A strong wave of influential Black leaders is making an impact on life in Westchester, bringing a renewed energy and significant changes to the county and its residents.
By Paul Adler, Janine Clements, Amy R. Partridge, and Tom Schreck
Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones made history in 2020 after becoming the first two Black members of Congress in Westchester’s history. They are part of an up-and-coming wave of progressive Democrats who are replacing the old guard and addressing the desire for change.
In 2020, Bowman became the first Black person to win the seat of the 16th Congressional District after unseating 31-year incumbent Eliot Engel, an impressive feat especially given that it was Bowman’s first run for office. Known for his bold, progressive policies, Bowman thinks his win was made possible because of the individuals and grass-roots organizations that supported him. “People across the country are demanding progressive change and a new vision for our nation,” he says.
The former middle-school principal and father of three ran for office after a 20-year career in education because he says he was tired of seeing what children and families have to go through due to bad policies at federal and local levels. Growing up in East Harlem, in public housing, Bowman has firsthand experience with this. “The tipping point was the 2017-18 school year, when 34 children died in the K-12 system in the Bronx; 17 of them had committed suicide,” he says. “At the roots of my campaign and what I am fighting to change in Washington are the issues that plague my community and the country, which continue to be racial and economic injustice that impact the quality of life for everyone.”
In the recent election, Jones, 33, replaced Nita Lowey in New York’s 17th District, representing Westchester and Rockland counties. He made history after being the first openly gay Black person to be elected to Congress. He was raised by a single mom with his grandparents’ help and grew up in Section 8 housing in Spring Valley, relying on food stamps to survive. Despite many obstacles, Jones made it to Harvard Law School, became a lawyer, and now has made it to Congress. Jones says his story is the quintessential American dream and hopes it will inspire others. He always had a passion for activism and was involved with the NAACP as a high school student and in college.
“I wanted to fight for working people and marginalized communities in our society and believe people are hungry for leadership that speaks to their experiences,” says Jones on why he decided to run. His top priorities for his freshman year are COVID-19 relief for his district, democracy reforms, and restoring SALT (State and Local Tax) deductions, the cap of which he says has crushed middle-class families in Westchester.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Sidra Bell has altered the landscape of modern dance, especially for young people of color coming up in the ranks. The founder of her own lauded dance company and winner of several international awards, Bell is most notably the first Black woman to have an original work performed by the New York City Ballet. For the White Plains-based choreographer and dancer, this boundary-breaking honor was a natural extension of her rich upbringing and education.
“[The New York City Ballet piece] has such a resonance for me because, growing up at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, I was so lucky that my parents had the insight to put me in a school that really lifted up Black voices in ballet,” explains Bell. “You are informed by the community you are in, and I always felt empowered being there.” Bell’s ceiling-shattering work, pixelation in a wave (Within Wires), was filmed on a verdant patch of land on the grounds of New York City’s Lincoln Center in October.
This tendency to break barriers also extends to her company, Sidra Bell Dance New York, which has been producing performances for nearly 20 years. “I started the company really early, when I was 22,” shares Bell, “and at that time, it was kind of unusual for women that age to do that.”
Yet Bell, who is currently teaching or mentoring at eight different universities, six days a week, is always looking beyond her considerable achievements, toward ways she can lift up the next generation of dancers. “Being able to break another barrier is opening another door for someone else, and it means so much more in that way,” she says. “Obviously, the opportunity itself is incredible, but I am looking toward the next generation and to the people I mentor and teach, and I hope that this is something they see themselves in.”
I’ve traveled the world, but I consider myself a Westchester girl; it is my favorite place,” says Deborah Norman, a Mount Vernon native and her city’s first female fire commissioner. She’s quick to point out that she’s not a firefighter, but she is an expert at administration.
“In high school, I dreamed of being a cop but knew at 18 I was too young, so I joined the Army,” Norman says. In her 22-year military career, her duties included policing, but those grew into positions as a drill sergeant, an undercover narcotics officer at the Berlin Brigade during the Berlin Wall crisis, and security detail at the Panama Canal and the Johnston Island Chemical Weapons Disposal facility, far out in the Pacific.
Norman rose to the second-highest enlisted rank of first sergeant and developed the organizational skills she uses today as fire commissioner. Following a 22-year career in the Army, she was appointed deputy fire commissioner by Mount Vernon’s then-mayor, Ernie Davis. She went on to serve as the deputy commissioner of planning and community development, and was later appointed deputy police commissioner/parking bureau. In 2020, following a third stint as deputy commissioner of the fire department, Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard promoted her to commissioner.
Of her leadership style, Norman says, “If you lead, and you are fair, people may not like you, but they will respect you.” She goes on to say she believes the racial-justice events that occurred this year can be a catalyst for society to evolve. That will mean sitting down at the proverbial table and holding discussions: “I’m not saying we have to take anyone away from the table, but we do need to add some new chairs,” she says.
Buoyed by this year’s election, Norman muses, “I’m looking forward to when we can stop saying, ‘The first woman… .’” I think it is exciting that little girls can look around and know what they can do.”
With nearly 30 years of working in government behind her, Andrea Stewart-Cousins continues to be a force for change, as well as the county’s most powerful politician, claiming the top spot on the 2020 City & State NY magazine Power 100 List for Westchester. In 2019, after a historic ascent, she became the first woman, and Black woman, in the state’s history to be elected senate majority leader.
“No matter what side you’re on, no one can say that governance and government did not impact them in the past four years.”
Stewart-Cousins, who now lives in Yonkers, grew up in public housing projects and became a single mother at 19. She fought hard to get where she is and continues to fight for everything from women’s rights to criminal justice reform, alongside serving her constituents. As senate majority leader, she’s racked up many significant accomplishments, including investments in education, and passing new gun-safety legislation and a progressive climate policy.
Like the new wave of progressive Democrats, she challenged the status quo because of her gender and color when she first ran for election — and has continued to do so. “I am excited about the new generation of young people, women, and people of color who are stepping up and engaging the electorate,” she says. “No matter what side you’re on, no one can say that governance and government did not impact them in the past four years. The government is a great place to be if you want to make a difference.”
Behind all the splashy, multimillion-dollar, mixed-use development projects that have transformed Westchester’s skylines recently are teams of hardworking lawyers hammering out the incredibly complex details of these transactions. One of the most diligent — and successful — of these lawyers is Eon S. Nichols, Esq., partner at Cuddy & Feder LLP and vice chair of the White Plains firm’s Real Estate, Corporate, Finance, and Non-Profit groups. Nichols has played an integral role in the development of numerous large projects, including the redevelopment of the old White Plains Mall, the LCOR development on Bank Street in White Plains, the Lennar development on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, and other mixed-use developments in White Plains, New Rochelle, and other areas of the county.
“I love that these projects have helped to shape the landscape here. They energize the business community, bring employment and revenue…and help to put Westchester on the map as a place where you can make things happen,” Nichols says.
“Stressing the importance of education among the younger population is what I see as being big for the Black community.”
The bright, energetic attorney — who made partner at age 33 — was born in Guyana and raised in Queens’ Little Guyana neighborhood. He attended Binghamton University and Fordham Law School and believes strongly that education is the key to success for minority communities. “[Education and hard work] are what worked for me, and stressing the importance of education among the younger population is what I see as being big for the Black community,” Nichols explains. To that end, as chair of the African American Men of Westchester’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, Nichols helps select seven students each year who receive awards for “conducting themselves in the spirit” of the famed civil rights leader.
Nichols is also active in Cuddy & Feder’s diversity program and says the firm has “taken strong steps to help promote racial equality.” Looking to build on the 17 years he’s been there, Nichols says he’s been blessed to “work with an amazing group of lawyers who taught me everything I know.”
Ben Boykin, who is currently in his fourth term as a county legislator (and was once again elected chairman in 2020) has a rich and varied history: He’s been a CPA for 45 years, was a financial executive with RJR Nabisco, and has headed his own financial consulting firm for the last three decades. Born in Garland, NC, and now a devoted community advocate, Boykin believes his sense of service came from his hardworking parents: His mom was a teacher’s aide, and his dad was a sharecropper.
