Yogin Liz Stern and NYC council wannabes Marni Halasa and Deirdre Levy
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – Once upon a time, East met West and now the Filipino community in the East coast has such strong women leaders in Liz Stern, Marni Halasa, and Deirdre Levy.
Elizabeth Mae Stern is a yoga instructor from Connecticut. Marni Halasa is a lawyer, journalist, and figure skating coach in Manhattan and Deirdre Levy is a special education teacher in Brooklyn. Both Marni and Deirdre are seeking to represent district 3 and 35 at the New York City council in November 2021. But first, the two must clinch the Democratic primaries on June 22.
The three leaders graced the digital talk show Issues & Inspiration hosted by this writer and Ms. Grace Labaguis on April 24, 2021.
Inspired by their mothers
Liz had always been the figure skater that she wanted to be. Started her training at age 3, but retired at age 19 when she lost her mom – nurse and community leader Marlene Capinpin Stern to pancreatic cancer.
Carrying a great void in her heart, Liz decided to work in the Philippines to ‘experience more of her mom.’ It was there that she realized she could teach yoga.
She now specializes in Vinyasa yoga instruction which she learned in the Philippines and in Germany for a 300 hour advanced teacher training. As a yogin, she said she knew in her heart her mother’s angelic whisper to go for it. Life had been better.
“My mom is a really massive influence on me. I have (my brother and I) a good mix of my Filipino and Jewish heritage. My parents showed us the values of being kind, working hard. I saw my mom working hard and the values of a Filipino in raising a family. I grew up with a lot of the Filipino traditions. When she passed away, I felt like I needed a little bit more of her,” she said.
Thus she explored life in the Philippines. “I was grateful to have this opportunity and the chance to meet my family in the Philippines. It’s kind of a culture shock – from being a 1st world then to a 3rd world. I understood what my mom had to go through to make things better for her family,” she said in the interview.
Marni remembers her mother fondly. Dr. Ofelia Halasa was an administrator in the Cleveland Public School System for 35 years in Ohio, one of the pioneering Filipinos in the US academe.
“You know, it’s funny they said that Filipinos are friendly and sweet. But my mother wasn’t any of that. She was a serious kind of mother, that I was going to succeed no matter what. What I got from her is the drive to try and do it and succeed. You will accomplish that.”
Marni attributed to both her parents (her father is Jordanian) the drive and determination to succeed. “I think running for public office is really crazy. But I think my parents have given me the foundation to do this.”
Deirdre said that her mother, Thelma Samson from San Carlos, Pangasinan, had taught her to be proud to be born having two cultures. “I have always been proud to be a Filipino. And I am grateful that I have family on my mother’s side in California – my grandmother and my uncle.”
Deirdre studied Special Education at Pace University. She’s been teaching for seven years at the Department of Education as a special education teacher for children with severe learning challenges.
She lobbied in Albany for more teacher preparation programs, diversity, and universal screening for students with dyslexia.
The change they wanted to become
For Liz, teaching yoga to people from all walks of life is her contribution to make people feel better and be healthier. “It’s an act of self love, which is necessary,” she quipped.
As for Marni and Deirdre, the campaigns have occupied much of their time – as it is a make or break for public service that they seem to be destined.
Community-driven community development
In district 3, whose demographics are a mix of the rich and poor, gentrification is a major issue. It covers Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Flatiron, West SoHo, Hudson Square, the Meatpacking District, Columbus Circle, Times Square, the Theater District, the Garment District and part of the Upper West Side.
Marni wanted to address the glaring issues on affordable housing and homelessness that has marginalized the working New Yorkers and local artists as well.
“My take on development is that development must be responsible and must be driven by the community. And what we are trying to do is to create a community-driven development. What is going on right now is that developers come in and use billions of dollars of public money to do whatever they want and the community has no say. So I am running to change that,” she said during the interview.
Marni is an advocate of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, a 30-year-old dormant piece of legislation which seeks to provide long-term affordable lease to small businesses. “This is actually a solution to many small businesses closures,” quipped Marni. Her opponent in the previous local election, Corey Johnson, promised to sponsor the bill at the Council which he never did, Marni said.
“To me, what’s amazing is that in the local council, you can actually change the direction of development. It takes only three or four people pushing for that. We come from the ground and trying to make a difference for the community.”
Through the community-controlled land use program, Marni explained, the community has the final say as to the type of development they want. Right now, local residents are represented in the advisory board which lobbies or suggests for services and projects vis-a-vis big developers and businesses. “It is like begging for crumbs, we want to change that. It is a David and Goliath fight,” Marni quipped.
A deeply affordable housing in the Chelsea area where hospitals and schools abound would be appropriate for Filipino communities, she said.
Giving Filipinos a Voice
Deirdre founded NYC Filipinos which highlights the achievements of Filipinos in NYC. Additionally, she helped create the Project Barkada which provided meals to front liners and the homeless during the pandemic.
District 35 covers Crown Heights, Bedford Stuyvesant, Downtown Brooklyn, Prospect Heights, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill where she expressed commitment to support small businesses.
Deirdre emphasized that this election may be the opportunity for young Filipinos to make a significant difference through public office. “We are more than just beauty queens and entertainers. I have nothing against it. But there has to be something more,” she said during the interview.
Deirdre believes that the city council must represent teachers and the working people.#