After serving as a council member for Manhattan Park for close to 30 years, newly minted RIRA president Lynne Shinozaki never expected to run for the highest office.
“It wasn’t something I really wanted,” says the longtime community activist. “I’ve been volunteering in the background, I’m definitely a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person, but I am not typically the face of something. I don’t like being in the front, but I had some people say, ‘You have to step up.”’
Step up she did. After one term as vice president, she is now the head of the 40-year old Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA).
Shinozaki at the Cherry Blossom Festival, 2013
In her new role, Shinozaki, who has focused a lot of her efforts on our disabled and senior populations, and is responsible for spearheading many of the Island’s community efforts and traditions, including the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Pay-it-Forward program and Hands-Only CPR, is excited to switch gears and advocate for what the community wants, instead of her own agenda.
In her three decades on the council, Shinozaki has seen what has worked, and what hasn’t. She has specific goals for her term that speak to this specific time in Roosevelt Island’s history, as well as the current relationship between the community and the council. She is also cognizant of her own strengths and weaknesses and understands how to leverage her particular gifts, notably a deep passion for the Island, and an unflappability that makes her appear like she can handle anything.
Quality of Life
In Shinozaki’s view, “Helping to facilitate the quality of life in this community is one of the most important things RIRA does.” Referencing her work in the community, she says, “If you look at what I’ve done, it’s all about quality of life.”
“We’re the only people doing this work,” she says referring to RIRA. Shinozaki cites rising rents as her number one concern for the Island. She acknowledges there hasn’t been a lot of movement in that department lately and is hoping that the Planning Committee can develop a strategy to stop the constant rent increases and keep families here. She believes the Island will only get more expensive with Amazon’s impending arrival across the river and rumors that Coler Hospital will close and the City will sell the land under it.
“I had people come to me this summer and say, ‘I’ve lost five families in a couple of weeks.’” She acknowledges that some families had opportunities elsewhere - but that some just could no longer afford to live here.
Besides toasting the new board with champagne, another initiative is the organization’s logo. The new logo “is all about, ‘We’ve been in business for 40 years’ - I want people to connect with the fact that this isn’t a fly-by-night operation.”
Shinozaki chairing her first meeting with champagne bottles in the background
Beyond that, she believes in treating council members with respect, and will start each meeting by greeting everyone using Roosevelt Island-famous Al Weinstein’s, “Good evening distinguished ladies and gentleman.” (The late Al Weinstein is referred to as Roosevelt Island’s "Grand Gentleman of the Tramway." He chaired RIRA’s Tram Committee for as long as it existed. And he came to that position from prior championship of Tram issues before RIRA existed. He spent 48 years at the United Nations, starting in 1948 and retired in the early ’90’s at the Security Council level.)
Shinozaki’s longevity on the council, and her history of being active on the Island, has exposed her to the different styles, missions, successes, and failures of the past. Weinstein’s ability to marry respect for his audience with dogged persistence are qualities admired and emulated by Shinozaki.
Shinozaki believes that everybody who serves their community on RIRA is distinguished. “They stepped forward and distinguished themselves by running for election.” She believes that when started from a place of “Thank you for volunteering for this community, and stepping forward to help make this community a better place,” that attitude will spill over into the discourse and change the tone of what historically have been some heated meetings.
Instead of public chastisement she says, “When I feel someone is being disrespectful, I will take him aside and have a conversation. We need to be a team; I don’t want us to be a group, I want us to be a team.”
Shinozaki doesn’t expect to do this important work alone. “Look around the community, there are so many passionate people who put their sweat equity into the community and that’s why it is what it is. When a whole lot of people do a whole lot of things, a whole lot gets accomplished.” She feels supported by Vice President David Lawson, Secretary F. Scott Piro and hopes to seat Westview’s Bafode Drame as treasurer, “I am very happy with who we netted at the front of the room.”
Her goal is to find a way to work with everybody who wants to work. The challenge, according to Shinozaki, is when there isn’t alignment among the council, when members put their perspective before the group. “We have passionate people, and that passion is awesome, but others, when their passion differs from others, it can be a challenge.”
She believes it is possible to overcome that, and says, “Some of that is structure.” Also, “I am letting members know that this is an organization, you ran for something.”
That applies to her as well. By way of example, she says, “My organization came out against the RI monument. I have to take on that role for advocating against it, even though I don’t have a strong opinion about it, because it’s what the community wants.”
She believes that knowing and understanding what is important to residents is a big part of being a leader. “We are a team,” says Shinozaki. “We have to put our personal agendas to the side and be able to debate the issues that are most important to the community.”