“It was how I was raised,” Boykin says. “I was the student-body president in high school and [since coming to] Westchester, I’ve gone from the school board all the way to leadership in the legislature. It wasn’t by any plan or design; I try to leave a place better than when I found it.”
“This has been a year like no other. It has laid bare the inequities in our society. I believe we are moving ahead slowly, but incrementally.”
He’s proud of his work to get the legislature technologically sound, working to have the chambers wired for the digital age and installing 100-inch monitors that were designed to blend into the decor. The digital infrastructure kept the county on-task and its citizens informed during the pandemic.
“This has been a year like no other. It has laid bare the inequities in our society. I believe we are moving ahead slowly, but incrementally,” Boykin says. “Sure, Westchester is seen as one of the wealthiest counties, but poverty is all around us. The digital divide, especially for people of color, has to be addressed. We don’t want any child to be left behind.”
As for the racial justice tumult in our society over the last year, Boykin remains philosophical: “I was on campus at the University of North Carolina in 1968 during ‘BB’ — ‘before Blacks,’” he laughs. “There was Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. This isn’t my first rodeo. No sir… I’ve been riding a long time.”
When Michelle Nicholas became executive director of Girls Inc. Westchester in 2019, she made history as the nonprofit’s first person of color, first immigrant, and youngest-ever director. Since then, she has added more firsts, including introducing STEM and Selfcare to the curriculum and launching the first summer program.
The organization offers free after-school programs designed to build self-confidence, develop leadership skills, and empower tween and teen girls from all communities, but especially from underserved and underrepresented communities, which Nicholas says is vital. Even the pandemic has not slowed down Girls Inc., as the organization quickly moved its programs online. Girls Inc. Westchester served seven schools when Nicholas started; they now serve 24 virtually.
“When these young girls look at me, the executive director, and see that I am like them, that pushes me to do what I’m doing.”
Nicholas’ goal to raise the profile of Girls Inc. Westchester is well on the way to being achieved. A Mount Vernon resident and mother to a teenage son, she has been the driving force behind securing county and government funding and is focused on creating diversity, equality, and inclusion for the girls and staff. Nicholas has racked up several accolades for herself along the way, including being named a Forty Under 40 achiever by both Business Council of Westchester and The Network Journal in New York City and one of 30 Black Stars by Face2Face Africa.
Having herself faced many prejudices while living and working in the U.S. because of her skin color and accent (she moved to the States from Guyana in 2004), Nicholas recognizes the girls’ struggles and is committed to giving them a voice and making their lives better. “When these young girls look at me, the executive director, and see that I am like them, that pushes me to do what I’m doing,” she says.
André Rainey, also known as Noodle, a nickname given to him by his mother, was elected as mayor of Peekskill at age 33. He is the youngest-ever mayor of Peekskill and only the second Black mayor. Now in his second term, Rainey has a lot to be proud of but remains humble. What’s also apparent is his energy, desire to get things done, and love for his city, which he refers to as a “small city with a lot of heart.”
One of the first things he did as mayor was to reinstate the Human Relations Commission, which aims to enhance positive diversity within the community. His other achievements include setting up a task force to improve relationships between the community and the police and securing $10 million of government grants to revitalize the downtown, securing an additional $6 million to improve the riverfront, and increasing education funding for Peekskill schools. Under his tenure, the Moody’s credit rating for Peekskill has improved. “There is so much to look forward to,” says Rainey. “We have put so many new things in place to move the city forward.”
He is focused on unifying Peekskill and helping youth in the community. In the past three years, the high school graduation rate has gone up by 9%, and the Kiley Youth Center is being converted to the Peekskill Boys & Girls Club.
Rainey, who is also a musician and DJ, has a broad outlook on life, which he brings to his role as mayor. He lived in Germany and Las Vegas when he was young, as his stepfather was in the military, and now lives in Peekskill with his three children.
