Maya Wiley
Maya Wiley (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

“I have the best job in City Hall,” said Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who became Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief legal advisor two months ago.

It was Wiley’s background as a racial justice activist that led to her appointment as counsel to the Mayor. “What I’m looking for in this role is someone who will constantly reinforce our focus on fighting inequality,” he said at a February news conference.

Wiley, who is 50, was most recently president of the Center for Social Inclusion, a nonprofit she founded in 2002 to advocate for policies addressing racial inequality. Prior to creating the center, she was a senior advisor on race and poverty to the director of U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute, now called the Open Society Foundations.

De Blasio said he expects Wiley to perform typical duties, such as coordinating his office’s efforts in judicial nominations, but he also put her in charge of upgrading and expanding the city’s technology and broadband access in all five boroughs. On Thursday, the city announced it was requesting proposals to build a citywide wi-fi network which officials said would be among the largest in the world.

“The digital age holds great potential to better deliver services, and by re-imagining 20th century payphones as 21st century connection points, we’re making broadband access more equitable and accessible to every New Yorker,” Wiley said in a news release Thursday.

Over her career, Wiley has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union’s national legal department; for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and in the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District.

Wiley’s activism has family roots. Her father, George Wiley, was a chemist who became a leading civil rights leader of the 1960s, founding the National Welfare Rights Organization to promote economic equality. Here she discusses her legacy of activism and how she plans to be “part of the solution.”

Q: Why did you want to become a lawyer?

A: The law shapes our relationships to one another and weaves the fabric of our society. I grew up with parents active in civil rights and economic justice issues and saw first hand how law can strengthen or weaken the social contract. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be part of tightening that fabric with legal tools.

Q: What role do you think lawyers can play in promoting “social inclusion?”

A: Lawyers play a pivotal role in ensuring an inclusive society. From the Constitution, to decisions about how ordinary citizens participate in planning, our legal structure helps shape whether or not everyone can participate in collectively innovating social solutions to big problems and small alike.

Q: What is the role of counsel to the mayor? How will your role differ from previous counsels?

A: I have the best job in City Hall. But don’t tell my colleagues. I have the honor of both ensuring that City Hall functions within the bounds of existing law, shaping law reform with a brilliant team of colleagues and supporting collective efforts across government to meet some of the mayor’s big ideas for a city rising together. Right now that means working with multiple agencies and City Hall colleagues on affordable and universal broadband access. It will likely include working corroboratively to support green jobs, among other policy areas the mayor tasks me to. This administration is taking a unique and more expansive view of the role of counsel. I think this demonstrates a recognition that lawyers are social innovators, as well as guardians of the public trust.

Q: Were you approached about the position or did you apply for it?

A: I was approached. I believe strongly in government’s ability to support a fair, opportunity-rich city. As the president of the Center for Social Inclusion, I had considered my role as advocate for innovative and fair policies to be a good role. The opportunity to work for a mayor and an administration with an aligned mission and on issues I was already working on just seemed to make good sense.

Q: What is your relationship with the mayor? Did you know or work with Bill de Blasio previously?

A: I did not know or work with Mayor de Blasio before meeting with him about a role in the administration. We hit it off quickly and I enjoy working with the mayor tremendously and I enjoy working with the senior team he has put together for City Hall.

Q: How much, if at all, does the Mayor’s Counsel push his legislative through the City Council and state Legislature?

A: City Hall has a highly effective legislative team. I am on that team. I view my job as a support to that team. There are times when they need my participation and times when it is sufficient to simply know what is in the pipeline.

Q: Did you know the previous counsels to the mayor? What will you do similarly and differently than your predecessor?

A: I have not yet had the privilege of meeting with Mike Best. Anthony Crowell and I have met and remain in contact. I am also look forward to meeting [Southern District Judge George Daniels], Mayor David Dinkins’ counsel. The wonderful thing about the New York legal community is its supportive culture.

