When I came to Sarah Lawrence after my gap year, one of the things I was most excited for was the chance to be around students who were intellectually curious, politically active, and willing to engage in critical discussions on all sorts of subject matters. At my high school in the East Bay, these opportunities were few and far between. With the benefit of hindsight, I now wish I had made more attempts to talk politics with students at my old school.
As grateful as I am to be in an intellectually stimulating environment like Sarah Lawrence, the political culture here is not without its frustrations, many of which I feel are actually symptomatic of so many of the things that I love about this school. December’s “Why Local Politics Matter” panel was a great opportunity for many Sarah Lawrence students to meet with and discuss politics with a state elected official; but, it turned out to be one of the most infuriating glimpses into the political and intellectual culture of SLC.
At 5 p.m. after all the boxes of soda had been opened, after all the napkins had been so delicately laid out on the table, people started to walk through the doors and into the lecture hall where we would have our panel. Much to my surprise, some of the first few people who showed up were not Sarah Lawrence students but instead well-dressed adults over the age of 25. A quick conversation and a handshake with the suits loitering in the lobby quickly garnered valuable information: these men were staffers who were sent on behalf of the Mayor of Yonkers, State Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, and members of local community government institutions.
In these first minutes before the panel started, it felt so exciting that our panel with New York State Senator George Latimer, Shelley Mayer’s Director of the Office of State Assemblywoman, Democracy Matters’ National Field Director, Anita Kinney, and the Commonwealth Lobby’s Pamela Santa Julian was of enough interest to bring in local political operatives. By 5:30 p.m., my excitement had turned into anxiety at the lack of Sarah Lawrence students in the lecture hall, and by 6:00 p.m., minutes before the panel was to begin, this excitement had become embarrassment not only for myself but on behalf of the student body, for our guests from the local political community who had taken valuable time out of their days to come to this panel in a mostly empty room. All of five Sarah Lawrence students showed up to hear a New York State State Senator speak and directly address his community. Of those five students, not one of them was registered to vote in this state and two of them are not even registered to vote in the United States.
It is unfair to completely fault the Sarah Lawrence student body for this piss-poor attendance. In retrospect, we (the panel organizers) put up our posters much later than we should have and it did not even cross my mind to post about the event on the Class of 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 Facebook pages. I can count many interactions in the days prior to the panel where it slipped my mind to tell someone about the event. I should not understate the importance of “conference month” in reducing turnout: several students I spoke to, including those in Congress 2014, apologized and told me they had to prioritize their work over this event. Additionally, the cold and rainy weather probably did not give people much incentive to stop their work and brave the great outdoors in the most stressful time of year.
Regardless of weather or our advertising (or rather lack thereof), I do not feel as much embarrassed for the student body as I do ashamed for wasting the time and efforts of NY State Senator George Latimer. Mr. Latimer has had years of experience as a public figure, and as such, I know he has the tact to act respectful, gracious, and kindly in his community. But even so, the annoyance in his face was thinly veiled when he made a not-so-sarcastic quip about the “four remaining people left in the room.” Mr. Latimer’s frustration is completely understandable and made even more frustrating because he is not an author, a consultant, an activist, or even a former Sarah Lawrence student whose importance can be easily dismissed when you click on the mass email sent out by the administration and start rationalizing your inevitable absence. Our society's failure to combat political apathy, stimulate student participation in politics, and strengthen youth’s ties to local communities is exactly why Senator Latimer’s presence at SLC was so important. Unfortunately this failure was on full display during the panel discussion and it is my hope that the Senator did not go home and wish he had chosen to watch the equally pitiful New York Knicks game instead of coming to Sarah Lawrence College.
Senator Latimer made some incredibly valuable insights on political apathy in local politics amongst the youth demographic that would have carried great weight for our student body, had they actually shown up to the panel. The Senator spoke of his own experience of being a 20-something college student bolstered by the hubris of invincibility and how growing up changed the things he put value on in his own community. As an older man suffering from the health issues that accompany age, Senator Latimer now spends more time thinking about the availability of public health services, emergency response crews, and any type of infrastructure that may help or hinder one’s health in times of emergency. Senator Latimer made the excellent point that being in college creates a bubble where sense of community is diminished because of the knowledge that your time in that geographical area will probably be limited. I know that I am guilty of existing in this bubble.
I, like many students here on campus, am registered to vote in my hometown; but, I am realizing this is pointless as I rarely spend any time in California and my congressional district is hardly ever competitive. I willfully admit to not being very informed about New York state politics, Westchester county politics, or even Yonkers city politics. The whole point of having a panel like this one is to give students opportunities to meet and interact with people who have a direct impact on our community. These are people whose voices and votes will impact the sidewalk construction on Kimball Avenue, the ability to smoke cigarettes liberally in Bronxville, the property tax that Dumpling + Noodle pays, and the viability of small business like Kazzie’s and Kay’s which many Sarah Lawrence students frequent.
The privilege that Sarah Lawrence students have to be able to pursue a liberal arts education, to be financially stable enough to afford that education and live comfortably in one of the most expensive areas of the country, and to prioritize intellectual and creative endeavors contributes to our lack of participation in local politics.
I have never been so disappointed by our student body than at that panel discussion; not because of political apathy and unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunities the school provides for us, but because I know we can do so much better.
The guests from the local political community gave such great words of encouragement for the conversations we had, for the issues that we are passionate about, and for the potential of Sarah Lawrence to be a hub of political activity. Every staffer of an elected official expressed how important and how influential it is when a group of people come to the office of an elected official and present a coherent and reasonable argument about why an issue is important to them and what changes they would like their officials to promote.
I know so many people here at this school have that have the potential to make significant changes in the world. However, until we learn to engage the political process and become agents of change, our words will be nothing more than hot air. I want this school to engage with our community and fight for issues that are important to our little community. I want to actualize our potential so that making noise at City Hall in Yonkers is only a small footnote in the history of our student body.
By Kelly Roldan ‘17