The Harvard Grad Behind the NYC Mayor’s Dreams

Yochonon Donn during an interview with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery in City Hall.
Yochonon Donn during an interview with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery in City Hall.

Interview with Richard Buery

By Yochonon Donn

When Bill de Blasio became New York City’s 109th mayor in January of 2014, there was no doubt as to his priority: free prekindergarten for every 4-year-old child. He talked about it all along the campaign trail and devoted a significant portion of his inaugural address to this passion.

To make his signature campaign issue — called UPK for universal prekindergarten — a reality, de Blasio selected Richard Buery, a young community organizer from East New York. The 43-year-old Brooklyn native had graduated from Harvard and Yale and used his time helping youths keep away from a life of drift.

Now crowned with the title “deputy mayor for strategic policy initiatives,” Buery had the chance to effect change from the highest rungs of municipal government.

According to all accounts, Buery has succeeded. More than 68,500 of New York City’s littlest began full-day pre-K this year, including 3,137 in yeshivos. He has worked, mostly behind the scenes, with every community across the five boroughs, including with groups such as Agudath Israel of America, to ensure that every yeshivah was aware of its options. More than a third of eligible yeshivah students ended up saying yes.

Meanwhile, the city’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, also had an agenda. Shortly after moving into Gracie Mansion, she dropped a bombshell — after her daughter was born two decades ago she did not always find parenting a joyful task. She was determined to talk about it so other women will not be embarrassed to seek help from postpartum depression. Since then, she has opened up on her teenage daughter’s struggles with substance abuse and her own parents’ battles with depression.

McCray has since become an outspoken advocate for the 20 percent of New Yorkers suffering from mental health issues. She started an agency called ThriveNYC — and, like her husband, chose Buery to make her signature issue a logistical reality.

In an interview Buery granted Hamodia, which took place on a recent afternoon in his City Hall office, Buery discussed how he got UPK off the ground, laying the groundwork for ThriveNYC’s unveiling of a mental health roadmap in November, his past, and his hopes for the future.

Buery, essentially, found himself in de Blasio’s progressive rhetoric.

“As young Richard Buery saw it,” began a 2009 Crain’s New York profile of Buery, “there were two New Yorks. There was the New York of his Stuyvesant High School classmates, for whom attending college was a fait accompli. Then there was the city of his East New York friends, for whom failure was assumed. And it made him angry.”

His efforts toward getting the city’s young to school at an earlier age, along with his current mission of transforming the way New Yorkers perceive mental health, are his solution to that great 2009 divide.

Correct me if I’m wrong: After the pre-K program was implemented, you were home twiddling your thumbs and the mayor decided to throw ThriveNYC on you.

(Laughs.) That’s right. It was a very short period of twiddling thumbs.

When I joined the administration, there were a few key projects that I was tasked with helping to see through. Certainly the biggest and the highest profile was Pre-K for All. I was also asked to help lead our effort to expand after-school programs in middle schools around the city — a program called School’s Out NYC. All have been very successful. We have over 100,000 middle schoolers in after-school programs enrolled around the city right now.

I was asked to lead the Young Men’s Initiative, which is the mayor’s effort to invest in young men of color, and to help lead the Children’s Cabinet, which is a new effort, which engages 23 different city agencies to try to align policy and practice so that everybody’s working on the same page in terms of making the city the best place in the country to raise kids.

I wish I could say pre-K was totally implemented, but certainly some of the big hurdles we’ve gotten through. While before we had ideas and plans on a bunch of sheets of paper, now we’ve got 68,500 kids in pre-K around the city. There’s tons of more work to do, but absolutely, I feel like the madness, for lack of a better word, the wild intensity of putting that together, is over.

We’re now in the stage where we have a strong program that we’re trying to improve and make sure the quality is right and get out the kinks and still addressing some neighborhood-by-neighborhood specific challenges. But we’re definitely in a better place.

So as that project was coming to fruition, the mayor and the first lady — I’m sure you’ve heard the first lady speak about her struggles with mental health — wanted me to help again by taking their ideas and help put them into action. They wanted to make sure that we have a plan to deliver on those broad initiatives, designed to improve the quality of mental health in New York City.

