Her path to public service leads home to Queens
Street smarts and neighborhood loyalty drive local economic development
33-year-old LaToya Benjamin has made tracks crisscrossing southeast Queens’ pavements – from salt crusted, snowy, winter Jamaica Avenue sidewalks to glossy, sunbaked, summer South Ozone Park asphalt – working to deliver sustainable economic benefits for her hometown.
As Director of Economic Development for New York State Senator James Sanders Jr., the Queensborough Community College graduate (2007) has been contributing to the community she was born and raised in by leading and contributing to civic and private projects aimed at revitalizing social and economic opportunities for a neighborhood, she says, celebrates diversity every day.
“Over 40% of the people here are immigrants from all over, yet they share similar values and want similar things: a safe environment, good jobs, reliable transportation, and access to quality healthcare and education,” Benjamin explains from the Senator’s office at 142nd Street and Rockaway Boulevard, in Jamaica.
“We are a diverse community of color, working and coming together to improve the quality of life for the community we love and invest in.”
The first generation college student, who holds a BA in Public Administration from John Jay (2009) and a Masters in Urban Policy and Administration from Brooklyn College (2013), prizes government administration and the role she has held for the last three years. As Director, she has contributed to local employment opportunities within aviation and strong business growth, with procurement opportunities related to JFK Airport’s $13 billion revitalization program.
“Government can be complicated at times, but the most rewarding aspect is showing how it can work to create thousands of jobs and bring so many opportunities to the marketplace. The positive impact we have every day on New Yorkers is what gives me joy.”
Benjamin’s “joy” – analyzing economics, studying demographics and engaging community members – is grounded in her Queensborough and other public education experiences.
“I was finishing high school in 2005 and I saw a flyer in the hallway advertising Queensborough’s Open House. It said no SAT’s were required. I wasn’t really considering college, but I went to the open house and took a class to learn what college was about. And that class really set me up for success,” Benjamin recalls. “I was going to be the first college graduate in my family. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had a wonderful adviser at Queensborough.”
Benjamin also gained employment that year, through a Queensborough initiative, as an office manager for a small medical practice in Queens. As a community advocate, she campaigned for the 2013 election of Kings Country District Attorney Kenneth Thompson and became an Associate to Thompson’s Office of Public Engagement.
“I was able to draft a pilot reentry project that enabled formerly incarcerated people to access education and start their own business,” Benjamin adds, acknowledging that it was her interest in criminal justice reform that led her to engage in local economic activities to help improve the quality of life and well-being of her community.
“My experience broadened my perspective. I am invested in this community and want to give back, focus on building and empowering, enhance trust with and among people, and make sure work gets done.”
The oldest girl among six children raised by her mom, a city employee, and her father, an NYPD sergeant, Benjamin is a faithful “Queensite”, mentor to young women, Thai-food enthusiast (she highly rates BKNY in Bayside) and fan of hip-hop, R&B and Jazz, especially artist Stacey Kent.
“Whatever you love, no matter your preference, you can find it here. You never have to leave the borough.”
Away from industry meetings and boardrooms, Benjamin – who studied classical music and can play the innocent, humble ukulele – may be found on weekends at peaceful Baisley Pond Park, working quietly on policy development and project management or training other professionals in economic development and civic engagement.
“You can crunch numbers but to understand the community you need to get to know people, their stories, where they’re from, what they’re passionate about, and where they want to go.”
Benjamin admits the pressure of being a first-generation college student was hard sometimes, but her determination sparked others in her family, like her mom – now at LaGuardia CC – to advance their education.
“I didn’t know Queensborough would equip me so well to move forward and launch my career in the public space,” Benjamin reflects.
“I didn’t know it would be the foundation of my success."
Contact: Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle