A Talk With Dr. John Flateau

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A Talk With Dr. John Flateau


In honor of Black History Month this year, we interviewed social justice pioneers in Central Brooklyn to understand the impact individuals and organizations have had on the social and political landscape of our community. Public policy changes that arose from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s helped usher in a new era of progressive politics that saw many people of color find their political voice. An important part of the movement for equality was the struggle for high quality public education in communities of color. Much like today, issues like diversity in hiring, a culturally relevant curriculum, and adequate funding inspired many leaders to action.

From the halls of the New York State government in Albany to Gracie Mansion in Manhattan, Dr. John Flateau has spent most of his career in politics fighting for equality and funding for communities across the five boroughs and other parts of the state. He now serves as a Democratic Party Commissioner for the Board of Elections in Brooklyn, as well as Dean of the College of Public Policy at Medgar Evers College. His 50+ years of involvement in New York politics began right here in Central Brooklyn.


How did the Ocean Hill/Brownsville Teachers’ Strike in 1968 lead to political change?

Some of the major leaders in our community over the last 50 years started out as educators or as members of community-based organizations to demand better quality education in their public schools. One of those key leaders was and is still with us, Al Vann, who is also a founding member of Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. At the time, he was an administrator at one of the experimental education districts in the city. There were 3--IS 201 in Harlem, one in the Lower East Side, and another in Brownsville. These model educational districts were set up with the hope that they would improve the quality of educational service delivery in these communities.

Back in those days, all of the administrators and teachers in communities of color were white, so there was a movement that recruited from historically black colleges and universities and a number of our forebears left New York City to HBCUs and returned to become administrators. The quality education movement was very important to me, as I was one of the “shock troops”, a college student who participated in the demonstrations. That’s how I came across these personalities that were leading the charge.


When did you become active in politics?

There was a movement we called “The Vanguard,” where one of our products was the creation of an organization called “VIDA,” which is the oldest black political organization in Brooklyn, almost 50 years old.

VIDA started out by taking out the incumbent politicians, and today it has incumbent politicians like Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, Councilmember Robert Cornegy. It all started with Al Vann, who first ran for office in 1972. We were not political amateurs, but we did make mistakes. The political establishment knocked us on our ass and off the ballot. Then we ran on an independent line, and created our own political party called the “Vanguard Political Party” in 1972. We pulled a few thousand votes, down ballot in a presidential year, when all the voters were looking for the Democratic party line. That signaled that we were onto something in terms of grassroots organizing and voter education. We created a ballot so people knew where to find us. Mr. Vann was elected in the following session in 1974, and I served as one of his first staff members. That's when I moved to legislative staff in Albany.


How do you see the Democratic Party changing?

More women are being elected, which represents a different point of view than a male centric policy driven agenda of the past. In a way, we are achieving equilibrium. We’ve had a patriarchal public policy making system in place for so long, so now that dynamic is changing which is good. This is also generational, younger folks are becoming more politically active.

Young people need to pay attention to politics and economics. They are becoming more active attempting to bring about policy change and shifting the way government is allocating resources. I see young people are already taking the lead. Speaking of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez election, there was only a 15% turn out, but she did a great job reaching out to her constituents who supported her platform. That’s nothing to shake a stick at.

Read the full transcript HERE