I’ve been working on that for several months now. The mayor has since asked me take on some other city agencies as part of the normal realignment of responsibility. So, I’m also supervising a range of city agencies, including the Department of Youth and Community Development and Probation, Immigrant Affairs, Veterans’ Affairs, and others.

I like the way you just throw out all these big multi-faceted agencies into just a normal realignment of responsibility…

The great thing about this work is that we in city government really have tremendous, tremendous, tremendous people. Each of those agencies is led by a tremendous commissioner, a talented commissioner who is supported by an amazing staff. So they get to do all the hard work, and I get to take credit when good things happen, which is always a good plan.

But seriously, it really is more about supporting and empowering the great work of these folks in the field and making sure that all that work is aligned according to the mayor’s priorities and making sure that those agencies have what they need to be successful, whether it’s resources or political support or communication advice.

But ThriveNYC is sort of unique among that. Because although those things are agencies, ThriveNYC isn’t one agency. It involves, again, like Pre-K for All, coordinating among many agencies.

In addition, before we released that ThriveNYC document in November, all of the work was identifying what are the problems we want to solve, what are the initiatives we’re going to develop to implement it, and how are we going to tell the story in this document that helps New Yorkers understand why this work is so critical.

We had to explain to New Yorkers that one in five adult New Yorkers experiences a mental illness in any given year; that there’s $14 billion of lost productivity every year based on mental illness and disorder and the impact that has on people not coming to work, on not being productive; that major depressive disorder is the single leading cause of disability in the city.

We’re trying to help people understand that this isn’t a little problem — it’s a major problem, which affects everybody. Because all those people have friends and family members and coworkers and sons and daughters and parents, all of whom are affected by that work. And their workplaces are affected, the school system is affected.

So, we have an initiative, and now the question becomes, how do we take these great ideas and make sure they move forward according to plan?

Do you have any mental health statistics specifically within the Orthodox community?

We do, in some cases. I’m very pleased that some of us have engaged with groups across the [Orthodox] community. The first lady and I were at Ohel; we spoke briefly there. I’m glad we’ve been able to make that happen. That’s sort of one of a number of conversations we’ve been having around the city.

I would say that there’s a lot of information that we know about the experience of mental illness and how it impacts different communities. We know the impact in very different communities. We know that, for example, in the Latino population there’s a particular challenge of depression among adolescent girls. In other communities, there are various issues related to stigma and how different communities are open to talking about mental illness. We know that a particular community may have particular challenges around having a culturally competent workforce.

But the truth is we also know there’s lots that we don’t know. And a big part of the effort around ThriveNYC is actually investing in our ability to gather and process information. So, we don’t know everything we can know about how, for example, the Orthodox Jewish community experiences depression or how Dominican families in Washington Heights deal with substance misuse.

Part of what we’re trying is to get better information because without this information we’re always going to fall short. We’re not going to know what to target here versus there, what resources we need here, what are the right partners in this neighborhood versus that neighborhood.

So I think there’s a lot that we know, but, frankly, there’s a lot that we don’t know.

One initiative is the Maimonides ­postpartum depression pilot program, where they will be screening women ­before the birth as well. What do you want to come out of this program?

We know that 12 percent of new mothers experience depression after childbirth. Unfortunately — we talked about stigma a moment ago — there are lots of reasons why people don’t seek help. It’s frustrating because so many mental illnesses — almost all — are treatable. But often it’s these cultural barriers that stand in the way of getting help.

For a new mom, it’s supposed to be a joyous time in your life. You’re supposed to be happy and you see your kid and you’re supposed to love your kid in that minute. But that’s not everyone’s story. There are so many barriers to saying so. It goes against the most basic cultural understanding of what it means to be a new mother that we understand from research that it’s getting in the way of people getting help, even though help is gettable.

