If you think back to your early 20s (or perhaps are looking forward to them), you might imagine working a couple of part-time jobs, pursuing an undergraduate degree, moving away from home for the first time, maybe even a budding relationship with a significant other. For Shae Severino, the 21-year-old challenging New York’s 32nd district incumbent in the upcoming City Council elections, the first steps into adulthood look considerably different.
Perhaps one of Ms. Severino’s biggest strengths is the diversity she brings to the table and how she does so. Not only is Shae the youngest candidate to ever run for the New York city council, but Shae also identifies as an Afro-Latina, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and a woman with a disability. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with this insightful and inspiring soul, and–despite living hundreds of miles away–felt reinvigorated after a period of feeling jaded by politics. As a matter of fact, Ms. Severino prefers the title of “advocate” over that of “politician” and was pleasantly surprised by her reasoning for choosing this terminology:
If this is your first time hearing about Shae Severino, read on carefully because it won’t be the last.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the campaign that you’re running right now?
Yeah, I am running for the District 32 City Council in New York City. I would say we are the most underrepresented district in all of New York. Really. We are a majority-minority community, and we face a lot of stigmas and stereotypes that are completely wrong. My job throughout the campaign has been to debunk these stereotypes one by one. We have to tackle issues that exist here, such as sanitation. We don’t have enough trash cans in our area, which makes some of our streets dirty. We are also a designated federal food desert, so people do not have access to fresh produce.
District 32 has horrible service despite being one of the largest districts in New York City. People face these issues all the way from Hamilton Beach to Richmond Hill. A lot of people think that the district doesn’t have these issues because it has traditionally voted Republican, but it is the complete opposite. In fact, some of the biggest complications in New York City are situated within District 32.
Yet, the city council does not react quickly to solving the issues of District 32’s citizens. We saw the slow reaction to Hurricane Sandy and the Build It Back program. We still haven’t fully recovered from the horrors of Hurricane Sandy, and we have to fight a new challenge in COVID-19. We haven’t gotten permanent testing sites in that district, and we have the highest COVID-19 rates in all of the city. We are upwards of 18% infected, but no one in the city government is paying attention. Our district is neglected and forgotten. My job is to ensure we are centering the community first and bringing every resident’s voice to the table.
We are running on a co-governance model that empowers our voters. We’ve made sure that we bring people in from all sides of the spectrum. We have Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We also have people from diverse backgrounds and different neighborhoods to reflect the values of the whole community. I am the advocate for our district, not a politician. I don’t play political games because politicians have consistently disregarded our community.
I am running because I am tired of the false promises of the past. I am tired of people not representing us. We are 35% Latino and 20% black, but we do not have representation. I’m excited to be able to be a part of this campaign. It’s so weird saying that as a candidate, but I really do believe that this is a movement that we’re creating. I might be the face of it, but this is a movement for everyone. I wouldn’t be able to be here without the community wanting a different voice to advocate for them.
Absolutely. That was great! Was there a moment in particular for you where you said I’m going to run for city council, or has this been more of a slow burn for you?
I definitely did not plan to run for office. It was not in the books. That was not what I wanted to do. It was the complete opposite. I was thinking that I’m a student about to graduate. I had plans to do my master’s, and I had a lot of ideas for academic work. I was also working as a paralegal, and I was planning on going to law school.
I shifted my attention to politics in June 2020 due to the protests surrounding police brutality after George Floyd’s death. I realized that a lot was going on in New York City, but we did not have enough legislation. Traditional politicians were not getting enough done. People needed new, bold ideas.
I was going to protest every day, and I kept thinking, what is my role in my city? I realized that protesting and being a future lawyer wasn’t going to be enough. My job was always going to be helping people and defending them, but I didn’t think law school would be the route to meaningful change.
I realized that if I really wanted to help people, I had to run for office so I could be the one changing the law. My community needs people that represent them and advocate for them, so I needed to be in office. I researched the candidates, and I did not believe they truly got the local political scene right.
A lot of people put up barriers to running for office. People say, “you are 21,” or they don’t believe Afro-Latina people belong in those spaces. I knew there would be all these obstacles, but if I didn’t run, who would? I felt like there was no choice.
You make an important point about Afro-Latinas. Nobody says it outright, but there is a general feeling that you don’t belong. I think that even extends to the Latino population in the U.S. Could you talk a little bit about how that intersection between Black and Latina will change the New York city council for the better?