Horace Anderson Jr. is used to defying expectations. The son of Jamaican immigrants, Anderson attended college at the University of Pennsylvania before leaving a successful legal career to ascend the ranks at Pace University, where he now serves as dean of the Elizabeth Haub School of Law. Among several other honors, Anderson currently serves on a Westchester task force, as well as an ad-hoc committee in Jersey City that reviews policies and procedures related to police enforcement and discrimination. At Pace, Anderson is firmly focused on providing students with futures they might never have believed possible.
“I believe Pace plays a special role in the legal-education landscape and that we are bringing people to a new level in terms of their socioeconomic stations and professional opportunities,” notes Anderson. “That is what I think the Haub School of Law is about: helping to bring along a new and different generation of lawyers.” Apparently, this philosophy is paying off, as it was under Anderson’s leadership that U.S. News & World Report recognized Pace as having the number-one environmental-law program in America for the first time.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Anderson reassessed the importance of his station, which he has held since December 2019 (although he has taught at Pace since 2004): “It jolted me into thinking about ways not to just sit on our laurels and be proud of what we have done in the past or are doing today, but what we can do in the future,” shares Anderson. “We might be doing new things, but we are still serving the same philosophy: using the law to make the world better, to make people’s lives better, and to pursue justice.”
When reflecting on her upbringing, Belinda Miles, president of Westchester Community College (WCC), recalls that she “was always surrounded by hardworking neighbors striving to create more opportunity and advancement for the next generation.” That approach has resonated throughout Miles’ life and career. A product of public schools, including York College CUNY, Miles began her “lifelong commitment to advocacy for public higher education” as a faculty member at LaGuardia Community College, where she “gained firsthand insight into the significance of open access and talent development for those who might otherwise not have access to higher education.”
Today, she counts the disruptive force of that access to higher education as one of WCC’s most powerful assets. The college, which serves some 13,000 students and offers the lowest tuition in the county, has a strong record of fostering advancement in populations that are historically underrepresented in advanced educational and career pursuits.
“As the first African American college president in Westchester County history, I serve as a role model for students to see what is possible for women and people of color.”
Miles’ vaunted position on campus (she became president in 2015) embodies this upward mobility. “As the first African American college president in Westchester County history, I serve as a role model for students to see what is possible for women and people of color and that they, too, can strive for leadership roles in their chosen fields,” she notes.
Miles is also helping to propel change for minorities in the region’s business community, through her work with the Business Council of Westchester’s Anti-Racism Task Force and Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force. In all avenues, Miles says she utilizes a participative leadership style, highlighting teamwork and collaboration. And she is as committed to uplifting colleagues and employees as she is students. “One of my proudest accomplishments,” Miles says, “is having mentored nine of my former direct reports who became community college presidents, more than half who are Black and/or female.”
Philip Ozuah, MD, PhD, was just 14 years old when he started medical school at the University of Ibadan, in his native Nigeria. His plan was to get his medical degree, travel to the U.S. for more extensive training and then return home to build a hospital with his father. Along the way, he interned at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx and realized that his ultimate goal of “bringing healthcare to the underserved” could be brought to fruition in what he saw as a country of great wealth.
It would be an understatement to say that Ozuah is driven. Fifteen years into his Montefiore career, he became the physician-in-chief of The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and was awarded a full professorship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. From there, it was on to the chief operating officer position, in 2012; seven years later, he was appointed CEO of the entire Montefiore Health system, which in Westchester includes White Plains Hospital, Montefiore New Rochelle, Montefiore Mount Vernon, and Burke Rehabilitation Hospital.
Ozuah says he manages like he practices medicine: He diagnoses, takes a history, identifies when a problem worsens, and acts based on the information at hand, even when all the information may not be available.
His drive permeates his whole life. Ozuah maintains a six-day-a-week workout regimen, followed by a day of golf, though he describes family time as “sacred.” He’s a man committed to community service, and looking back on 2020, he sees the adversity that our nation has had to deal with as a catalyst for the good that can come from it.
“I see lots of positives in the way we rallied as a nation and changed our behaviors in profound ways to combat the coronavirus,” he says. “If we as citizens can address the virus of social inequity with the same selfless determination and courage we have brought to bear on the coronavirus, I dare to hope that we can finally prove the true strength of our shared humanity.”