We also know that lots of new moms do a great job of going to the doctor for the well visits, for the baby visits, for the one-month appointment, for the three-months appointment. But they don’t always do a good job of going to their primary care doctor and taking care of themselves. So, achieving universal screening for postpartum depression, both before and after childbirth, involves both obstetricians and family pediatricians who are seeing babies on their well visits.

Is there a precedent to having the pediatrician talk to the mother about her own health?

There is. And there’s lots of interesting work going on all over the city, all over the country. In fact, the great news from a few days ago is that a federal panel of experts appointed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services just made this recommendation for the whole country, that there should be universal neonatal depression screening both before and after birth.

So, yes, there are protocols for the pediatrician to talk to the mom. But they’re not implemented consistently for all sorts of reasons. So part of what we’re doing in Maimonides — and New York City Health and Hospitals are leading the way — is making a commitment to figure this out. Those hospitals are making a commitment to resolving this in two years, Health and Hospitals is basically starting with three hospitals. Maimonides is doing a more comprehensive plan initially. We then want to use what they learn to figure out how to bring that to scale. Those two hospitals account actually for a large percentage of the births in New York City. I forget the percentage, but I want to say it’s 30 percent. I could be wrong — then the Greater New York Hospitals Association is organizing a learning network for both Maimonides and Health and Hospitals for other member hospitals who will have to learn from the experience of Maimonides and Health and Hospitals to figure out how they can implement those protocols on their own in their own hospitals.

Our goal is that every hospital will adopt these procedures, every pediatrician adopt these procedures. And we can really sort of change. Again, 12 percent of moms [get postpartum depression] — if we can change that calculus and make sure they get help and get support, we can make a tremendous difference.

Let’s shift gears for a second. About regular depression among teens, I know public schools will probably be easier. Every public school has a nursing station. What about private schools and yeshivos? A lot of yeshivos don’t even have a nurse on site. You said you want to make asking for mental help as easy as asking for a good dentist. How would you go about changing that mindset in a place that the city does not even have a presence right now?

That’s a great question. Look, public schools, even though they’re run by the city, it’s challenging enough. I have to say, we are making some big strides. We’re opening new mental health clinics. We’re bringing on new capacity to help principals navigate the process of how do you plan the right supports for your school. But even so, there are tremendous barriers. And that’s for the system that we control. But you’re absolutely right. And particularly sometimes in religious schools, there may be a whole other set of cultural barriers that stand in the way of having open and honest conversations.

I guess I would say two things. One of the six tenets of ThriveNYC is the idea of stigma — addressing stigma. And the second is partnering with communities. To a certain extent, this is a place where those two things come together. We need to have a dynamic conversation with institutions in every community, including various religious communities, whether it’s a Muslim community, Jewish community or others, to figure out what is the best way to begin this conversation.

The answer in Washington Heights is not going to be the same answer in Greenpoint. We understand that process is one that’s neighborhood-by-neighborhood, community-by-community. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re going out to communities like that. Because the answer is, I know it’s a problem, but the real answer is, I don’t know. And we need you to tell us — we need different communities to tell us how to have those conversations.

The second thing I would say is — and the first lady said this very clearly at Ohel, I tried to reiterate it — this is a tremendous start. It’s a tremendous investment. I think it demonstrates our seriousness in our leadership. There are all sorts of problems that we have not yet begun to solve here. And so we’re going to have to, again, continue to develop new responses, new pragmatic responses. I’m sure one of them is going to have to be how do we engage yeshivos?

It’s not going to be the same thing that we do in public high schools. It’s not going to be the same thing that we do in public elementary schools. But we’re starting there, and we’re creating the lines of dialogue. And we’re going to have to keep coming back to the table to see what’s missing and what do we have to build next.

Was the meeting in Ohel the first you’ve had with the community? Is this the first time you’ve had those conversations you spoke about before?

No, they’ve been going on. I mean, the first lady has been having these conversations for a year. I’ve been newer to the process — I came to the ThriveNYC work a couple of months ago. But I would say that now that we actually have the roadmap; we’re having different kinds of conversations. And so we’ve met with the Asian Federation. We’ve met with the Council of Religious Leaders. We’ve met with leaders in the Muslim community. Part of what I want to do is to have these be regular, periodic meetings.

