Redistricting: A Case Study in The Power of Coalition-Building

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APA VOICE contingent and supporters at IRC Queens Redistricting Hearing. February 9, 2023. York College.

Civics, Culture & Community Engagement
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.

“Strength in numbers.” “Unity in diversity.” These phrases may be overused and cliche, but they reign true when it comes to recent redistricting efforts at the State Assembly level in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park.

For decades, community members in these neighborhoods have advocated for a unified district. Historically gerrymandered, Indo-Caribbeans and South Asians in South Queens experience uphill climbs to elect candidates of their choice. These sizable populations have been split up into so many fragments making it very hard to nearly impossible to comprise a sizable enough voting bloc to sway voting power. Some may ask: why does this matter? Politicians often get a bad rap, especially by those who are rightly suspicious of the government. But they do have the ability to dole out resources. As human nature would have it, elected officials often prioritize those who support them. In order to have true equity in the electoral system, each person’s vote should count equally. The law requires “one person, one vote.” However, when communities with shared interests are fractured into multiple districts, voting power is diluted.

Anjali Seegobin speaks at APA VOICE rally in front of the Sikh Cultural Society Gurdwara in Richmond Hill. September 2022.

If you take a walk down Liberty Avenue, you’ll see no shortage of roti shops, sari boutiques, and even this newspaper, but you won’t see a single elected official’s office in sight. We know this is the heart of our community. This is where our people convene. It’s where we feel at home. Yet, unlike other neighborhoods, where constituents can easily walk into an office and get to know their elected leaders and their staff, we have to settle for so much less.

Based on the most recent maps released by the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), we’re that much closer to achieving a district that encompasses our community of interest in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. Having had an inside look into redistricting advocacy for the past decade, first as more of a bystander and now as an active participant, I can emphatically say I think what’s made the difference this time around is broad-based coalition-building. Let me explain.

Whether it be joining with all people who celebrate the Festival of Lights – Diwali, Bandi Chor Divas or Tihar – to hopefully get a holiday on the school calendar that’s reflective of our identities, or whether it be organizing as Asian Americans across all of New York City to change unjust district lines once and for all, one thing we must keep demonstrating is that we will stand together for the greater good, even alongside those who may not look like us or speak like us but who share our lived experience as hard-working immigrants in our community.

Redistricting Informational Session organized by South Queens Women’s March, Caribbean Equality Project and Desis Rising Up and Moving. February 16, 2023. Liberty Palace.

Under the leadership of Liz OuYang, a civil rights attorney for the last three decades and a professor at esteemed institutions, I’ve learned what it means to build a coalition. OuYang has been the brains behind APA VOICE’s Redistricting Task Force, which includes members from several Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park-based organizations such as South Queens Women’s March (SQWM), Caribbean Equality Project (CEP), Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and Chhaya CDC. Under OuYang’s leadership, we met every single week for over a year without fail, strategizing around how we can best advocate for equitable district lines. The work was both exhausting and exhaustive. This was evident in the advocacy. It was streamlined, thoughtful, and community-driven. We met with countless elected officials and commissioners, held car tours around the gerrymandered districts, conducted an art contest to get local youth interested, hosted press conferences and rallies across many boroughs, and convened town halls and information sessions for Asian Americans all over New York City. It took resources, labor, and capacity that individually would be insurmountable, but as one team came to fruition. Through it all, we educated and lifted each other up. There’s no way any of us could have this all on our own.

Under the auspices of APA VOICE, SQWM, CEP and DRUM organized the most recent information session at Liberty Palace on February 9, 2023 to raise awareness about the upcoming Queens public hearing where community members would have one last opportunity to advocate for an equitable map. Almost 100 community members showed up to our session including many who were learning about redistricting for the first time. The crowd was intersectional and inclusive. Various community leaders attended and demonstrated their commitment to the cause including Jeany Persaud and Dilip Nath of the New American Voters Association, Vijah Ramjattan of the United Madrassi Association, Harpreet Singh Toor of the Sikh Cultural Society, Sherry Williams and Faiuze Ali who host a weekly food pantry on Liberty Avenue, Sherry Algredo, Chair of Community Board 9, District Leaders Richard David and Albert Baldeo and many others. Organizations like Jahajee Sisters and The Shakti Mission brought out several of their members. With language accessibility being critical, live translation was done by staff of DRUM and enabled all attendees to fully participate.

Among those who attended, at least 20 subsequently testified at the Queens redistricting public hearing convened by the IRC on February 16 at York College. I was personally proud to see how many women spoke. They included Savita Prasad and Carina Nieves of SQWM, Simran Thind and Kazi Fouzia of DRUM, and two Guyanese trans women, Olivia Valwaa and Isabella Fernandes of the Caribbean Equality Project, who testified in support of keeping Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park whole, despite the discrimination and street harassment they face in these neighborhoods. Sherry Williams said at the hearing: “I’m not a politician and I’m not here to talk about politics. I live in the real world. Every Saturday morning I have a food distribution on Liberty Avenue and things have gotten so bad since COVID that every weekend we have a line of people going around the block who need food and are struggling. We receive no government funding or assistance.” The Commissioners got the message: the large majority of those who testified at the six-hour long hearing were testifying in support of the IRC’s proposed Assembly District 24 which keeps Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park whole.

As we wind down and get closer to what will be the final decision by the IRC, there are many lessons I’ve personally taken away. When topics are hot, lots of folks will sweep in to bask in the spotlight to capitalize on the trend – many times for future political gain. Some may even take all the credit, and alas, very few will question their motivations simply because they are the loudest voices in the room. But those who are among the most dedicated are the unsung heroes who show up tirelessly without a desire to sing their own praises or to seek long-term reward. May their collective voices be heard and may the IRC and the NYS Legislature do the right thing. And Dear Lord, help us when we have the chance to throw up a candidate of our choice!

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The views expressed in this article are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.