When Bronx-based community organizer Elisa Crespo advocates for housing accessibility, investment in public education, and job security, it’s personal. The 30-year-old is fueled by memories of growing up in New York City, witnessing her single mother fighting to sustain herself and her four children. Because her family often had to move from one Section 8 housing to another—and once to a shelter while Crespo’s mother struggled to make a living—she has lived in four of the city’s five boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.
“What I realized growing up, living in [almost] every borough, is that the struggles that people face in the Bronx are similar to the struggles that people face in Brooklyn and some parts of Queens,” Crespo told Prism. While her upbringing was difficult, she is undeniably proud of her roots. “It’s a great city to grow up in despite the fact that it is a very unequal city,” Crespo said.
Addressing inequality has been the aim of her work in the Bronx, where she’s lived and organized for a decade focusing on housing rights, economic justice, access to education, and other issues that have impacted her community since long before the pandemic. Apart from Crespo’s upbringing, her experiences as a trans woman and a former sex worker have impacted the issues she’s fighting for. Crespo is one of the leading voices fighting to repeal a New York law known as “Walking While Trans,” an anti-loitering statute that’s resulted in disproportionate police violence and arrests for transgender women of color. She also advocates against the continued criminalization and demonization of sex work.
Now, after years working in public service and grassroots organizing, Crespo is running for New York City Council, hoping to fill the seat left vacant by U.S. Rep.-elect Ritchie Torres. If she wins in next year’s special election, Crespo would be the first trans council member representing the 15th District of the Bronx. However, she reminds people that this isn’t the primary reason she’s running. “Representation matters and it’s very important and there is a historic nature to this campaign, but this is not about me, this is about the struggles the people in my community are facing every day,” Crespo said.
This month, Crespo spoke with Prism about her advocacy for sex workers’ rights and the labor movement, and about her community in the Bronx, which has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our conversations have been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
María Inés Taracena:You’re very vocal about your childhood and about what your mom faced as a single mother. How did this shape the issues that you fight for today?
Elisa Crespo: My mother grew up in New York City in the 1980s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and it was a rough time back then. She was codependent on her significant others. She had low-wage jobs here and there, so she really relied on the men in her life to provide. I saw what that did to her. I saw the power that it took away from her. As a young person, I distinctly remember thinking I would never let a man have that much power over me. I saw my mother with my own eyes being physically abused on several occasions. It made me very protective over her and made me very sympathetic over her life.
I’m my mother’s only child to graduate from college. My mother has four kids. One of them is in college now, he’s younger than me. But I have two older siblings who grew up in different circumstances than I did. They grew up in a lot rougher environments than I did. They didn’t make it into college. Even though we didn’t have a really close relationship, [my mother] was always there, and she always accepted me for who I was. She never abandoned me. I always appreciated that. I know she’s proud of me. I’m sure she’s very happy to see her child try to do something big, try to make change and try to be a leader.
Taracena: At what stage in your life did you become more involved with grassroots organizing?
Crespo: I started my activism as an elected student leader at the City University of New York. That is the governing board of elected students across the university, and across the five boroughs. This experience got me closer to politics. It took me up to the state capitol in Albany, where we would have meetings with state lawmakers and advocate to make sure the public university was funded, and that there were no budget cuts or tuition hikes. I was also studying political science. I was really inspired in 2015, going into 2016 by the progressive movement, to get involved in politics and make sure I was heard. Being an elected student leader and organizing with young people [made me understand that] our voices have collective power.
Taracena: Talk about your involvement in the workers’ rights movement. You’re a union member. You’ve also been a sex workers’ rights advocate, fighting for the decriminalization of sex work. Why is it crucial to be inclusive of sex work within the labor movement? You fight for this from a very personal position.
Crespo: Union workers are the ones that fight for our workplace protections. Without unions, we would not have a middle class. We would not have working class power. It’s a privilege to be part of a union where you can get benefits, you can get health care. In this district where I live, in the heart of the Bronx, there’s a lot of suffering and there’s a lack of employment. Some 30% of people in this district have less than a high school education and we’re currently facing up to 25% unemployment rates.
I come at this from a very specific and interesting point of view and background. I come at this as a trans woman of color, which is not insignificant when talking about [the subject of sex work]. Trans people, LGBTQ+ people of color, [and] particularly trans women of color have been historically marginalized from employment. There are real barriers to employment for us.
I think people forget that it was just last year that the New York state legislature passed a bill called GENDA, which prohibited discrimination from employers on the basis of gender identity. So before then, it was allowed. I’m not here to encourage people to be sex workers. But I understand that … a lot of women sometimes have no other choice than to resort to survival sex work, and they shouldn’t be criminalized for it. Because there’s a lot of nuance and a lot of context there. There’s a reason why people resort to survival sex work. I know I never desired to be involved in sex work. I grew up around older trans women. They were my role models, and this was what they were doing [for a living]. This is also about body autonomy, women having the right to do what they will with their bodies, and the government shouldn’t be able to tell you who you can and cannot have consensual sex with.
