May 2, 2007

The Sun Speaks To Townsend ’05

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The Sun recently spoke with Common Council Representative Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward) about his advice for students eyeing his spot on the Council when his term expires in December.
The Sun: What are the major demands of your job?
Gayraud Townsend: Time is the biggest demand. I feel that you’re not a student anymore when you run for council, you become an actual resident of the City of Ithaca. When people ask me: ‘are you from New York or are you from D.C.,?’ I say I’m from Ithaca, this is where I live, and this is my home. It really is all about making this community your home, and not everyone can do it.
There are some kids out there who might think that this is a great experience for them, which it is, but the sacrifices you make are tremendous both academically and socially.
Time wise it could run between a full-time job experience of 40 hours a week, it can run over that and sometimes it can be as little as 15-20 hours a week. It’s a part-time job with full-time experiences.
Sun: What is a typical day as a student and council member?
Townsend: A typical day as a student and a council member starts off pretty early in the morning. I read the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Ithaca Journal, The Cornell Daily Sun and The Ithaca Times.
When I was a student, it was going to class throughout the day and sometimes between classes I had to jump in the car and drive down to City Hall for a meeting or drive to a local coffee shop to meet a constituent who had a certain concern and then jump back in the car and drive to class, and then possibly an evening meeting which usually starts around 6 or 7 p.m. and goes to 10:30 or 11 p.m.
There are times when you have a city council meeting until 11 p.m. and then you have to go home and study for another four hours to take a test the next morning.
Needless to say, you sacrifice a lot of sleep for the position because you have to get up early. You have to extend your day to be able to fit a full-time job and being a full-time student in 24 hours.
Sun: What were some of the challenges and surprises of being a council member?
Townsend: You run into a lot of adversity being in this position. I sort of think of myself as a bridge between a student body community and the City of Ithaca residents and the government. When I make my decisions I make them based on students, Cornell University, residents that live here all year round, the business community and my own moral and ethical guidelines that I follow.
In this job, you really have to balance a lot of different opinions. It takes a person who is willing to look at the situation from a bird’s eye view before coming in and attacking it to be able to be successful in this position. Sacrificing your social life in many ways is a big hurdle in this position, especially when you’re young.
This job comes with a lot of responsibility and you have to really learn to deal with that. Being in Ithaca for the past four years has been tough in the summertime when your main group of friends is gone and you have to acclimate and assimilate to living in the City of Ithaca.
It really does make the experience a little bit more bearable for the person in the position to have other young elected officials in the community like Michael Taylor (D-4th Ward), Nathan Shinagawa ’05 (D-4th District) and David Gelinas (D-4th Ward). If it wasn’t for them I don’t think that I would be as successful as I have been on Council. We joined the young elected officials network in Washington, D.C. which has been a tremendous support system for us.
Sun: What are you most proud of?
Townsend: I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to stay all four years and have a significant impact in the lives of the people that I represent. I can definitely see that I have had a difference, on the issues that I’ve affected from the Martin Luther King Street naming to the standing up for students’ rights when I feel that they’re not being considered on the council level
I’m proud of the significant progress that we’ve made here in Collegetown. We’ve recently passed the Collegetown Vision Statement. Dave Gelinas and I spent a lot of time working on this issue, and it’s something that I’m very proud we were able to accomplish. It goes from really small things like the traffic light at the intersection of College Avenue and Dryden Road, which is one of the most highly trafficked intersections in the City of Ithaca but has the oldest traffic light. David Gelinas, Michael Taylor and I were able to secure funding for that intersection to get a new traffic light that will be going up fairly shortly.
Michael Taylor and I came in on the platform of improving student housing, I think that we’ve done that to a some extent, I think that there’s a long way that we have to go in improving that but we’ve made significant strides. We’ve definitely had a big impact in changing the perception of students involved in city government here in the City of Ithaca and that was definitely something that we were trying to do. We were the first students to fulfill our entire terms. Residents are skeptical initially that you are only going to serve for the time that you are a student, which previous students have done.
Sun: Are there any interesting things about being a council member?
Townsend: That you have the ability to marry people. Over the past four years, I’ve married maybe over 100 couples. I’m in charge of 13 different departments in a way and responsible, as part of city council for a budget of about $80 million. It’s funny that a 20-year-old would have such a huge responsibility.
Sun: How do you go about getting out in the community and knowing what people care about or what they want to see?
Townsend: I became a student of the community. I read the paper every day and started interviewing certain community leaders and members. You really have to do your homework. You can’t just decide one day that you’re going to run and file your papers and expect to win from there. You really have to know the ins and outs; you have to know the issues at a significant depth. It really involves a lot of work and a lot of preparation to do this. It takes a special person to be willing to put so much energy, effort, time and dedication into this job.
Sun: Do you have any mentors?
Townsend: I looked at my life and my campaign in a couple ways. I sort of looked at where I had a series of individuals who were very instrumental in providing support for me. Tom Downey ’70, went to Congress at a very young age [25 years old]. He sort of gave me and inkling that a young person could do this. Andrew Gillum became a city councilman in Tallahassee, Fla. at age 23. He really gave me support.
Sun: What kind of person do you think it takes?
Townsend: It takes a very unique person to do this job. It takes a person who is dedicated, who can endure significant responsibility and who can’t really take themselves too seriously at times. It takes a person with strong leadership skills who is willing to sacrifice, can communicate very well, is gregarious and likes to be around diverse groups of people. It takes a person who is not shy and who is willing to be vocal and get out there when others aren’t willing to stand out there and fight for what’s right.
Sometimes being a student on council you really feel like you’re in it alone, but when you look at it from a bigger perspective you realize that what you’re doing really does have a huge impact on a significant group of people.
For me, being one of the youngest African-American elected officials in the country, it was a pretty big microscope for me at times. The sacrifices I had to make and the time that I had to put in there really was for me at the same time it was for all the other young people who will come after me and the precedent that I set for them. Whoever takes the job I’ll be very supportive of because I realize that it can sometimes feel lonely but you really do make a difference.
Sun: What advice would you give a current student looking to run for your position?
Townsend: Being really serious and genuine about running for this position; it’s not something you would do just for a resume builder. You have to care about the community and the people whose lives you’re affecting when you do this job. It’s a very prestigious and honorable job. I’m very honored to have been able to represent the students of Cornell University and the residents of the 4th ward on the city council level. You have to be a staunch leader and be willing to work with a variety people; it’s a really all-encompassing job. You have to be really flexible and willing to be understanding of the other side in this position and you can’t take things too personally. My sincere advice to a young person considering doing this is you have to be extremely serious about the position and you have to really care about what you’re doing because four years is a significant period of time in one’s life, especially in the early 20s.
You have to be diverse in the way you think, communicate, in the way you do things. You have to be able to balance a plethora of things. Call former elected young people. Talk to Mike Taylor about his experiences, they’re different from mine.
Sun: Any other advice for campaigning?
Townsend: Persistency. Showing up, being a familiar face, getting to know a bunch of students and the residents who live here all year round, talking to people, doing your homework, it’s not going to be easy.