Q: How closely does the mayor’s counsel work with the city’s corporation counsel? What about with lawyers for other city agencies?

A: I work very closely with [Corporation Counsel] Zachary Carter, a New York City legal treasure and good friend. Zach and I talk almost daily and collaborate on a range of issues. I am in contact regularly with the fine attorneys in the Law Department. I am also getting to know the general counsels of the city’s agencies. We coordinate as needed and I will be endeavoring to meet with as many as I can even if we have no immediate business.

Q: What is at the top of your priority list as the mayor’s counsel?

A: I have two top priorities: 1) ensure the effective functioning of City Hall in accordance with the laws that govern us; and 2) support them mayor’s agenda to add rungs to the ladder of opportunity for all New Yorkers, which is beginning with broadband access.

Q: After a career as an activist, what made you want to enter a government role?

A: I know its value of government is us. We need it to work and be inclusive. I have worked in government as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and know first hand the difference thoughtful people make when they serve the public interest. As an activist, I have fought to support its fairness and effectiveness. It was an easy decision to make and it’s a privilege to serve.

Q: How do you think your experience as a civil rights attorney will shape your role as mayor’s counsel?

A: I work for a team that ensures that the city and all it’s residents prosper. As a city that is one of the most vibrant and diverse in the country, working for a mayor that wants to see us grow together, I think my expertise will only serve to benefit all New Yorkers. Everyone in this city, whether of Irish decent or Mexican immigrant, whether Jewish or African American, should be able to benefit from all the city has to offer and to participate in the creation of those benefits.

Q: What led you to create the Center for Social Inclusion in 2002?

A: I created the center to innovate policy solutions that would produce a fair and unified prosperity across race. I always believed that we must solve root causes to unintended barriers to opportunity and that in doing so, we ultimately lift all boats. The center supports identifying and moving those solutions.

Q: What do you see as the center’s greatest accomplishments?

A: The center has become a national thought leader in policy strategies to address root causes of inequality. It has lead strategy development, including King County in Washington state. It has also become a thought leader in food policy, transportation equity and broadband access. Perhaps a crowning achievement is testing how to talk about race in an inclusive way that builds alliances not divisions.

Q: As mayor’s counsel, you’re expected to lead efforts to upgrade and expand the city’s technology and broadband access in all five boroughs. How do you plan to accomplish that?

A: Collaboratively. There are several leaders in City Hall and agencies, as well as community innovators and tech sector allies and the large telecommunications firms who are, and must be, part of a conversation about how to achieve our broadband goals. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. We must engage all our city’s stakeholders to find meaningful pathways to affordable, high-speed technology that helps New York continue to be a technology center.

Q: What was it like growing up as the daughter of a civil rights activist? In what ways has his activism influenced you, and in what ways has it not?

A: I am very proud to be the daughter of a man who gave up a promising career in chemistry to ensure that all people, no matter their race, could live with dignity. Growing up in movement times is like growing up in a very large, extended family, except that you aren’t related by blood. I knew women on welfare and millionaires and saw them working together. I learned that people matter and must be part of solving their problems. My parents were smart, inspiring, loving people and I was shaped in that.

Q: Have you tried to pass on their ideals and worldview to your own children?

A: I try to pass on to my children the ability to see the life situation of others different from themselves, empathize and act, when they are so moved. I try to support them to come to their own conclusions, not to accept what they have been told, even by me. To question with an open mind is to move toward wisdom. I want them to be wise.

Q: In an interview in Uptown Magazine, you said “thinking about the world my children will inherit” keeps you up at night. Why?

A: We have made tremendous strides in this country, particularly on racism. And yet we face the greatest wealth inequality since the great depression. Climate change threatens our future in ways we are still trying to understand. College graduates struggle to find decent jobs and pay for college. These are challenges we must face head on if our children are to have the inheritance they deserve. That’s why I work for Mayor Bill de Blasio. I want to be part of the solution.