Policy of Lived Experience: An Interview With Jaslin Kaur for NYC Council

“When we have been personally failed by these systems, we know exactly what the solutions can look like.”

IMAGE: Candidate Jaslin Kaur for NYC Council — jaslinkaur.nyc

If you have been paying attention to the last few election cycles, you’ll see that representation, candidate identity, is at the forefront of political focus. Not just for the sake of representation alone, but because of the policy that comes out of broader, more holistic governmental say that ultimately benefits all. Well, minus the billionaires, but that’s okay.

Jaslin Kaur (she/her) is currently running for Queens’ 23rd District in the New York City Council. The district specifically covers the areas of Bayside Hills, Bellerose, Douglaston, Floral Park, Fresh Meadows, Glen Oaks, Hollis, Hollis Hills, Holliswood, Little Neck, New Hyde Park, Oakland Gardens, and Queens Village. As a 2021 NYC-DSA endorsed candidate, with many more endorsements as well, Jaslin’s public service began with her activism involving the taxi medallion debt crisis. This, for her and many more, is an issue that hit literally close to home as she was raised in a working-class household of a taxi driver and a union grocery store employee.

Whether it be her work involving immigrant rights and representation with the New American Leaders organization, or training students involving bodily autonomy and their Title IX rights, Kaur makes known that she is a proud progressive; and why wouldn't she? In terms of policy stances, Jaslin centers education equity at the front of her platform along with comprehensive housing, healthcare, and environmental action all being guarantees New York residents have been owed for many years now.

Last week I got to speak with Jaslin about what motivates her to run for city council, how she maneuvers around corporate, establishment forces, and how she personally takes care of herself as a candidate running for public office.

Your campaign is deeply socioeconomic. What would you say to people who are having trouble understanding that social issues and economic issues go hand-in-hand?

What I always tell people about why it’s important for a variety of people to get involved in local politics, and why I’m running for office in the first place, is because no one knows policy better than the people who have been failed by it. Whether it’s cutting the red tape, getting the run-around around from NYC agencies, or being left out like so many of our excluded workers who are on hunger strikes right now.

What we’re experiencing on a social and political level is informed by how our budget is constructed. As a councilmember, I would have the power of having to negotiate a $92 billion budget. Where those dollars get allocated determines whether people can continue to live in their houses, whether people can continue to feed their families, whether our seniors can get the adequate home care services that they need.

For me, budgets are moral documents that reflect what the quality of life for the rest of the city is going to look like. We’ve been in crisis well before the pandemic. It’s important to do this logic rewiring with voters who are just learning for the first time what a councilmember does in the first place, and also what the city’s budget actually looks like. It’s one part political education, and one part speaking from lived experience.

Besides the need for progressive policy in general, why do you believe marginalized needs are more comprehensively addressed with progressive policy?

A lot of us come to particularly electoral work as people who have been harmed in the first place. One of the “North Stars” for me is the idea that people who are closest to the pain need to be closest to the power, and need to be at the decision-making table.

Far too often, governmental decisions are being made without our [marginalized] voices — or we aren’t even present in the room. Our state budget at the moment will hopefully be moved forward with a package of bills that will tax the rich that will generate over $50 billion in revenue… but that usually happens between people like Carl Heastie, Andera Stewart-Cousins, and Governor Cuomo. We want a more transparent budgetary process not only at the state level but at the city level as well.

It can’t just be whoever the Mayor of New York is that decides the fate of our city, deciding without us, the people. This is why it’s so important to build out local governance and make sure there is representation at every single level. I had a voter recently ask me, “I understand now what a councilmember does, but who’s below that? Who makes decisions and brings things to the attention of the city councilmember?” When you look at the make-up of our community boards, our education councils within our school districts, it’s clear that we need folks [in government] who actually have the experience of being left out.

