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Unapologetic Change

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Operating at the fraught intersection of policing and social justice, alumna Wendy Garcia is out to change the world

Wendy Garcia

Wendy Garcia. Photos by Duffy Higgins.

On a humid September morning in New York City, Wendy Garcia begins her day like the working mother she is. She wakes at 5:45 a.m. and streams an exercise video from a celebrity TV trainer. (“Only 25 minutes!”) She then packs two school lunches—ham and cheese sandwiches with pickles, tomato, ketchup and mayo—and kisses her kids goodbye.

Later, Garcia, AS04, power walks to a meeting with fellow NYPD executives at One Police Plaza—a place where, you might assume, it’s prudent to check those tender instincts at the door. Even the headquarters building, with its brick exterior and brutalist architecture style, reminds passersby of a long-accepted maxim: You have to be tough, hardened even, to make it among New York’s finest.

But Garcia—whose office boasts a book of poetry, a mini fridge stocked with coconut water and a small placard that reads “boss lady” in a swirly font—has never cared much for the status quo. Taking a call as she turns a corner along Park Row, she laughs for no particular reason. (“Veggie wrap,” she says into the phone. “I only have 10 minutes for lunch today.”) She laughs when a scribbling reporter asks for the topic of her meeting—that’s classified. And she laughs as she wraps her arms around the officer walking toward her. This isn’t a friend; just an acquaintance who sometimes works security at the headquarters parking lot. That doesn’t matter. Garcia is a fan of hugs.

It’s a surprising characteristic, perhaps, for someone who’s earned the right to a hardboiled view of life. As Deputy Commissioner of Equity and Inclusion, a civilian position, Garcia operates at the socially and politically fraught intersection of policing and DEI. Her job is to create and evaluate strategies throughout the department to ensure an impartial, transparent and discrimination-free environment for all members of the force and, by extension, the community. Within the paramilitary structure at the core of the NYPD, 41-year-old Garcia ranks above 56,000 officers, reporting only to the Police Commissioner. And she’s an outlier in her field. In an organization that’s 30% female, she’s the first Dominican woman to occupy the position.​

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Wendy Garcia as a little girl

Wendy Garcia began to notice wealth disparities shortly after leaving her childhood home in Washington Heights. "I wanted to know why my mother worked three jobs and still had less," she says. "I made myself my own project. I took the time to understand my life."​​

Pressure? A safe assumption. But Garcia has been preparing for this role since her days as an international relations major at UD, where she acquired tools you cannot find on a police duty belt. Her time as a Blue Hen prepped her for the demands of leadership in a lightning-rod field: “That period helped shape me,” she says. “The best thing I did was attend the University, and I thank God every day that was my path.”

Garcia grew up in Washington Heights, a northern Manhattan neighborhood then labeled by The New York Times as “crack epidemic central of America.” But Garcia recalls her childhood with nostalgia. At the time, she didn’t know the one-bedroom, 700-square-foot apartment she shared with her immigrant single mother qualified as small. She didn’t know she belonged to an underrepresented group. She didn’t know she was poor.

Then, two years into her high school career, Garcia moved to Delaware (her mother had fallen in love with a man in the area). In this new, middle-class neighborhood in the town of Bear, most other kids were alabaster-skinned. (“What ARE you?” demanded one nosy girl on the first day of school. “Black? White? Everyone is talking about it.”) The district was adequately funded; the houses boasted three, maybe four bedrooms—sometimes even a basement.

“I realized not everyone lives the same,” Garcia says. “I wanted to know why my mother worked three jobs and still had less, why our reality was so far removed. I made myself my own project. I took the time to understand my life.”

Garcia enrolled at UD, where she encountered opportunities to interrogate society’s class and racial divisions. As a member and eventual president of HOLA, the Hispanic student organization, she visited area high schools and community centers to encourage kids from underrepresented demographics to apply to UD, and she helped first-generation students decipher the higher ed ecosystem. Garcia requested meetings with University leadership to discuss issues facing the Hispanic student body and ways to improve school culture. And, as a harbinger of things to come, she organized meetings between local police officers and Wilmington’s urban youth, to build a greater sense of community. ​

In her academic life, Garcia spent three months in Central America, translating Spanish for Prof. April Vaness and helping to research the migration patterns of Guatemalans to Delaware, as well as the barriers to acculturation upon arrival. She secured an internship with Senator Tom Carper, learning how to effect change on a legislative level, followed by a job with the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition. She regularly set up her office on a Newark city bus, where she educated underprivileged minority women on health-related issues and listened to life stories that touched on recurring themes: hard work, little pay, scant resources. The job stoked a passion inside Garcia—or maybe something more profound.

