Motherhood Fueled This Single Mom's Passion for Advocacy—All the Way to Public Office
Growing up, Aleta LaFargue was surrounded by creative energy and a strong sense of community. She lived in Manhattan Plaza, a federally subsidized residential complex where 70 percent of the units are rented by dancers, singers, actors, musicians, and other performing arts workers (it was also childhood home to stars like Timothée Chalamet and Alicia Keys). With roughly 3,000 residents, it felt like a small village to LaFargue. "If people needed things, their neighbors came together to help," she recalls.
That communal support became especially evident during the AIDS crisis in the '80s. "It was really devastating to our community, especially [in terms of] how people were being treated by the medical professionals, the government, and their own families," says LaFargue. "These were our friends, my uncles, our neighbors."
This prompted LaFargue's mother and several other women in her building to create what would later be called the Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project. "They developed a whole system of care partnering," says LaFargue. This meant that anyone who was ill could be assigned a go-to care partner who would be by their side for anything they needed—including transportation doctor's appointments and access to prescriptions or food.
When she was just 6 years old, LaFargue participated in this effort with her mom. "That spirit of helping and being there for one another was how I was raised," she notes.
As LaFargue got older, community service remained a top priority. She began working as a care partner herself, taught sex ed to her peers, and worked to break down biases about people living with HIV. She was also drawn to politics and activism, accompanying her mom to marches throughout her childhood.
Yet, when it came to her career, LaFargue dreamed of being an actor. Not long after starting college, she was accepted into a theater company. "I just felt like this is what I'm supposed to do," she says.
She began working full time with the company and wound up being cast in a festival that meant traveling to L.A. "I decided I'd move there," she remembers. "I came home, got all my stuff, and went back and started pursuing my career as an actor there. Things were going really well. I was having meetings with big networks. It was really exciting."
But a couple years later, when she was 25, LaFargue got sick out of the blue. "I had all this inflammation in my joints and was struggling with a lot of pain," she notes. "I could barely move my neck. I couldn't drive."
Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain and damage throughout the body, LaFargue realized she had to return to New York. She suffered without medication or a doctor's help for close to a year without medical insurance. "That was a really scary time, and it taught me a lot about the system and how it's not always there for you," she says. "If you're alone, it can be pretty daunting."
The swift turn of events left LaFargue devastated and depressed. Over time, by pinpointing the right therapies and a spiritual practice, she felt strong enough to get back into life—and to find a new purpose.
Around that time, LaFargue also found out she was pregnant with her son. "Nothing gives you more purpose than a child," she says. And while being back at home wasn't her original intention, LaFargue felt that raising her son, Elijah, in the community that had raised her and reconnecting with her friends was the right path.
As LaFargue got her son involved in a community preschool that her mom had helped to develop, she noticed the lack of programming that she had enjoyed as a kid. LaFargue began showing up at tenant association meetings and learned how to be a tenant advocate.
"I brought together people with institutional law knowledge who had lived here for the past 40 years and had already raised their children," notes LaFargue. "I brought new parents in."
Together, they formed a slate, won, and have been running the Tenants Association for the past five years.
Through her work, rebuilding the community's senior center, and adding programming for children like a summer camp, LaFargue grew more passionate about advocacy. She served as president of the Tenants Association and, most recently, became president of the Hell's Kitchen Democrats.
Given these positions, people around her frequently suggested that LaFargue run for office. "It wasn't really something that I thought would happen anytime soon," she says.
But in the summer of 2020 as the pandemic was taking its toll, LaFargue's community saw an increase in crime. Many of the children were struggling with remote learning.
"I wasn't getting the response that I thought I would from our elected officials in terms of finding solutions for people," recalls LaFargue.
Soon, she realized she could serve her community by running for office—specifically on New York City Council. "I wanted to sit at the table where the decisions were being made, because I didn't see decisions being made that were helpful to the people around me," she notes. "I felt like we all deserved an advocate that represented the community more thoroughly as a woman, as a person of color, as a person who has struggled with the disability."
Now, with the primary election coming up in June, LaFargue has her eye on a future spent fighting for her community. "I want to make sure that our people's voices are heard and that we at least have an opportunity to advocate for the things we need—and hopefully get them," she explains. "You can make a difference just by getting know the people around you. Everyone is looking for connection, and if you create the space, they will come. No one should be raising their children alone. The need for a village in a child's life is real, and it's up to us to create it."