provide the most reliable constituent services, address systemic issues in my community and put forward innovative pieces of legislation. There were a lot of factors that went into my decision to make the pivot, but it came weeks before there was a threat of pandemic.
If it wasn’t for my experience on how to support and provide for a vulnerable population on the ground and on a legislative level, I wouldn’t be able to navigate freelancers through the biggest financial crisis the freelance workforce has ever seen. Over 85% of our membership reported to be out of work in the height of pandemic and in need of financial assistance. The timing of it all was by chance. It made me realize that at the end of the day no matter your job or profession, we all need the same basic levels of a social safety net. Healthcare, financial support and housing assistance is a pressing need for everyone.
Any advice for freelancers right now?
This is the opportunity to organize. A study commissioned by Freelancers Union showed that there is a growing number of New Yokers and Americans making the switch from traditional work to freelancing. Over a third of the workforce is freelancing and contributing billions of dollars right here in NYC, yet they’re often left out of conversations on how to support the economy. There’s a common saying that freelancing is the “future of work,” but we need legislators to start acting like it. The economy is in a depression and it’s no wonder that the majority of freelancers we surveyed reported to be out of work. This pandemic has highlighted the need for workers to unify behind a single voice and put pressure on a local and federal level to get the support and legislative changes they need: healthcare, wage protections, unemployment insurance, paid time off. Until we start working together to elect candidates that understand the need to support independent workers we won’t be able to expand the social safety net to this vital workforce. When the economy begins to ramp back up, freelance workers are going to be in high demand because of their flexibility. It’s important for workers to be prepared for that, but it’s even more important that they are going back with the confidence that they have the support they need. That is what the Union is focusing on and now is the time to join.
What is your role as a Bernie delegate at the DNC?
I have been a longtime Bernie supporter and also served as a delegate in 2016. As a delegate, my role is to attend the Democratic National Convention and vote for our next democratic nominee for president. Both times even though it was clear that Bernie didn’t have enough delegates to get the nominee, I pledged my support to his campaign to give him the votes he needed to be an influential voice in creating the democratic platform.
Aside from being a delegate, I served as a national surrogate and was his campaign’s representative at events in the tristate area.
What do you listen to in the mornings?
For a minute or two, I like to listen to or read inspirational quotes and talks to get my mood up and motivated. Then I listen to some indie music across all genres: rock, soul, hip hop and then I top it off with the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC.
Who is your dream collaborator? (Perhaps it’s a musician for a campaign song or visual artist for a logo/advertisement, local hero?)
Tough question! It would definitely be a Brooklyn bred film director to make a gritty and impactful campaign video. Either Darren Aronofsky or Spike Lee. Side note: If you’re a new candidate and looking for a quality ad, check out my friends Anthony Dimieri and Debbie Saslaw. Their first campaign video was an ad for my candidacy for Public Advocate. They’ve gone on to do commercials for Congress member elect Jamaal Bowman and Assembly member elect Zohran Mamdani.