May 3, 2017

KOWALEWSKI | Reflections Of A Cornell Democrat

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Soon, I will leave Ithaca. Accordingly, this column is the end of my time at The Sun. So I ask you to forgive me as this graduating Democrat takes a moment to reflect upon his values and his four years on Cornell’s campus.

When I started my freshman year, I was already a progressive who kept a close eye on politics. I didn’t quite need the stereotypical college experience of “awakening” to the world around me. But my deep interest in our political system did not correspond to any significant involvement in its actual processes. I was observing from a distance.

That’s not how it should work. The United States of America is a democratic republic, and we are governed by institutions that arise from the participation of the people. And I firmly believe, now more than ever, that all of us are obliged to engage with that system. Problems run deep, yes. But they will never be solved by withdrawal. For Democrats to win, and for progressive values to triumph, we must put ourselves out there every single day. We need to vote, to organize, to protest, to push back against the things we oppose and speak up for everything we support.

The work of maintaining a democracy, after all, is not easy. I’ve called this column Democratic Dialogue for a reason — because our system demands debate and conversation in order to function. We need to be willing to take a moment simply to listen. Whether it’s here at Cornell, at home, or elsewhere, it is crucial to hear life experiences that are different from your own. Try your best to understand why other people hold the views that they do.

And we should be introspective as well. To defend your beliefs properly, you must realize why you hold them in the first place. Furthermore, remember the distinction between the issues that are negotiable and those are not. Spirited discussions on policy should be welcomed,ut the importance of discussion does not obligate you to debate someone who refuses to acknowledge your humanity.

So yes, listen. Explain your own perspective. And when needed, draw your line in the sand. Which brings me to my next point: politics is not just a game. The goal of political engagement is not to get selfies with elected officials or land the perfect snarky jab at the opposition. I get the impulse. It’s framed this way by pundits, cable news, and especially during the past election, by our politicians. However, the reason to become involved in politics should neither be ego, nor spite nor a desire to score points against the other team.

This matters because elections choose the people who run our government. It’s because our engagement has a direct result on the policy that will affect our friends, our family, and neighbors. It’s about making sure that getting sick won’t make you go bankrupt, that a minimum wage worker can afford to feed his children  and that we leave a habitable planet to future generations. Politics is important because it’s how we work to improve the world and the lives of our fellow citizens.

That’s the reason we need to be involved. That’s why, since the early days of my freshman year, I’ve considered myself a Cornell Democrat. I will never shy away from the fact that I believe the Democratic Party is the best vehicle we have for enacting progressive change. And I am a strong advocate for maintaining that presence on campuses like Cornell.

I dispute the myth that our generation is simply apathetic. That’s not what I’ve seen. However, I’ve learned how important it is to make sure you actually put in the work. It’s too pessimistic to assume no one cares enough to do it. And it’s far easy to assume someone else is doing it.

If you see a problem that needs to be fixed, or an opportunity for change, take the initiative.  Put in the effort and tell people why it’s important. When you do, they’ll often meet you halfway. The passion for activism and democracy is contagious. Before you know it, you’ll have a team of dedicated volunteers going. You’ll have Cornellians going into the Ithaca community to learn the issues they care about. You’ll have them registering their fellow students and driving them to distant polling places. You’ll have a campus where civic participation thrives. And that’s why I’m so proud and honored to have been a part of the Cornell Democrats.

I would have never imagined that my journey would have ultimately resulted in me taking the helm of this organization, let alone New York’s statewide federation of College Dems chapters. But I know now that there’s a lot that I’ll never forget. I still remember Clubfest in a overcrowded and overwhelming Barton Hall. I remember long days knocking doors in Ithaca, and evenings spent on campaign call streets. Wednesday meetings in McGraw Hall. Rainy canvassing in Pennsylvania, and sunny voter registration mornings on Ho Plaza. I remember smiles from first-time voters, and of course, I remember a difficult night in November.

Progress, as we’ve all learned, is not inevitable. But it is possible, and through it all, I remain deeply optimistic for the future of activism both here at Cornell and across our country. We may have been knocked down, but we’re stronger than ever. For me, I’ve been thankful to find a group of people who not only share my values, but who lift each other up when times get tough. That’s the resiliency we will all need. That’s the support, and the compassion, that underlies Democratic values.
I am eternally grateful for the remarkable academic experience I’ve had at Cornell, but it’s only a part of what I’ve learned. The most important lessons I’ve had have come from my involvement in the Cornell Democrats and activism on this campus. I am forever inspired and humbled by the hard work and dedication I’ve seen from my fellow students. I will miss the hell out of it here. To those who will continue the work at Cornell, thank you. Let’s always make sure Big Red stays Blue.


Kevin Kowalewski is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]This is the last edition of Democratic Dialogue.