I’m saddled with an immense amount of student debt. I’m someone whose been in public schools their entire life and has gone to community college. When we have been personally failed by these systems, we know exactly what the solutions can look like. That’s what I hope to bring when elected to the city council. The political will and courage to use our seat of governance for the greater good.

As a progressive, what has your experience been like interacting with Democratic establishment forces, and how have you seen your work and activism overcome their influence?

It’s been very clear that the political establishment did not want me to run for office. They didn’t want me to be the one “making a ruckus” about what’s wrong with our city. As a young woman of color, I will never have “the right” experience, I will never have “the right” background to run for public office. I don’t see myself as someone who should wait some arbitrary number of years to actually step up to the plate to lead my community in the right direction.

There has been some push-back from more establishment leaders who are… curious about where I came from, what type of experience I have because I don’t check off the traditional markers of what an elected official “is.” I don’t come from a political background. I don’t have years and years of public service behind me.

The shift in consciousness is starting to occur though. Candidate “ability” is starting to be questioned in terms of prior metrics of viability. I think this shift is starting to happen, but I think there's also still this hesitancy rooted in who has historically represented our community — White male city councilmembers. It’s time for that to change, especially as the plurality of people in this district are people of color and immigrants. I imagine there’s a fear among people of something new, but that has to change to a hope for something different.

How do you mentally and emotionally take care of yourself as a candidate running for public office, or simply engaging in any capacity politically?

I can’t lie, it’s been difficult. During a pandemic like this, it’s easy to feel distant or feel like the community isn’t really there. I look at our campaign that has over 200 volunteers. People who believed in this from Day 1 when it was just the five of us coming together on a Zoom to say, “Jaslin, how are we going to plan out the next nine months of your future?” It’s really powerful to see how many people are here with us, but it takes constant reminders that I have to be the one to reach out to people to ask for help when I need it.

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that when I reach out to people just to say, “You know, I’m really burnt out.” Or when I just don’t feel motivated to pick up the phone to call voters. Or I don’t know where I’m going to get the energy to go knock on doors tonight. But my team is always in my corner to remind me why I ran in the first place. It’s hard. You do get into those funks, but what I’ve learned on the campaign trail is that sometimes you just have to let yourself feel it through.

You can’t ignore those doubts. You can’t ignore those fears. Sometimes you have to lean into it a little bit. I’m really glad to have the support of my family members as well who are there for me when I’m at a dining room table on a Zoom call for three hours. They are there to take care of me, to make sure that I’m eating. I’ve found a lot of relief in getting physically active. Even just going for a walk. My pandemic purchase was a punching bag that I’ve hung up in the basement which is a good stress reliever.

Is there anything else you would like to mention or include?

This is a really historic election cycle. We progressives could win a new mayor, comptroller, and city council. This is an important moment for us to not just think about historic representation, but also the historic policy that could really shift the material conditions of people’s lives.

I’ve really found a home in NYC-DSA, Queens DSA, and a number of grassroots groups across Queens. I was speaking with Amplify Her recently and their perspective on this election cycle was that a lot of inspiring races are coming out of Queens. That really speaks to the diversity of this borough and the caliber of candidacy that we need to really represent the most marginalized people. It’s really exciting to not move along this path alone.

Whether it’s the NYC-DSA slate, the New York Working Families Party, New York Communities for Change, there are other people that I can lean on to be both that emotional support and that policy support. That necessary discipline of being on each other’s side when negotiations in the council get tough, or when we need each other in city hall during legislative meetings.

I’m really excited. We have less than three months left until the primary. It’s an exciting time now and going forward.

Jaslin’s primary is on June 22nd, 2021. You can learn more about Jalin’s candidacy, stay up to date on upcoming events, sign up to volunteer your time and skills, and/or donate what you can.

Truly progressive campaigns like Jaslin’s are about making sure every single person has a say in how our government operates. We are in this together.

Democratic socialist Queer rights activist who is sexually liberated and respects their mental health. Email me: mthm100@gmail.com

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