Brigid Bergin is the City Hall reporter for WNYC. She covers city politics including the 2013 mayoral race and transition.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s administration is taking shape. Behind the scenes, the daughter of a Brooklyn preacher, a mother of two who beat back cancer, is helping build the next administration.
Jennifer Jones Austin is the co-chair of de Blasio’s Transition Committee. The Committee works out of a building on Broadway just across from City Hall. One room is filled with modern-looking, lime-green cubicles. Someone has stuck a Dominican flag on one desk. Near the door, mail is sorted into baskets labeled by post-it notes that read things like “Congratulations” “Event invitations” and “Resumes and Job Recs.”
This afternoon, Jones Austin and the Transition team’s Ursulina Ramirez are prepping for a meeting with the Department of Education. Outreach to the current administration is one part of the Transition process. It’s also about helping the Mayor-elect find new talent, a process she said will continue into the New Year.
"You really can’t rush when you’re putting together a team that’s going to lead New York City for the next four years," says Jones Austin.
She grew up in Brooklyn where her father was active in the civil rights movement. She went into government and non-profit work, all of it focused on children. Mayor Bloomberg named her the city’s first Family Services Coordinator.
Then, one day four years ago, Jones Austin found out she had cancer.
"You know, woke up sick and like three days later was told I had leukemia. Two days after that they thought I was going to die, my husband had to bring my kids to the hospital to say goodbye to me," she says.
When she woke up two weeks later, she was told needed a bone marrow transplant and it would be a challenge to find a match, since so few African-American were on the donor registry.
Jones Austin, with the help of her husband, signed up 13,000 people to the bone marrow registry.
"So I learned that community can actually take care of itself but it needs to be empowered, has to be encouraged, inspired and empowered to do that and I’m now just trying to bring that to my work everyday," she explains.
She calls that period horrific, challenging and transformative. She says she's now cancer-free.
Just a few weeks ago, the Mayor-elect picked Jones-Austin to lead his early childhood education working group where her team will figure out how many teachers and seats are needed to make universal pre-K a reality.
On Thursday, De Blasio said he'd be running a high profile campaign to win the tax he says he needs to to pay for it.
So even when the Transition is done, Jones-Austin will still have work to do.
"They can’t get rid of me," she says.