“I’d say it’s a calling,” she says. “The older I get, the more I realize: I didn’t choose equity work; this work chose me.”

Following graduation, Garcia set out to make her home city a more egalitarian place. She served as an immigrant research analyst for the nonprofit Rockefeller Foundation; deputy director of the Manhattan Borough President’s Northern Manhattan Office; and director of community outreach and partnerships for the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development, where she managed contracts with 40,000 nonprofits that benefited millions of young people. Most recently, she served as chief diversity officer for Manhattan’s fiscal watchdog unit, the Comptroller’s office. During her tenure, government agencies significantly increased their contracts with women and minority-owned businesses—from $1 million to $9 million in seven years.

By the time NYPD came knocking, Garcia’s resume was formidable. MUJER magazine, the Spanish version of People, had listed her alongside the Pope and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as one of 10 Hispanics impacting the world. Still, this was February 2022, just over a year since the murder of George Floyd—an event that exacerbated tensions between police and the Black Lives Matter movement. A growing contingent called for dismantling the police system. Could anyone make inroads during such a turbulent time? Garcia’s colleagues attest: She did so immediately.

“She’s a machine,” says one sergeant working in NYPD’s joint operations center, where 7-foot screens stream flight patterns, incident reports, and a live feed of Times Square. (For safety reasons, UD Magazine is not permitted to print officer names.) “The big ideas you think would be impossible to get off the ground, she makes happen. It’s been incredible to watch that change in motion.”​

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Wendy Garcia in front of Police Headquarters

Since joining the force, Garcia has established lactation rooms for mothers in all precincts, and she’s designated spaces for religious practice and meditation. She’s built a mentoring program that provides officers from marginalized communities the opportunity to connect with more senior members for guidance on climbing the NYPD ranks. And, in under nine months, she’s established a Women’s Institute that provides 100 female members of the force per year with specialized training on leadership skills, plus resources for navigating the challenges that disproportionately affect women in blue.

Garcia doesn't develop programming in a vacuum. At least twice monthly, she accompanies officers on patrol throughout New York City. She’s there when they reunite lost children with their parents on the subway; she’s there where they knock on the door of potentially life-threatening situations. She sees when everyday heroes save the day, and she sees when everyday humans need help unpacking biases or blindspots. All of this informs the department-wide training sessions she conducts to advance cultural understanding.

“Most change is uncomfortable,” Garcia says. “Sometimes, you need to take the plunge anyway. There will always be three or four naysayers: We’ve never done this before; we don’t have the right tools; it’s not the right time. Do it anyway. Do it wrong if you must, and improve it later. Make unapologetic change.”

It’s not an easy task. And Garcia is reminded of that every time she experiences what she calls “wide-eye syndrome,” the incredulous faces of strangers at any given function—people waiting for the deputy commissioner to arrive, only to discover the deputy commissioner is already there: young, female, Dominican. Most of the time, Garcia can laugh it off, but she does cop to moments of self-doubt. Like that time she first experienced the gravitas of sitting at the deputy commissioners’ table, located in the NYPD equivalent of the situation room—the youngest woman to claim a seat here. (“I remember thinking: I hope I do my ancestors proud.”)

For Garcia, as with so many working moms, the pressure is exacerbated by duties at home. “I’ve learned that you can’t be good at all things at all times,” she says about the days she misses a swim meet or forgets the pickles on a ham and cheese sandwich. “At any given time, you have to congratulate yourself for the thing you are getting right.”

Later that same afternoon, Garcia power walks to yet another classified meeting—her fourth in a row. She hasn’t cracked systemic racism or sexism in the last eight hours. Tomorrow, people in New York City and around the world will still be failing, hurting, harming, abusing.

But Garcia still smiles as she talks; still radiates warmth as she navigates the cold steel gates of One Police Plaza. Perhaps this is just the deputy commissioner’s nature: positive in the face of a daunting mission. Or perhaps she’s managed to zero in on another, equally reliable fact about tomorrow: People will still be working and trying—to understand, to change, to improve, to heal. And perhaps someday her office of equity and inclusion will become an unnecessary fixture of the past.

“Is it weird to hug this much?” Garcia asks, extending her arms to another of her 56,000 colleagues. “Other people might think so, but this is us. We’re just human beings—human beings in uniform.”​

Diane Stopyra

January 26, 2024​

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Operating at the fraught intersection of policing and social justice, alumna Wendy Garcia is out to change the world
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