Taracena: Recently the New York Post—a tabloid newspaper that endorsed President Donald Trump—ran a very demonizing article about you and sex work. How have these kinds of outlets and media in general been complicit in the dehumanization of sex workers and misconceptions surrounding sex work?
Crespo: It’s very dangerous. It can cause us harm. It’s not surprising that they would use a very polarizing headline for clickbait. I had to let them know that there’s a backstory here. You need to understand what that backstory is. Let’s look at this from another way. We are often glorifying sex, sexual liberty, femininity in pop culture, being sexy and sexual. We praise them. We buy their records and listen to their songs. I don’t understand what the difference is here. My story is one of overcoming, transition, and moving forward. We should be congratulating people who have been able to get out of the sex worker industry [when they choose or are able to] and not demonize them [because of] their past. Everyone has a past and I don’t regret anything. It was a long time ago. And it doesn’t define who I am. This was about weaponizing transphobia.
Taracena: The Bronx has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, not only as a public health crisis but an economic crisis. What has that been like for you, seeing the hardships the community is experiencing right now?
Crespo: We already had a pandemic in the Bronx, so when COVID-19 hit, it doubled the effect. We already have the highest rate of asthma [in the city]. We already have the highest rate of diabetes. We already were the hungriest, poorest borough. We already had some of these underlying conditions here. The environmental racism. We had food insecurity and poverty. We are the borough with the most kids in handcuffs, with the highest rates of evictions. All of that was already here before COVID-19. That’s why it had such a detrimental effect in the Bronx. Some argued that COVID-19 was the great equalizer and that it doesn’t discriminate against anyone, but I strongly disagree with that. COVID-19 does discriminate against low-income communities of color, where there are preexisting inequities and health inequities.
In the Bronx, there are people who live within close confines of each other. Part of our problem is high-density neighborhoods. Immigrant communities, where more than one person is sharing a room, [make] it very easy for a virus to spread quickly. And that’s why people in the Bronx were twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than any other borough in New York City. When a global pandemic hits the Bronx, we get it worse. But people in the Bronx are strong. People in the Bronx are some of the best organizers, [the] most resilient people. These are people that have survived so much. They’ve been here when the Bronx was crumbling, and they helped rebuild the Bronx. People in the Bronx have years of experience in organizing mutual aid, coming to each other’s defense. Seeing that has warmed my heart. Seeing the people doing what they can to deliver meals to homebound seniors. Seeing people step up and clean our parks when the city council cut our sanitation and parks budget. We’re repeating history, ironically. We’re seeing community members take matters into their own hands, and not wait for government.
Taracena: Tell us about some of these mutual aid efforts and grassroots organizing in the Bronx during the pandemic.
Crespo: This was a resurgence of mutual aid like the East Bronx and South Bronx mutual aid groups. The grassroots group I’m a part of, the Allerton Allies, brought community refrigerators, and it was our decentralizing way [of] having these places where people can come without having to sign in or get their picture taken or stand in line, and take what they need. Housing justice advocates have really organized right now. The rise of evictions correlates directly with COVID-19, and the Bronx has always been the epicenter of evictions. We’ve always had housing advocates and tenant advocates, but we have really seen them build coalitions. Groups like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Community Action for Safe Apartments are Bronx-born groups that were created here, that have been around, and have really started building bigger, more effective organizing. They have been on the ground in front of housing courts, calling for the state government to cancel rent and to halt evictions.
This was also the summer of protests. We were there every single day, young people marching against police brutality and against the systemic racism that we face. [Then, there’s] Strategy for Black Lives, a group that I’m a part of that many of the young people I organized with in college at CUNY are now a part of, too. We were on the streets every day, marching over the Brooklyn Bridge, shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Concourse in the Bronx, marching in front of Foley Square in Manhattan, demanding justice and taking up space.
We have also seen young LGBTQ+ activists rise up again the same way they did in 1969 with the Stonewall protests. Groups of Black and brown queer people taking to the streets, holding demonstrations in front of Stonewall, marches and rallies across the city, pushing back against police brutality, which is what the original Stonewall riot was about.
There was a movement called Occupy City Hall, which was, again, young progressive people literally camping outside New York City Hall, sleeping there for days, calling for the council to pass a just budget, calling for them to divest from over-policing and reinvest in low-income communities of color and public education, and reinvest in housing. That was particularly important as we were dealing with COVID-19 and the economic impact of it. [There were] so many unemployed people facing evictions that didn’t have anything to eat, or living paycheck to paycheck. It was young people: we were occupying city hall saying there’s never been a better time to reallocate money from militarized police to critical social programs. Our demands weren’t fully met, but we did make some progress.
Taracena: Any final reflections about your community in the Bronx?
Crespo: I’ve lived all throughout the city, but nowhere have I felt more comfortable and welcomed than in the Bronx. The Bronx welcomed me with open arms. It’s where I got my first apartment, where I got my first job in government, and it’s where I grew into a woman. There is a feeling in the Bronx that you don’t really get anywhere else. It’s a sense of community and resilience … you can’t help but to have a sense of respect and real gratitude.