Shawna Black (Photo by Rachel Philipson)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Political newcomer and activist Shawna Black is running for the District 11 seat of Tompkins County Legislature.

Black works at the Southern Tier AIDS Program. She was born and raised in Texas. She chose to live in Ithaca after visiting her wife who was attending Cornell University on summer. She said she loved the people and scenery and decided she wanted to stay and start a family.

Black is running for District 11, which includes part of the Town of Ithaca. She is running unopposed and filling the vacant seat left by Peter Stein.

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Ithaca Voice Intern Anna Lamb spoke with Black about why she is running for Tompkins County Legislature and what her thoughts are on some local issues.

Why do you want to be a legislator over any other elected position?

The Legislature deals with agenda items that are more interesting to me, as well as impact my family a bit more. I live with my wife as well as three small kids in the northeast area, and so I think things over the next four years that we’re going to see in Legislature are going to have a really big impact for the constituents in District 11.

What do you think the biggest issues facing Tompkins County are currently?

I think that in talking with people I have learned that the concerns of my constituents lie in the housing situation and finding affordable housing as well as finding accessible housing. Another concern for families is the affordability and accessibility of childcare. Many times people can be on the waitlist for a child care center for six months to two years. And the cost starts at $1,500 per month and goes all the way up to almost $2,000 per month. So for a working family that can really take out a chunk of their income.

What do you think the legislators can do to fix and address those issues?

As far as helping goes there are a few things that can be done. I specifically have a background in senior housing and so I see a great need for us to create more senior housing. And the Tompkins County housing strategy goal is to create 80 new beds for seniors in our county. However, I think we probably need to create more due to the increase of the population. We also need to focus on Medicaid-assisted living beds because we don’t have any in our county and it’s really what we need to be looking forward to. The idea behind the strategy is essentially that seniors who own homes that go to these senior options have their homes available on the market. And typically what that means is that they are and tend to be affordable because they haven’t been remodeled, they’re older homes, and it allows younger families and people who are in the range of $150,000 to $200,000 to purchase these homes at a non-market rate and do the repairs and do the updates as they receive more money.

How did you end up working in senior care?

I actually started as director of marketing at Brookdale Senior Living which was Alterra healthcare and after working there for six months I was promoted to executive director so I oversaw the dementia care as well as the assisted living building for five years. I saw the need for senior housing as well as what the different (needs) are in Tompkins County–that was 12 years ago.

Do you think any voices or communities are underrepresented in Tompkins County?

Certainly. I married my wife three years ago and I felt like as a member of the LGBT community, we’ve really come a long way since the 21 years ago I moved to Ithaca — many of the protections we have gained along the way. My wife and I were part of the Ithaca 50 that occurred about 13 years ago and we sued New York State for the right to get married. We were actually denied by the Supreme Court. And then three years ago we got married. We have three kids, ages 5, 9 and 12. So it’s been really incredible to see the progress that we’ve made over the past 20 years. I feel like we are heading in the right direction. Certainly with the most current administration, I think as a legislator it’s going to be very important for me to work on protecting the rights and protections we’ve worked so hard for.

So what are the biggest issues for your district/the people closest around you?

I think there were some questions in regard to the jail expansion. I think in looking at the Jail Study many of those questions have been answered and the results of the Jail Study have perhaps raised some more questions as for where do we go from here. But I think people are happy with the fact that we’re not going to spend millions to expand our local jail.

You said that you’re happy that there’s not going to be an expansion what other takeaways you think the community got from (the Jail Study)?

I actually work for the Southern Tier AIDS program. I’m in charge of corporate compliance there — from the standpoint of harm reduction and actually being in the community and seeing what’s happening just in our small community … we’re seeing overdoses almost on a monthly basis. You know I think that what I see, is that we really need to provide more community-based services. We also need to sit down and consolidate services. There are certain services that many agencies offer and I think there is a way to have agencies that focus in one are really take the lead in those areas. I do believe in harm reduction. I also believe in providing people that live in Ithaca with Community services such as help with housing, assistance with food, help with obtaining health insurance, and I think that’s really paramount and I think that also ties into what’s we’re seeing with people that are entering into the jail system and people not having some of their basic needs being met.

So as a legislator what kind of action do you think you could get passed regarding the ‘opioid crisis’?