Yeah, definitely. I think we don’t have representation. I can barely name one Afro-Latina that has been able to climb up the ranks into a position of power. I think that if we really want to be able to move forward, we have to be able to call it out in our own community as well. I had conversations with Latinx community members, and they don’t think I am Latina because I am Black. It’s definitely a bigger conversation that needs to be held.
I am Dominican, so we tend to be Black. Spanish was my first language. In fact, I stutter and mess up in English half the time. Members of the Latinx community are often so blown away that someone like me with my complexion could speak Spanish fluently.
On a city council level, we don’t have anyone that’s Afro-Latina in that space. We need people in that space that are willing to be proud Afro-Latinas. We are a diverse city, so we need to represent Afro-Latino people here. It is a unique perspective because we can see that immigration issues and police brutality are interlinked. We need to bridge the gap between African American, Latino, and Afro-Latino communities because it will help us realize our true power.
That was a great answer. You are running as a person who represents multiple communities in a largely Republican district as a Democrat. I was wondering what makes you confident that this is the moment for your campaign?
I think it is the right moment for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I know I am 21 years old, but the current incumbent also ran at a young age in a field full of older people. He won that race, and he set the precedent that young people can win in this district. Secondly, the issues that people face in this community transcend party affiliation. I’m running on very bold policies and legislation, it’s simply because we cannot be mediocre about the changes that we demand. We cannot be okay with the bare minimum. We need to fix potholes, we need more jobs, and we need a youth center in our community. Our children need after-school programs and sports. These are only a few of the issues that I will be tackling in the City Council.
I want to make sure that people understand through this campaign that we don’t have to just get one of these things resolved. We can get all of them resolved, and we don’t have to choose. No one can talk about these issues more than me. We can talk about ADA compliance in our schools. As a young person with a disability, I promise you I can list and map out every single issue that exists. We’re the only campaign to provide actual, tangible solutions to all of these problems.
We are run on a co-governance model, so I want people’s input. What are the issues that you care about? What do you want to see changed? Our platform is literally from the people by the people. The voters told me what the issues were, and I want to work with them to find tangible solutions.
Definitely. Can you think of some experiences that you’ve had at any point in your life that contributed to you becoming so civically active?
First and foremost, my mother is a community organizer. She infused the values of people power and collective action in all of us. She always wanted us to do something that helped people and supported our communities. I remember being eight years old and she would always have the house packed full of people that she was helping. She is my everything. She’s a rock and the foundation.
As I mentioned before, the protests over the summer of 2020 and Hurricane Sandy also impacted my career. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, and my advocacy was going to be in the courtroom. However, I realized I needed to be doing more to change the district that I love.
That’s really cool. What’s been the most challenging thing about campaigning?
There have been a lot of challenges, including doing my master’s and graduating from undergrad. The most challenging thing has been fundraising. I don’t have 20 years of connections like some candidates, and I am not connected to big donors. I am connected to my community, but they are struggling to make sure they have a paycheck next week due to COVID-19. We have to raise money to get the flyers out and canvas people, so that is still the biggest challenge. I’m not too fond of the money and bureaucracy of politics, but I know we can overcome it because we have people power. My community is powerful, my team is incredible, and there is nothing we can’t do.
Lastly, what do you love about Queens and New York in general?
I love the diversity and the different lived experiences that people have. We have African American, Latinx, and white communities within blocks of each other. I love to listen to the stories of the people in my district. I will talk to people about their struggles and success, and I carry those stories with me. When we knock on doors in our district, I make sure to hear everyone’s stories. For example, Mrs. Mary down the block is worried about her husband losing his job and the medical bills stacking up. She doesn’t know the next time that she’s going to get food on her table — literally. I take that story with me because they empower me to seek change. Mrs. Mary told me to win, so I must win to help her and others like her. If I didn’t live here, I would not be able to have those conversations and be exposed to those stories. The stories of the people in my district give me the passion to win this City Council seat.
Ellie is a regular contributor at The Commoner, focusing on the Latin American experience in the USA and international affairs. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and has since taught English as a foreign language both online and in Mexico. She enjoys listening to podcasts about foreign culture and annoying her fat and sassy tortoiseshell cat with lots of love and pets.