Fierce

Inspired By Her Immigrant Mom, This Afro-Dominican Student Is Vying To Flip A Red Seat Blue In New York

In the New York borough of Queens, there is only one district with a Republican elected official: City Council District 32. When the term-limited council member Eric Ulrich vacates his seat in 2021, Shaeleigh Severino, a 21-year-old Afro-Dominican student, hopes to flip it blue. 

Although the candidate is progressive in a region with a right-leaning record, she believes her platform is attractive to the people of her district, which includes Howard Beach, Ozone Park, Broad Channel and the Western portion of the Rockaway Peninsula, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.

“As a Democrat, I’m saying it’s time for change. It’s time to try something new. I believe in collective action and people power that advocates for bringing all people together, and I don’t want that to get lost in political divisiveness,” Severino, a St. John’s University senior who is completing a double major in Government and Politics as well as Legal Studies and has already started a master’s program, tells FIERCE by mitú.

The Woodhaven native intends on uniting her divided district by focusing on issues that are relevant to people across the political aisle and, more importantly, impact their daily lives: education, public safety, transportation, sustainability and criminal justice.

Last week, the neighborhood of West Hamilton Beach, which is located in District 32, was under water. It’s an increasingly common occurrence in the Queens area, where rising sea levels have led to chronic flooding

“The quality of life is being destroyed by this issue, yet it’s not being resolved at any level. There is no unity or partnerships across multiple levels of government. There’s a disconnect,” she says.

To combat the threat of climate change, Severino hopes to spark collaboration among neighboring districts. Together, she believes, they can begin tackling various environmental challenges while also working with community organizers and local organizations to build a community resilience plan that removes single-use plastic, amends the city’s Green New Deal and addresses food insecurity.

Another critical issue for her district is transportation, especially in the Rockaways, a Queens peninsula isolated from Manhattan that has been referred to as a “transportation desert.” While much of the people who compose the area are civil servants, including nurses, health aides and home attendants who have been essential workers in the city’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, a lack of dependable, late-night transportation connecting Rockaway residents to the rest of the city has hindered many from performing their work.

Shaeleigh Severino

If elected to the city council, Severino says she will support ferry expansions, fight for federal funding to save the transit system from losing millions of dollars and support calls for city control over the New York City Transit Authority.

One of the most critical, and challenging, issues Severino would face if elected, however, would be uniting her district on her criminal justice plan. District 32 is home to the highest number of New York City Police Department and New York City Fire Department employees and retirees in New York City. Meanwhile, Severino has openly discussed issues she has with law enforcement and mass incarceration, like: rooting out police violence in communities of color, advocating for police accountability, ending incarceration for nonviolent crimes and opposing the city’s plan to close Rikers Island jails and build new detention centers.

Despite her criticism, Severino doesn’t propose abolishing the police but rather instituting reforms, like the implementation of mental health counselors for officers and dismantling bad practices, that she believes could rebuild community ties.

“My district is very misunderstood. It’s not common, especially in a city like New York. We operate and exist on a different level because of our makeup. But I’ve lived in this district my entire life. I know the barriers that exist, and I know they can be dismantled,” Severino says.

While 21 years old, she believes she has the insight and experience to bring her divided district forward and get tasks done. She references her time as a student organizer, both at St. John’s University and as student body president of her high school, where she worked with elected officials to help improve testing scores and increase student attendance and involvement to save the institution from closing down, as examples of her capabilities.  

An advocate, who has been deeply inspired by her mom, an immigrant from Dominican Republic who was also a political organizer, Severino says it would be an honor to lead and serve the community that raised her.

“‘An advocate, not a politician’ is not just a slogan to me. I actually believe in that. … I’m going in this with the intention of helping my community get their fair share, to represent them in a correct manner and ensure their needs are addressed on all levels,”  Severino says.

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