Civics, Culture & Community Engagement
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
The New York Assembly redistricting process is about to resume. Redistricting is the process by which legislative boundaries in electoral districts at every level of government are redrawn to actively reflect changes in populations and shifts in demographics. This occurs after every U.S. Census is counted. While the issue is quite technical and sometimes difficult to grasp, redistricting has proven to be a critical tool in local residents being able to elect candidates of their choice, and specifically those that reflect the demographics, ideals and needs of “communities of interest.”
If communities that share the same identities – including their ethnic and cultural background, socioeconomic status, etc. – are split up into multiple districts, it makes it difficult for any group of people to comprise a significant enough voting bloc to elect a particular candidate. When communities cannot elect candidates of their choice, they continue to be overlooked and underrepresented.
For three decades, community leaders amplified the inequities. They advocated for fair, unified districts in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. Over ten years ago, I recall sitting observantly in a room of fiery elders and advocates who, despite some of their differences, came together to advance unified districts for their neighborhoods. Among them were Chuck Mohan, Richard David, Albert Baldeo, Ashook Ramsarran, Vishnu Mahadeo, Arsalan Mohamed, Harpreet Singh Toor, Darrel Sukhdeo, Gurpal Singh, and others. My civic-minded father Ramesh Kilawan and then-boyfriend Rohan Narine also joined the fight. Attorneys Jerry Vattamala of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and John Albert of Taking Our Seat guided conversations with blown up maps in Crossroads Realty’s Liberty Avenue office where we gathered to strategize. The end result? Continued gerrymandering; voices unheard.
In South Queens, district lines at the New York State legislative level have been among the most egregiously drawn among all in the entire State. Communities of interest comprising mainly South Asian and Indo-Caribbeans in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have been sliced and diced into seven Assembly districts, making it practically impossible to corral behind and elect a candidate reflective of our community. We are left to question whether elected officials who represent us care about our needs. We are left begging for crumbs when it comes to resources, grateful when we’re given the minimum; a citation or photo-op, for instance. When we look around near the nucleus of our community, we see no district offices for constituents to access services or even a kind ear to listen to our many qualms. We are often tokenized and made empty promises by those who seek stage time. Yet, with humility and respect, we welcome our elected officials with open arms. It is time for us to demand our own respect, hold elected officials who say they believe in justice and equity to stand by our side and join our fight. Compromises can be reached while preserving existing political power.
On December 1, 2022, New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) released a draft Assembly district map. The IRC was required to release this map to comply with an order from a New York State Supreme Court judge in a lawsuit that challenged the Assembly district lines drawn by the New York State legislature. The new Assembly districts are due to be sent to the Legislature for final approval on April 28, 2023. In what came as a pleasant and much welcome surprise, the IRC’s most recently released map for Assembly District 24 brings the much-fractured community of interest in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park into one unified district. This is the moment for our community to come out in full support of the IRC’s proposed map for District 24 and get it to the finished line. The next feat to accomplish? Galvanizing behind one worthy candidate of our choice. The last thing we will need is a fractured voting bloc in a finally unified district.
The IRC will be holding public hearings across the State in the coming weeks to listen to public testimony on their proposed district lines. In Queens, the public hearing will occur on Thursday, February 16 at 4pm at York College. It is critical that our people come out to testify in support of the map put forward by the IRC for District 24. To register to testify or to submit written feedback, community members can visit www.nyirc.gov/participate.
Have questions about redistricting or need support with talking points for your testimony? Feel free to email me at email@example.com!