Millennials showing the world they can change it

Ali T. Muhammad

Ali is an Executive Aide for the Duchess County Commission on Human Rights in New York. As a former Beacon City Council Member and local organizer, he’s working toward bringing more affordable housing, better educational opportunities and adult soft & hard job skills training to his community.

Q: How did you begin your road to activism?

A: I read a book when I was younger called “The Kid Who Ran for President” [by Dan Gutman] and that helped kick it into gear. My parents raised me with a community-first attitude focused on building character. That was so important for me because the fact of the matter is that most of us grow up in villages and it really does take a village to raise a child. That theory needs to be put into practice in order to become practical.

Q: How do you think that mindset has shaped you as an adult?

A: I saw needs in the community and I noticed that people weren’t necessarily helping. If the people who are doing the work are not focused in areas you’re interested in, then you need to do the work in that area. I do a lot with community-police relations, recreation, education activities and building up the community.

Community is not just an idea or buzzword. I often wondered how I could help develop community and I realized that you need to have a conversation with someone and you need to understand where they’re coming from. Once you communicate, then the sky’s the limit. We can’t work together to achieve certain things if we don’t communicate. How do we fill those voids if we aren’t focused on that?  If I’m in a position to help and I’m not thinking about these needs, I need to talk to someone who is concerned about what I’m not, then I could help them. That’s what matters to me: having the conversation so we can help people become stronger so they can focus on the things they care about. If we focus on the things we care about, not only will there be overlapping, but there will be hundreds more people doing the work as opposed to the few.

Q: How did you get involved and develop your passion for this interest?

A: Well it’s easy to say it was innate, but there were voids directly in my neighborhood on top of systemic woes that needed attention. Why are the 70 year olds in government regulating what kids can do for fun and what they’ll learn? Why are 80 year olds regulating how we’ll live the next 40 or 50 years of our lives? We shouldn’t be doing that when we’re in our 60s and 70s to the generations that follow, so why are they doing it? There was a void in arena of elected officials – not enough young people involved period. I decided to be the change I wanted to see and it worked.

Q: In communities it can feel like we’re encouraged to pursue our passions and dreams, but we’re seldom granted the time to figure out what those passions are.

A: Not at all, if only that was nurtured more early on. I want to become a state representative at some point because we need to focus on our outdated education system. A lot of these people in positions of power won’t do anything if they don’t see it, but you have to understand their perspective. They want to put results on everything, but not everything is a litmus test or a scantron. Essentially they can’t fix the bottom because the powers that be have never been there, and the ones that have aren’t in the positions needed to affect systematic change.

Q: What specific projects are you involved in?

A: One of the coolest and best things we did as a City Council was called workforce affordable housing. I felt strongly that we should raise the percentage of workforce affordable units and spend time on affordable units, which is the missing link between workforce affordable housing and low-income housing. It is a good thing we did it because instead of all the new developments coming up being 100 percent market value, we’re at least getting a couple units lower than market value. That was really good because it helps people who are living with financial burden. We passed a lot of mundane things and there are some mistakes I’ve made with legislation where I believe we could have focused more on it as community, not a governing body. As an organizer, the community-building projects and initiatives that I’ve focused on are all grassroots. I’ve dealt police-community conversations, vigils and rallies around the socio-economic disparities, tensions and crimes committed against humanity to my neighbors. It always brings a lot of awareness on these issues and it’s been helpful.

Q: It sounds like you’re very interested and invested in housing. What other kinds of changes would you like to see in your own community?

A: More affordable housing, skills training and educational opportunities. A lot of the people I know were forced out of Beacon since there are not a lot of job opportunities for unskilled employees. Lack of education leads to lack of job opportunity, leading to financial insecurity and the inability to afford housing. If you’re not making enough money, then how can you afford to own a house, to rent even? How can you make a house more affordable if you don’t have the skills or training to get a job that can pay you better in order to get a work-force affordable or market value house? It’s those three things: housing, job skills and education that are very important to me and all work together. Not everyone is going to be an engineer, MD or CEO, so what do we do for everyone else? That’s why I find these areas so important. We’re filling the voids with viable solutions.

