Fall break comes next week, and this year I’m spending it in New Jersey. But I’m not visiting family or hitting up the tourist spots—I’m going there to do volunteer work for a campaign. Columbia University Democrats are going to help persuade people to get out and vote in the New Jersey gubernatorial and General Assembly elections, both of which are happening next Tuesday.
I mention this because, in all likelihood, you’ve heard very little about it. And you’ve probably heard barely anything about the New York City mayoral election next Tuesday. But flipping a governorship, re-electing a mayor, and building a majority in state legislature are far from irrelevant. These elections are going on one state away and literally on our doorstep, respectively, yet on some collective level, we Columbia students seem to have decided that they just aren’t “important” enough.
This is especially jarring, considering that national and international politics are treated as completely different stories. Columbian opposition to Trump is well-documented, internships at the United Nations are a hot commodity, and political debate on campus has recently revolved around the Columbia University College Republicans’ decision to have controversial British right-winger Tommy Robinson and “alt-right” personality Mike Cernovich speak to students.
Far be it from me to say that national and international politics as a whole don’t matter, but U.N. interns have (unsurprisingly) little influence on policy, and CUCR’s decision to invite Robinson is bizarre, given that he’s known for his leadership of the fringe, far-right English Defence League and has never been close to holding political power in Britain. Neither seems like an especially productive way to actually grapple with issues facing the world today.
If students really, truly care about national politics, state-level and local work is by far where they can be the most effective. Post on Facebook about how Trump is (or is not) a fascist all you want, but the Governor of New Jersey will help determine which bills pass and which get vetoed for the next four years—and the state legislature will determine what those bills are. Across the United States, there are mayors and state legislatures and state governors who can grant protections for unions, for the LGBT community, for immigrants—or they can roll them back. These decisions are made not in the glitzy halls of the U.N, but in thousands of small and underreported elections across the United States.
Interning or volunteering for a mayoral candidate or a state representative or a gubernatorial campaign may not be as high-profile as working at the U.N.—I should know, I did it last summer—but proportionately, the effort that you put in matters so much more. You get to actually know your boss, to understand the people you’re trying to represent, and to take part in the conversation on important issues. So many people don’t care about these issues—but you can.
It frustrates me to see so many Columbia students, driven and passionate, wasting their time in “prestigious” roles when they can’t actually change anything. Fetching coffee at the U.N. when they could be drafting legislation at the statehouse. Campaigning to get Trump impeached when they could be campaigning for a state legislator. Rather than inviting Tommy Robinson or Mike Cernovich, CUCR should have brought in Nicole Malliotakis—she might not be as provocative, but she’s the one who wants to be our mayor for the next four years.
Students need to get involved. Not at the most glamorous, flashy place, not where it’s going to garner the most publicity, but where you can make the biggest difference. Get involved in your local communities and get involved in our community here at Columbia. Get involved by voting over fall break. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, if you care about these issues, put in the time and effort when so few people do, and you’ll help make your community a better place.
So get involved—closer to home.
Mark Tentarelli is a junior at Columbia College majoring in political science-statistics. Interests include catching up on Stranger Things, racquetball, incisive political analysis, and shelter animals. Inside Looking In runs alternate Thursdays.
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