Like the meeting we had — well, I don’t want to do that once every other year. I want to do that regularly, so that folks in the community can in real-time and directly say back to me — like you just said — “here’s what, have you thought about this?”

But also what’s really helpful, frankly, is not just “have you thought about this,” but “here’s a great idea about how to address it.” “Here’s what I’m doing here.” Maybe even something that could be brought to scale. Maybe something that we can invest in, in the city.

Working with the community is really central to our solution, but we know we have to have ongoing conversations about what works and help everyone have a different kind of dialogue about these issues.

The pre-K program for Mayor de Blasio has been compared in importance to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In 10 years from now, when the definitive history of the de Blasio administration comes out, will it record that you expected to have 68,500 by the second year already?

Honestly? (Laughs.) What I would say is when I took this job I had a lot of skepticism myself on our ability to achieve these targets. As I said to the mayor, “Really? Like every 4-year-old in New York City? You don’t mean every 4-year-old.”

The great thing about the mayor is, he means every 4-year-old. And what he brought to this conversation is a commitment to do what had to be done to get there, to make sure to fight for the resources we needed to do it, to drive the bureaucracy of city government — I don’t mean bureaucracy in a bad way — to make it clear that there was an expectation that everyone was going to do what they had to do to get this done.

It shows me that there are very few things that we as a city, as a community, can’t do when you actually have a leadership committed to doing it and a willingness to actually drive the resources, both human and financial, to get it done.

And we look at the administration — I mean, we pulled off some pretty big things: IDNYC, 750,000 people with IDNYC. Way beyond what we planned. Forget pre-K. Way beyond the expectation of what uptake would be. The Affordable Housing Plan, Housing New York, on track, 40,000 units developed and maintained already, on the 10-year path of 200,000 units.

You just have to go down the line, but it’s not an accident. It’s because everybody here takes these goals seriously. And one thing that I always tell New Yorkers, they should feel very good about the people who work for them because these are public servants who are really tremendously talented people and, oftentimes, what they just need is a target, like a goal.

What I see, at least in my limited two years in government, is that when you tell these folks there’s a goal, but you actually allow them to do it — if they hear the goal, but I’m not going to give you any money or any resources, but you give them the tools to get it done — folks still go out and get the goal.

This is a great example of that. It’s a great example of partnership because it’s the private sector. Most of our pre-K seats are in community-based organizations or large non-profits, small non-profits, Catholic schools, yeshivah schools. It’s also a really great example of how the public sector and the private sector can work together to do extraordinary things for our families.

Related to pre-K, the Orthodox community makes up close to 15 percent of the overall pre-K population. Right now, parents must make a choice between joining a half-day program of 2 hours and 20 minutes or a full-day for 6 hours and 20 minutes. There is this hope to have somewhere in-between the half day and the full day — the state-mandated five hours, or the way it was before the de Blasio administration implemented pre-K. Even the kids who today are in half-day programs, they’re actually there full-time for five hours, but they only get reimbursed for a half day. Is there any chance of getting the five-hour program?

Well, this is what I would say. The mayor has been very clear from day one, and the evidence really bears this out, that part of the power of pre-K — the outcomes you want to see, the short-term and long-term outcome of academic development, human development, long-term life development — are really tied to having a full-day program. We believe six hours and 20 minutes is the right time.

Of course, parents make the right decision for their children. We continue to have a smaller half-day program, and we continue to fund thousands of half-day seats around the city because we know there are some families and some communities for whom the half day will make sense. But we really do believe in six hours and 20 minutes.

We also believe in having a diverse system. We believe part of the power of it, particularly when you’re talking about little kids, is that people have to find the program that — I mean, leave your 4-year-olds somewhere. Let there be a place that speaks to you. It’s got to be comfortable culturally, it’s got to be comfortable in terms of their educational approach.

So, it’s a very serious decision, even more so than any other level of schooling. You have to have a wide variety of content.

And as you saw — and that’s why we’ve been so flexible, including pushing ourselves about what this six hours and 20 minutes mean and how you structure it. Because we really wanted to bend over backwards for every kind of school or organization that wants to participate to make sure we maximize the amount of groups that were able to participate. We want to have a maximum number of options for families. And what we saw is a tremendous uptake in religious schools, including yeshivos, that are participating in pre-K.

Even with all the challenges — and I’ve been in many meetings where they explain to me a thousand ways how six hours and 20 minutes couldn’t work — what we’ve seen is that for thousands of kids, yeshivos have been able to find a way to make it work. And I hope at the end of the day that’s the best advertisement.

So, for any sort of school that’s still unsure whether this works for them, there are yeshivos for whom it works. My answer is that we really are about six hour and 20 minutes full day, but my answer is also that we’ve found lots of flexible ways to deliver that time, as I’m sure you’re aware.

A lot of schools have made it work. I would think that yeshivos, if you are on the fence, there are RFPs (Requests for Proposals, or a bid for contracts) out all the time, and there will continue to be RFPs out into the future. And we hope that more and more folks will say actually we’re going to try to make that work. I think if people talk to their colleagues, they’ll find that, again, not that there aren’t problems and it’s all perfect, but that by-and-large people have been able to make it work.

We’re talking about around 2,000 half-day and around 8,000 who go to full day. So, those 2,000 children, you’re saying a hybrid is not an option at this time.

Yeah. We have no plans to introduce another version, another flavor, of full day. And, again, we’re happy that so many schools — and really it’s been a tremendous increase — have been able to make it work. We just encourage more and more schools that are in that district to give it a chance to see if they can make it work. And I believe that most schools will be able to make it work if we try.

Last year’s RFP’s were released a couple of weeks before the school year began. …

I know. They were late.

I understand probably the administration wanted everyone to go for full day. Now that the program is implemented, will they be released earlier?

I can’t answer that question for you because we haven’t mapped that out yet. We’ll be able to get back to you soon about what our plans are. But certainly we do feel like we’re in a stable position now.

One thing that’s very important to do is we have an ongoing dialogue with all the providers from every community — we try to stay in close touch with people about what’s happening and what’s not happening, both with members of the council who care about this issue, but also with provider communities and umbrella organizations.

And so we will absolutely communicate to folks — and we try to — about what’s coming when. And when we’re not doing it the way people want, we hear. And, believe me, we listen and we try to adapt the best we can. We’re not always able to do what people want us to do, but we really do try our best.

You grew up in East New York and you made it to two Ivy League colleges. Since then you’ve worked mentoring younger people. What lesson could people take from this?

That’s a deep question. I’ll think about it for a second. I appreciate the question. I’m trying to give you an honest and meaningful answer. I think in my life I’ve taken a great joy from serving others. It’s what I enjoy doing. And I think for me it comes from different places. It comes from growing up in a family where service was important. My mother was a teacher. My father and mother always volunteered; they are very active in the church to this day. Always volunteering, teaching Sunday school.

My dad was, even when he was working full time — he’s retired now — he spent half the time working in the church. I mean, everything from helping to manage the books to showing up in the middle of the night with his wrench if there was a leak and fixing the leak. So, I certainly grew up in an environment where people were — that’s what you did.

Your parents still live in Brooklyn?

Still living in East New York. Still living in the same place. And so I grew up with that very strong example of service. But also I think I grew up with a sense of injustice because, as you say, before I got to Ivy League I went to Stuyvesant, which is a great public school, but one that has unfortunately become less and less diverse as the years passed. High-performing school, like my graduating class — I think there were 33 of us who went to Harvard in my graduating class.

So, it’s a very high-performing school. But it was a very jarring experience coming from East New York and going to this very different place and seeing the different educational opportunities that were given to kids from other parts of the city. I think that’s really where I got the sense of maybe how I could serve.

And I started really in college. I started volunteering at after-school tutoring programs. I fell in love with it, got more and more involved. We started a summer camp with a few friends for the kids there, because they didn’t have anything to do in the summer. And I’ve been basically doing a version of that ever since.

