Why a South Bronx teacher is campaigning for Samelys Lopez (NY-15)

Why a South Bronx teacher is campaigning for Samelys Lopez (NY-15)
Samelys Lopez, a candidate for New York Congressional District 15th.

Op-Ed

 

Months ago, when the Democratic Presidential Primary was still competitive, I opened up space with my students to discuss the candidates. The overwhelming favorite among my South Bronx teens - who live in the poorest congressional district in the country - was Bernie Sanders. To ground students in the issues, though, I had them take the isidewith quiz online, to see which candidates aligned most closely with their positions. For many students (and myself), the quiz results showed that Elizabeth Warren was either a close second or tied in first place with Sanders. A few students actually got other candidates when they submitted their responses, but it was the first time they were ever hearing of those candidates.  In fact, Sanders was the only candidate many of them had even heard of. Why was it, if students’ positions sometimes align with other candidates, that the Sanders message was sticking? 

I am coming to believe that the language of socialism, which Sanders used unabashedly, is resonant with young people in this district whether or not they call themselves socialists.  Samelys Lopez, who has been endorsed by DSA, socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Millenials for Bernie, conveys this in a recent video in which she explains that she came to socialism not through bookish consumption of political and economic theory, but through her own lived experience growing up in the shelter system and New York public schools.

As a teacher in the South Bronx, I’ve witnessed students being unable to concentrate in school because of hunger. I’ve conducted home visits to get to know students’ families and experienced their warm hospitality, and I’ve also seen their stressful housing insecurity. I’ve struggled to support students who miss school or homework assignments due to frequent asthma attacks. I’ve accompanied students to get Plan B and other reproductive healthcare on weekends and after school because the healthcare system is confusing, sexist, and inaccessible. There is a problematic trope among liberals that teachers like me are heroes, who show up in struggling neighborhoods to save Black and Brown young people from their zip codes. The truth is that while those of us lucky enough to have had at least one good teacher in our educational experiences know that being a good teacher can change an individual student’s life, we teachers cannot dismantle the structural inequities that make our jobs and our students’ lives so difficult in the first place. We need systemic change, which requires political will. My students and their families in NY-15 are the strongest, most resilient humans I know, and they need a representative in Washington who shares their lived experiences.  The majority of candidates in this race don’t even live in the district.

Asthma. The manifestation of environmental racism that Washington has yet to fully realize (though AOC is helping them get there). In 1998, the current Congressman Jose Serrano filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that the disproportionate placement of garbage transfer stations in the South Bronx is discriminatory and adversely impacts the neighborhood’s public health. After 18 years of inaction, the EPA dismissed the complaint.  Serrano, along with Melissa Iachan, wrote about the EPA’s inaction in an op-ed, which I assigned to my students as a reading task in government class. I then asked them what they think should be done to address environmental racism in the South Bronx. One student (who gave me permission to share her idea) brilliantly wrote, “What I think needs to be done is there needs to be another EPA specifically for the minority and poor class. Therefore they can focus more on the people of color instead of everyone because the people of color have been ignored more than anyone. So I think it’s important that there needs to be something created for our people instead.” This might not sound like your textbook socialism, but it sounds the call for a human-centered approach to protecting public health in marginalized communities by protecting the environment. Endorsed by the national youth-led environmental organization, Sunrise Movement, Samelys is a vocal advocate for the Green New Deal and represents the desperate need for an environmental movement that puts the needs of people of color and poor people first. 

I’m supporting Samelys for NY-15 because she is the socialism, grounded in lived experience, that my students and their families need.