Fighting for Change, One Meeting at a Time

Sandy McKee’s role in local government began with a bike lane − two actually − the protected pair along First and Second avenues. When members of Transportation Alternatives’ East Side Volunteer Committee told her about the plan to build safe cycling space from Harlem to lower Manhattan, the 49-year-old architect and Midtown East resident knew she was going to get involved. Just how involved she has become still surprises her.

“When I first signed up to learn about the local community board at a Transportation Alternatives’ event, I had no idea what I was getting into,” she told Reclaim in a phone interview. “But as the process went on, and when I finally joined the board, I quickly realized that one person can really make a difference there.”

Sandy is one of a handful of T.A. members who has made the fight for complete streets and a more sustainable city a part of her monthly schedule. After joining the East Side Volunteer Committee and hearing that local community boards would play a big part in the success of the East Side bike lanes, she redoubled her efforts and decided to attend the annual Community Board Join-Up Jamboree, an info session and how-to-join primer about New York City’s most local level of government.

There are 59 community boards throughout the City. Each one consists of up to 50 unsalaried members, half of whom are nominated by their district’s City Council members. Board members are selected and appointed by the borough presidents from among active, involved people from each neighborhood. Though most of a community board’s power comes in an advisory role, elected officials and their representatives listen closely to what’s said and seconded at each meeting, as do City departments and state-level elected officials.

Community boards have played a vital role in all of the livable streets improvements that have come to New York City in recent years. From the Prospect Park West bike lane to the overhaul of Queensboro Plaza to pedestrian spaces in Jackson Heights, and, most importantly for Sandy, the protected bike lanes slowly growing along First and Second avenues. “It’s so important to have a cyclist on the community board,” she said, “To be there and speak out and see things through a certain set of eyes. It’s hard work sometimes, but it’s amazing to feel empowered; to have knowledge about your community; to speak up for change. I’d recommend it to anyone.”