October 21, 2015

KOWALEWSKI | Where to Begin

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It is often said that young people do not care about politics. From what I’ve seen during my time at Cornell, I cannot agree with this statement. To be certain, there is a small minority that is genuinely apathetic. However, more frequently, I observe that most of my fellow students care deeply about the well-being of our society. On a myriad of issues — women’s rights, racial inequities, the environment — they hold heart-felt beliefs about the need for change. Yet, they do not act upon these viewpoints. They do not vote, they do not volunteer and they do not engage in their community.

We cannot accept this state of affairs. Yes, we have all heard the frequent excuses. Some say that they are simply too busy to participate in our democracy — a curious claim, considering the stakes at hand. Others, conceding that they could find the time, assert that they do not believe they can make a difference. It is true that broken institutions are slow to be fixed, and the powerful are quick to peddle influence. But the best way to ensure that nothing will change is to do nothing at all.

The most basic step involves exercising the sacred right to vote. Unfortunately, voter turnout has fallen to extremely low levels among young people. It is particularly disappointing to see that this is also true at our campus: After all, Cornell has a long history of student activism and political involvement. Although voting is the crucial point of entry into the political process, it is not the destination. Volunteering on a campaign — even just for a day — immerses you into the real debates that are happening among fellow citizens. And we are currently at a key moment for this type of participation.

On Nov. 3, Americans will not vote on candidates for federal office — despite the constant hype over the presidential election, it remains more than a year away. But young people cannot allow Election Day to simply come and go. Across the country, and here in Ithaca, there are an important slate of local races on the ballot. It would be wise for us to pay close attention.

As tempting as it might be to focus on national movements, the true potential to make a difference often comes about at the local level. Take, for instance, ongoing campaigns to reduce wage inequality. At present, it is unlikely that any campaign, no matter how sophisticated, could convince the Republican-held Congress to raise the minimum wage. Yet, at the same time, during the past year, Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa ’05 (D) has helped to lead successful efforts to ensure that local workers receive a living wage. These problems may not be as flashy, but they have a very real impact on our community and in the lives of our neighbors.

This fall, we have a candidate, and a fellow student, who recognizes that fact. Elie Kirshner ‘18 is an native resident of Ithaca, and he is no stranger to political engagement. He has not only interned at City Hall, but has also served as a field director on Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 reelection campaign. During this time, he obtained an awareness of the issues facing our community. Now, motivated by a desire to address these concerns, he has launched his own campaign for Tompkins County Legislature.

We should applaud Elie for answering the call to public service. He knew that it would not be easy — that he would face concerns about his youth, and his dedication. But he is ready to meet the challenge. And we should be ready to support him.

Although he should be applauded for his focus on pressing issues such as affordable housing and improved mental health services, we should also recognize the broader potential of his campaign. Elie will serve as a bridge between Ithaca’s college students and residents, allowing both sides to engage in dialogue about the issues facing our city and county. Indeed, youth engagement in politics is more than just a matter of being heard: It is a matter of listening.

To conclude, I will return to this fundamental point: Every single one of us can make a difference. Still, we cannot do so by isolating ourselves on campus, in roundtable discussions and late-night rants to fellow students. Further, many of the most pressing issues we face cannot be solved by individual action: We should not fear the process of democratic governance.

As we stand up for the causes we believe in, it is important to remember that politics is, ultimately, about people. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, talking to your neighbors; these may seem like insignificant things, but they mean more than most young people realize. Little-by-little, each of these interactions can come together into an unstoppable force for change. And we can start that change right here in our own community.

I know that we do care. It is time for us to demonstrate it.

Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.