Finding Meaning in Political Activism

Today I volunteered at a community convention held at Stuyvesant by the office of New York Senator Daniel Squadron. The event was initially coordinated by ARISTA, the Stuyvesant chapter of the National Honor Society, alongside an alum from our high school who currently works in the office.

For the most part, the volunteers were expected to help with setting up, coordinating, and breaking down the event, just as we typically do whenever we volunteer for events. Today’s convention was, fortunately, a little more interesting.

Coming from a school where the majority of students are relatively apathetic towards politics – either school/municipal/state/national/international, it was surprising to see the number of constituents who arrived for the convention.

Basically, the event was structured as a larger town hall to discuss issues ranging from tenant’s rights and affordability in housing to healthcare and accessibility for senior citizens. (For the full list of topics covered, check out the program).

The first part of the afternoon began with speeches from Senator Chuck Schumer, NYC Public Advocate Letitia James, criminal justice reform advocate Akeem Browder before transitioning to NYS Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and NYC Council member Margaret S. Chin.

During the breakout sessions, I took notes inside one of the discussion rooms for Section 8 & Public Housing. Essentially, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) created a housing choice voucher program in 1978 called Section 8 to provide assistance to eligible low-income families to rent private housing. Hearing from current families in the program and in the lottery for the vouchers, it became clear that there were a number of administrative roadblocks preventing the program from achieving its intended objectives.

From the lack of transparency with the process of approving vouchers to the low quality of maintenance of public housing and lack of attention from elected officials to the complains of constituents, the strength of arguments presented by the community leaders echoed a lot of the issues I remembered hearing this past summer at Civic Hall during the NYCEDC events on civic technological solutions.

I found it remarkable how certain neighborhoods like Independence Plaza in Manhattan had organized entire sectors of residents to protest injustice in housing rights, and even with a niche topic like Section 8, it was clear just how much could easily be lost in communication when transitioning from national politics to local issues.

Often times when we consider politics, only highly controversial issues arise – abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, gun control, minimum wage. It’s often headliners that make it to our conversations, whether we’re deeply involved in politics or not. The smaller issues that have just as large an impact – affordable housing, paying for improvement in infrastructure, and even the state of criminal justice reform – can easily be lost or forgotten.

As a result, the dedication of more local politicians to the concerns of their constituents – at least the ones we were able to hear from today – was a reminder of how vast the issues tackled every day by political leaders really can be.

It’s incredibly easy to become jaded by the political process when our favored politician loses a political battle or when our issues aren’t heard, but if the voices of the community leaders mean anything, it’s that persistence and policy can make an incredible difference in legislation.

A lot of problem-solving really comes down to participating and making our voices heard. Whether these issues surround improving public education or protecting the environment, the political process – especially in the United States – is slow and open to interpretation every step of the way. Nonetheless, being able to create informed opinions on issues and delivering thoughtful changes on policies has a far larger positive impact than it may seem at first.

After leaving the breakout sessions, it was hard not to feel inspired, especially after hearing from NYS Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at the closing.

Obviously, differences in opinions exist, but it’s stunning to see the difference that informed opinions can have in the larger discussion. Whether it’s actually listening to the concerns that exist in neighborhoods at risk or even compiling data on the current state of affairs in a region, there’s so much that ordinary residents can do to help improve our own communities.

As someone who has found a lot of meaning through effective altruism and the idea that dedicating your time to making a positive impact is ultimately the best way to ensure a meaningful career, there was a lot I was able to learn from the work that the community leaders put into their advocacy.

Translating concerns into actionables and legislation is one of the more difficult steps in the process, but even having a glance into the climate for one of the neighborhoods I was less familiar with in the city was a pretty impactful way to spend my weekend. I’ve been interested in political involvement for a long time, and it was definitely refreshing to be able to engage in meaningful conversations about the ways local politicians can help out their communities.

It really doesn’t take controversies or huge gestures to make a difference. Even talking to your community or making your voices heard outside of your household is a start. I think the biggest problem with even local-level politics is the inability of leaders to prioritize the voices of their constituents, but the degree of passion of even the most senior members of the convention was enough to convince me that it was worth taking action beyond simply advocacy and canvassing.

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