I think some of it will come from our governor and also, the Department of Health … it’s really a conversation that’s going to be had with the city, the town as well as the county in working towards having a care management system in place, so that people can actually go to a single place whether it be the health department or the Southern Tier AIDS program and receive someone to help them up update services, and I also think that mental health services need to be available as well as detox and rehab and treatment for whenever people are are are ready or if they want to make that change.

What do you think of the LEAD program?

I think it’s incredible. I think what has traditionally happened in the past is that it’s been bundled with the Ithaca Plan and I think people have initially seen the Ithaca lan and been hesitant because they have not been comfortable with safe injection and unfortunately I think that’s really delayed the LEAD program being implemented. I think the LEAD program is something that we are going to see a decrease in people going through our jail system as well as … personally I think that it’s a kinder approach to people that really need help. And I think it’s really tackling the issues that we’re seeing in our community. People that don’t have homes, that don’t have insurance, people that have mental issues that aren’t being addressed — really getting people help at the core of their needs.

I want to circle back a little bit because we touched on housing briefly–so what do you think the biggest gaps in housing are?

Obviously, I think there’s you know affordable housing $125,000 to $200,000 price range is really needed in our area. You know the hard part is in building new homes, it’s very hard to find developers who can build a home — a two- to three-bedroom for under $100,000 and so it becomes areal balancing act.

I know what has been approached in the past is and what we see models of, and we’ll see if it works in the next two years is building different places like the new housing that’s off of Spencer and the one off of day street and they’re multi-family homes, and you know it really makes sense and as far as affordability goes I think that’s key. I think Ithaca neighborhood housing services does an incredible service for the people that live in Tompkins County and they really help the people who needs help the most. They seek out funding on the state and federal level and that allows people who traditionally have struggled to purchase a home become homeowners. Another part of that is there has been a stigma towards Any type of Section 8 housing and landlords have been able to discriminate based on the type of payment that they receive so I think as a legislature I think that that is some work we can do in saying funding is funding and money is money, and it shouldn’t matter if they’re paying using section 8 or their paycheck.

Do you think that a living wage should be standard in Tompkins County?

One thing that I’m researching right now, and I’ve been discussing with my constituents as well as many of my friends, is what would a living wage look like to you? For some people they’re very excited about the prospect of making $14.34 or what might be the new living wage at $15.25. They’re very excited about that. As a legislator one thing that I also had discussions about is that some of my friends are making $13 and they have kids that receive daycare subsidies and they also receive Medicaid. And so what would happen if they received $15.25?

That in the end might not help them because they could lose their daycare subsidies, they could lose their health insurance and so in fact receiving a livable wage of a $14.34 or $15.25 could really hurt a working family or perhaps even a single mom. I think that’s a discussion that we need to have. Ideally I’d love to say yes I 100 percent support it, but I think we need to ask some questions about how it’s going and how it’s going to impact our economy and how it’s going to really impact the people that need it the most.

So do you think that there could be negative effects for businesses who are smaller and would need to provide a living wage?

I think the way the economy is here in Ithaca as well as Tompkins County, we have a very strong economy and from the research that I’ve seen I believe our economy can afford and can hold a livable wage. I know that the county has also talked about perhaps helping smaller businesses with being able to help in the transition of that. Ideally whenever you think about raising the livable wage and raising the rate that people are paid, ideally that money would go back to the local area and and you would see essentially an increase in economy. So I believe that would be what what would happen. Certainly I’m not an economist. I do think we need to talk about it quite a bit and make sure that we listen to people’s concerns because it’s a really big decision.

What kind of personal qualities do you think make you a good candidate?

I feel that I’m a very good listener. One thing that’s been important for me in this election has been reaching out to people and listening to their concerns. I’ve been mentored by the current (District 11) legislator Peter Stein and so typically many Saturdays we’ve spent going out and meeting our constituents he’s been introducing me to some of the people he knows and we’ve really made it a priority to reach out to the independents as well as the republicans in our area. Because I feel like I’m very in touch with the working families as well as what their opinions are and the conversations that we’ve had have been really beneficial to me as someone who is entering into politics. It’s also hopeful because I feel like there’s common ground, we can all agree that we want good schools we want safe neighborhoods, we want jobs that pay a fair wage so I think it’s been comforting despite looking at the news every night and seeing the disparity between parties. It’s been comforting to know there is a common ground we just have to have conversations.

Featured image provided.