After chairing her first meeting, she spent the next couple of weeks meeting groups of new members and holding orientation sessions on Robert’s Rules of Order – a set of rules for conduct at meetings to facilitate discussions and group decision-making – and giving a primer on the organization’s standing committees. She says, “I want to see more happen in committees.”
RIRA has standing constitutional committees but Shinozaki says that in the last eight years, not all of them have had chairs. She hopes to seat as many as possible as quickly as possible. In her view, “There is room for us to percolate up people to chair something, get a little accomplishment, get to know people, get a little more accomplishment, and then help us impact the Island.”
Another shift Shinozaki intends to make regards how RIRA communicates out to the Island at large. She says she wants to start highlighting each building’s representatives and is planning to get photos of them taken and posting them, along with their contact information, in their building’s lobbies.
She wants to inspire building representatives to talk to their neighbors, ask them what their chief concerns are – both intra-building and Island-wide – and then have them advocate for their neighbors.
Shinozaki knows she has the chops for the job. “Why do I think I can effect change? Because I’ve worked on some really tough things. You can have high expectations and still accept whatever the reality is, knowing it is always a positive forward trajectory.”
Shinozaki with First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, who launched an $850 million mental health initiative
That positive forward trajectory is something she kept in mind this past year after holding a number of mental health workshops on the Island, an endeavor she calls an “abject headbanger.” Shinozaki’s reach was vast, she says 70,000 people saw her suicide prevention and mental health awareness forum events on Twitter, yet “we had less than 50 people total” attend them.
The positive outcome here is that 70,000 people thought of this for one second more than they would have. “I tried, but I wasn’t effective. What is a successful way to do outreach for a hard topic? I was really caught off guard with this one.”
She understands the nature of community work, “I had a fun run in dealing with a headbanger topic. If I can make an inroad there and an inroad in hands-only CPR, I believe that I can help people in this community step forward and do good things. I see my role as keeping my team in a positive forward trajectory for the next two years.”
A Council for the Whole Island?
The RIRA charter is to promote and defend the interests of the residents for a better quality of life on Roosevelt Island. Shinozaki asks, “How is it that we have not seated Coler residents? They live here, they interact with the community. I am so excited by what’s been happening with Open Doors.” (Coler-based non-profit Open Doors works to improve the lives of hospital residents through creativity workshops, leadership training, and educational grants. The goal is to support members in moving toward greater independence and an expanded vision of what’s possible).
The reason hospital residents historically have not been a part of RIRA is because they are on City land, not State land; so unlike us, they have City representation. Shinozaki believes that we are all part of the same community and should be working together to make this Island better for all of us.
Her pie-in-the-sky goal for RIRA is to amend the constitutional bylaws with an emphasis on inclusivity, everyone who lives on Roosevelt Island should be able to participate, no matter where they live. She also wants it to be forward-thinking and automatically encompass future, not currently planned, and present housing. In the past, the council has had to amend the constitution every time a new building comes online.
Shinozaki admired the way predecessor, Jeff Escobar, ran the meetings; he gave the speakers time limits and stuck strictly to the agendas, relying heavily on Robert’s Rules. “I have been studying Robert’s Rules of Order like nobody’s business. I definitely want to move forward with some of the things he was doing with managing the meetings.”
Shinozaki Accepts her Woman of Distinction Award from Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright for her work on Roosevelt Island
She acknowledges, though, that, “Jeff definitely has gifts that I don’t have. But I have gifts he doesn’t have. In the way he is more even-tempered, I am more passionate. That makes it a little different. I definitely think his family has a huge heart for the community, as does mine.”
Without naming names, Shinozaki says, “The worst presidents focus on their personal agendas. They’re the ones who had the most challenging problems.”
Then there is the unpredictability of life outside of RIRA. Shinozaki’s strategy when her kids were younger was to attend every third RIRA meeting so she wouldn’t get kicked off the council, and instead focused on her work in the committees.
Relationship with RIOC
The RIRA president has to be able to work with RIOC. Shinozaki describes her approach as, “politely persistent.” She will go to RIOC board meetings because, “I believe in being present. I have to be the one at an outside event on a snowy shitty day, because I signed up. You sign up for the good and the bad stuff.” She believes that being present instills community good will that goes a long way.
Shinozaki at the RIRA Egg Hunt in 2016. "The egg hunt takes a herculean effort with someone who is dedicated. If you don’t have that, you can’t have the event. You have to have the passion for that particular project to see it through."