So I think I was really blessed to find what I love, but — and I wish I could give you some sort of big moment — I think really I just love doing it. I loved it. I loved seeing those kids every day. I loved feeling like I’m making a difference. I’m friends with some of them now. They’ve got big jobs and they’re doing great things from Mission Hill houses in Roxbury. I still feel good about it. It gives me a high.

So, I get really high about this. I go around and I see the Opportunity Starts Now pre-K posters. Little Benjamin (the son of an aide) hanging out here when pre-K’s out, and life just feels good. It makes me happy.

I did a little homework before this interview. I read the Crain’s 2009 profile of you. A lot of what you said over there sounds very familiar, especially about a tale of two cities.

(Laughs.) One of the reasons why I was so excited about Bill de Blasio is when I heard his campaign speech, I was like, I could have written that. That’s exactly how I feel about this city.

You worked for many years as a community organizer and now you’re in government. What do you see from this vantage point that you didn’t have from that? Is it the same? Do you feel that now you’re able to accomplish more? Do you feel that now things are different?

It is very different. This was sort of not part of my career plan, but it is very different. What I would say, it’s the same work, but on a different scale. One difference is our ability to impact tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people. It’s unique, to New York City government in particular, the scale of the work here. Even though it’s such a big number, so many people, it still feels granular. It’s not like if you’re working in Albany or D.C. When we say we’re going to have a program, and we create the program, I can go — I can walk somewhere and see the program.

So the difference is there’s more opportunity to reach more people. But I think one of the differences is, and the challenges are, there’s also a different level of accountability, too, between the press and other elected officials and the advocacy groups. You need to be aware of different things. You have to be attentive to different concerns, but as it should be. I mean, public money is public resources, and so it’s all right. It all makes sense. It’s a different kind of doing this work.

One difference is that you’re living under the spotlight of the tabloids. Now, you say the wrong thing and you’re on the front page of the New York Post. How does it feel to be under this sort of spotlight?

(Laughs.) I don’t know if I’m allowed to answer that question honestly.

Look, I think one of the hardest things about work like this is how you communicate with New Yorkers. Not one-way, but two-way. And part of what I would say is, I want this work in a way where we don’t have to depend on any media influence, whether it’s a tabloid or the news. I mean, obviously, that’s important, we want to get our story out, but we also want to think about all the different ways we can get our story out directly to people, whether that’s the mayor doing town halls or appearing on the radio or me going to visit community centers and talking to teachers directly.

One thing we try to do is really get a direct handle on how people are experiencing our work because I think most New Yorkers understand that on a certain level folks are trying to sell papers. And so I think most folks take all those things with a grain of salt. But I think people understand that having an affordable place to live in your neighborhood is an important thing that Mayor de Blasio’s working hard to get that for you. I think people get that. I really do in my heart. People understand that having a free place to send their 4-year-old where they’re going to make friends and learn and be safe. All this stuff’s in the paper, but I get that. And I get that’s what Mayor de Blasio’s doing.

And you may have a concern or things that you don’t agree with or maybe you’ve taken editorial on a particular tabloid too seriously, and so I get all that. But I think, at the end of the day, people understand what’s happening. And our job is to make sure that we’re having that dialogue. That we’re explaining it, but we’re also hearing back about what actually isn’t working. And then when we make changes, we make changes because the folks are telling us to do something differently. Not because somebody wrote an article that called us a name.

I took a tour of City Hall before our interview. This is quite an impressive building, full of history.

It’s a beautiful building, but sometimes I forget. Yesterday, I was walking to one of the council chambers and I paused for a moment and looked at that Rotunda. It’s good to stop and appreciate the beauty I get to work in. It’s quite remarkable.

I knew about the Governors Room, but I never knew that the bodies of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln actually lay in state on the Rotunda.

Did you see George Washington’s desk?

Yes.

I almost got in trouble over there. I almost put my coffee cup down — I didn’t know what it was, and they came by and yelled at me, thankfully before I put the coffee down.

The desk is not used at all?

No, nobody touches — we don’t touch the desk. That’s the one thing I’ve learned; don’t touch the desk.