Chirlane McCray stepped into the role of First Lady of New York City bringing her varied background as a writer, editor, communications specialist, poet, and activist with her. As a proficient wordsmith, it was clear that her voice would not and/or could not be silenced. McCray was intentional about this when she told The New York Times that she aspired to be the “ voice for the forgotten voices.” And so she has. She has endured comments about everything from her public speeches to her personal style. However, neither the privileges of power nor “ the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” seem to have stymied the passionate efforts of this First Lady, who has lived a life committed to being a change agent.
With an eclectic past, Chirlane McCray could have concentrated her efforts as First Lady of NewYork City on a wide range of platform issues. The granddaughter of an immigrant woman who came from Barbados to work as a servant in New Hampshire, McCray could have certainly focused on immigration or domestic workers’ rights. As a young mother who had a challenging time balancing motherhood, career and home life, she could have focused on universal pre-K as a means of alleviating the burdens of struggling parents.
Income equality and women’s rights issues could have been raised based on her experience as a woman who on occasions in her professional work life was a double minority. McCray has offered her voice to these issues since moving into Gracie Mansion two years ago with her husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and two children, Chiara and Dante. However, with passionate purpose, she has now trained her laser focus on the issue of mental health and is spearheading the DeBlasio administration’s massive response to the problem. This, too, is drawn from her past life experiences dealing with mental health in her role as both daughter and mother. “My parents both suffered from depression though it was not something that was talked about,” McCray told The Positive Community. “My father in particular would withdraw and not talk for days beyond saying good morning or good night. I also had a friend from high school who took her own life and many others who suffered what we used to call, ‘a nervous breakdown.’”
But most telling for McCray was when the mental health issue hit at the heart of her home. Her daughter, Chiara, announced to her parents that she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and addiction. “We were shocked,” McCray said about her own response and the Mayor’s. “She was a young woman who always got good grades, and had lots of friends. I was amazed that my daughter could have been suffering so and I not be aware of it. All of these experiences made me realize just how common mental illness is and how it affects so many people.”
The conservative estimate, according to the recently released ThriveNYC Roadmap is that one in five people suffer from mental illness at some point during a given year in the city. Despite the compelling statistics, “Mental illness is something that people don’t want to talk about or do not have the language to do so because they never learned,” McCray said.
ThriveNYC: A Mental Health Roadmap for All is the City’s Mental Health initiative launched in 2015 aimed at addressing this and other disparities, and in general helping change the culture, “conversation by conversation,” according to the First Lady. “Before now we have never had a real mental health system or standard of care that is humane and sophisticated,” she said. “Our research, studies and tools have come a long way, but society has not caught up with the fact that mental health exists and is pervasive but totally treatable.”
McCray, 61, was born in Springfield, MA, and is the first of three daughters. Her father, Robert, worked as an inventory clerk at an air base and her mother, Katharine, was an assembly worker at an electronics factory. For the most part, the family had all the conveniences it takes to make a good, happy, and comfortable life. But just like the cowards who violated the family’s home in the all-white neighborhood of Longmeadow, MA with racist graffiti, an unseen hand seemed to have stolen the family’s joy. “I remember asking myself, where is the joy? Where is the happiness?” McCray recalled. While attending Wellesley College, her views on life began to take form and she metamorphosed into an impassioned activist, black feminist, and —as is now evident— a ‘servant leader.’ Her longing to be of service and make life better for her community is what now fuels her work with ThriveNYC and other causes to which she has attached her name.
As a leader, one of her many mantras is: “Be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t complain about what’s not being done,” she declared, adding, “get out there and make it happen.” Specifically, when dealing with mental health, McCray is enthused by the truth in the thought that everyone can be a healer. “We all can learn the skills of healing,” she asserted. “It is not hard. Just as we learn in first aid how to stop bleeding or stabilize broken bones, we can learn how to help someone who is having a panic attack.”