January 30, 2008

Townsend Reflects on Council Term

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The Sun sat down with Gayraud Townsend ’05, whose four-year term as a member of the Ithaca Common Council (D-4th Ward) ended last December. Townsend, who was elected during his junior year at Cornell, reflected on the accomplishments of his term, his continuing hopes for Collegetown and advice for students looking to follow in his footsteps.
The Sun: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Townsend: I think, to be honest, I look at a number of accomplishments that I’m proud of, everything ranging from something as tangible as seeking funding for a traffic light at College Avenue. That light there is one of the oldest traffic lights in the city, and that intersection is one of the most heavily trafficked in the city. I worked very hard to try and get the city to fund a new traffic light, and hopefully this spring that light will be implemented.
The mayor also put me on the committee to create a compromise on the [Martin Luther King street-naming issue]. We decided to create an educational freedom trail instead of re-naming State Street MLK Street. Adding education to the process is something that was definitely needed, and will definitely live on.
I’m also pretty proud of the fact that [in] Collegetown — one of the most neglected areas in the city, that has the strongest potential in the city — we were able to secure money to get a consultant to look at the future of Collegetown. To make Collegetown a more vibrant area is something I wanted to do from the beginning of my term, and I think we’ve accomplished that.
[I’m also proud of] helping to push for Ithaca to become one of the first totally smoke-free cities.[img_assist|nid=27036|title=Young leader|desc=Outgoing council member Gayraud Townsend ’05 leads a biweekly meeting of “Reality Check” at the Cornell Cooperative Extension last November.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The Sun: On that note, is there anything you feel like you didn’t accomplish that you would have liked to, or anything you feel like you would have done differently?
Townsend: When you’re an elected official there’s always so many things that you want to get done. I believe that a lot of the times the things that you want to get done … you have this whole laundry list of things and four years is not a very long time. I believe that putting a person in place like [newly-elected Council member] Svante Myrick ’09 is very important to me as I was leaving, to help continue the ideas and the vision that I had coming in four years ago. He can sort of continue, and I think he will.
The Sun: Do you have any advice for Myrick, or other Cornell students who might consider following your lead and running for office in the future?
Townsend: You have to know that you are committed to the community. You have to be honest not only with yourself but with the community in general. You have to be very genuine and willing to work hard. There were some days when I didn’t think that I would be able to do some of the things I had to get done — you have to be honest with others, and if you can’t get something done, you have to be willing to ask for help.
I was lucky enough to have a very supportive cast, including my teachers — who I thank very much for always being willing to work with me — and my friends. It’s not an easy job. It takes a lot of organization, time, energy and effort. The overall theme is honesty and integrity: those two things, [when] juggling the life of being a student and being a city council member, will allow you to be successful.
The Sun: You’ve done a lot of work with Collegetown. What hopes do you have for continuing improvements? If you come back to Collegetown in 10 years, what do you hope to see?
Townsend: I would hope to see a much more diversified population — not just students living there. More density in the center, a more unified business district. It’s kind of depressing to see some of the stores being boarded up. [Also,] better design guidelines, in terms of building design.
The Sun: Now that your term has ended, what do you plan on doing?
Townsend: I’m still working on finding my next challenge. All I can really do is thank the people and the supporters that have helped me, that have been a part of my platform.
In terms of my political aspirations, I don’t think the community has heard the last of me. As for my immediate steps, I’m not sure but I think it’ll take some time for me to figure it out. My dad is a minister and my mom is a schoolteacher — being involved in the community is always going to be at the core of who I am.
I hope more young people are inspired to run for office. Too often does our generation sit on the sidelines while the politicians make decisions. Most of our political disillusionment is that we have the most to lose — we fight wars in Iraq, make up a third of the working poor [and] comprise the majority of those living without healthcare — all this while college tuition is skyrocketing through the roof. Why shouldn’t young people be at the decision-making table, having an effect on the future?
I hope that I have been able to share and show and lead by example to other students who come to Cornell: if you’re upset about parking in Collegetown, or rent, or the way the streets are, don’t just be upset and moan about it. Run for office and get involved and have a say.
The Sun: What will you miss most about your experience as part of the Common Council?
Townsend: When you’re, say, a doctor, you can help one person at a time. When you’re a lawyer, you help one client at a time. But when you’re an elected official, at one time, with one decision, with one vote, you affect the lives of not just one person, or ten people, or a couple hundred people, but the lives of tens of thousands of people. I’ll definitely miss being able to help a lot of people with just a couple of decisions.
This is one of the most heated political seasons we have yet to see in our lifetimes. It’s really good to see young people revitalizing the political process. Whether or not the nomination goes to Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton or Mitt Romney or John McCain, young people need to wake up and realize that being involved with the political process in America is something that is not only your right, but that many years of demonstrating and protesting and picketing has allowed us to have this privilege, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Being involved, and being an elected official is one thing, but voting is something we should all do and take advantage of. I wish all of the political candidates the best of luck, but I’m just happy to see that young people are waking up and seeing how important it is to be part of the political process.