I took a groundbreaking trip to Albany this week with several of my constituents—some of the few remaining pioneering, local Black- and minority-owned business owners who invested in our community years ago while everyone else was fleeing. Some who came decades ago, these trailblazers saw a singular opportunity to serve the Harlem community that they love and call home by investing in unique businesses located at 121 W. 125th St. They toiled for years to grow their businesses and are finally in a position to secure their financial future—if they are not unceremoniously kicked to the curb and thrown out of their homes, along with the equity they have established therein.

For, you see, the revitalization renaissance that these visionaries helped usher in now threatens to consume them in the form of a projected development called the Urban League Empowerment Center Land Use Improvement and Civic Project. This project—which has a number of merits, including the headquartering of the Urban League—is unfortunately backed by a number of power players who have sought to predetermine outcomes in advance: first, acting as if the current businesses did not literally exist as part of this project and, second, begrudgingly offering them nominal forms of insufficient assistance couched in the language of bureaucratic formalism.

As we made our way to the state capitol, we were traveling the road to history, as these local businesses were destined to be the first members of the public to ever address the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) since it was created in 1976. The PACB is an obscure entity that approves billions of dollars in spending each year, all the while meeting in a windowless room in Albany, often far away from the actual location—and visible presence—of those who will be affected by the projects they consider.

We changed the course of history on Wednesday though, as Massamakan Tounkara of Kaarta Imports African Fabrics, Joseph Benbow of Fishers of Men II, Ron Waltin of Golden Krust and Raj Whadwa of Sarku Japan Restaurant all pleaded with the members of the board to ensure that any proposed redevelopment plan accept them as project partners, recognize the equity they have brought to 125th Street and ensure that everyone can grow and thrive together, consistent with the mantra of the Urban League: “Empowering Communities; Changing Lives.”

The words that these heroic entrepreneurs spoke at the PACB meeting were poignant and, for the first time ever, put human faces behind the blind decisions of a distant public body that disenfranchises the two “minority” members, one of them being me.

Tounkara, owner of Kaarta Fabrics, said, “Please revisit your proposal and see the hard work and investment after risking our life in this area, and today you’ve come to develop it. We welcome the idea, but let us get what we deserve … I entered into the store that I’m in now, my investment for the past 23 years.

“Today, as we see developers come into Harlem, we also want to be part of the development, but we don’t want to be eradicated.”

Waltin remarked, “I put in my hours and my family’s future on the line to put this franchise in Harlem with the expectation that it will be my retirement. Today, I’m not clear of what is happening. … 15 years ago, I spent $400,000 to put in the building of Golden Krust. Now they are telling me that $250,000 [in loans] will be able to relocate me out of the building. I mean, that’s an insult to us.”

At an earlier press conference, Benbow simply stated, “We want to stay. Just like others want to be on 125th Street, so do we.”

Whadwa similarly said, “It took me three years to open a store on 125th Street, and after less than a year, I am being told I have to leave. I came here to live out a dream, and now that is being taken away unfairly. We should have been a part of the plan.”

Ultimately, the board approved the project in lightning fast time without addressing the heartfelt pleas of myself, our valued businesses and the Harlem community. This ignorance was compounded by the fact that only two days earlier, the Empire State Development Corporation failed to recognize the stated will of the Harlem community by not amending the project plan to guarantee these businesses certain rights, despite reams of written and oral testimony beseeching them to do so. In fact, this entire process has been irreparably marred by a slavish devotion to secretive action and filial pseudo-compliance with a bureaucratic and self-serving interpretation of what the scarlet letter of the law requires. In other words, the Harlem community was not empowered; the powers that be had to be dragged to the point where they would even listen to the community. But, conclusively, they did not hear and they did not act on what was said, which is a damming and embarrassing indictment.

Despite all this, we left Albany with our heads held high, our dignity intact, our faces free of the hue of embarrassment and smirking indignity. We won on a meaningful level, and we continue the fight for fundamental fairness. Ultimately, this experience has taught us two things: 1.) The unprecedented is achievable if just a few people who care about doing the right thing are unyielding in their determination, and 2.) When the law no longer serves the will of the people, it must be fundamentally reformed. As such, in the 2014 legislative session, I will be introducing and advocating for the passage of comprehensive public outreach, public hearing, public consultation and public feedback incorporation reform in the way that our economic development entities approach development projects—from the day the first rendering is blueprinted through the entire life of the project, in perpetuity. Only a comprehensive process that is born of the people it directly affects can truly revitalize a community.

In the interim, I urge all of my constituents and those around the state to join me in this cause by calling Gov. Andrew Cuomo at 518-474-8390 and telling him to do right by the businesses at 121 W. 125th St. and to join our campaign to ensure that public hearing and public feedback make a difference.