Q: What are some of your methods when it comes to bringing more affordable housing to your community?

A: It goes back to the grassroots and sitting with people to make sure this is something they want or are aware of. Being an elected official for a few years, I know the process and how it works and I know the community members well. I liked to meet with them all separately and get familiar and then set up an event where we’re coming together in a room to discuss it, whatever the issue or solution may be. By engaging the public then the elected officials and decision makers can know that the issues are, what their constituents want and we can work toward to make that goal happen.  A lot of times that disconnect is why things don’t get accomplished. If they’re doing the work and having the conversations, we can hold the elected officials and decision makers more accountable. A lot of times they do the work because you’re holding them accountable.

Sometimes you have to write up legislation and rally people up, and it takes a lot of research to realize what’s out there. It sounds simple, but getting people on the same page and comfortable enough to communicate about their situations is very hard. A lot of people don’t believe in handouts or giving people something for nothing if they don’t have any skin in the game, but there are some things we have to provide for our citizens so they can get more equity and give back a little bit more.

Q: It seems like you have your finger on the pulse of Beacon. How did you become a council member?

A: It goes back to that book. I made some stupid mistakes away college, but I came home and got myself together and I realized I could still do this. I decided to run and lost in my first election, but I got a taste of it and I ran again two years later and won. I was reelected two years later and I ran for reelection this year but lost my primary. Politics kind of gobbled me up. I could be a good politician, but I don’t want to be a good politician. I’m a good public servant and good government official; I don’t want to be a good politician. Unfortunately I got caught up in the system standing up for what I believe in and keeping it real, but sometimes keeping it real goes wrong. It caught up to me while campaigning for the primary and I lost focus because I was dealing with distractions trying to speak on any distractions that came up, but I should have just stayed focused on why I run in the first place.

Q: It sounds like your heart is in the right place and your intentions are good. What are your future plans?

A: I am working for the county as the executive aide for Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights. I’m about to become an expert when it comes to human rights issues and that’s very important to me. If I had to stop doing for other people and just focus on what I care about, this would be it. I went against the grain politically and some people didn’t like that, but the people who loved it are still supporting me to this day. Even though I’m not an elected official, I’m an appointed official and I still got to swear in and geek out about that a little bit. I want to serve as Governor of New York someday. I’m 29 years old and in the last ten years I’ve gotten elected and ran for office eight out of the last ten years.

Q: Many young people feel jaded about American politics, but they can take power back and run themselves. What advice would you give to those also looking to pursue similar forms of activism, but may feel discouraged or unsure on where to start?

A: Do it now while you’re young. Period. A lot of people who say things about how they don’t want to get involved right now end up getting involved in their 40s, 50s or 60s when they believe they have more time and don’t realize they have fewer ideas. Right now we have so many fresh, invigorating ideas, why don’t we put them out there?

Everywhere you go there’s a government. You want recreational marijuana legalized? Get involved in government. You want free college? Get involved with government. You want low income housing? Get involved in government. There’s going to be a municipality wherever you live. Even if there’s no official government somewhere on a secluded island, someone is running the operations on that island. Why don’t more people want to get in on the decision making level? I could mess around and live to 100, but why wouldn’t I want to get involved now when I could die tomorrow? Do it now while you’re young and you don’t have jaded sentiments and implicit biases in you. You’ve got to get in the game now, stay focused and become an expert. I spent my 20s trying to do this stuff as a novice; I’m going to spend my 30s as a veteran and my 40s as a professional. You get to be the change by getting involved, but you’re also getting older so what do you want to leave behind? There’s so much that we can do and will do. We have to do it and I’m willing to give it my all for a while. Come 50s, maybe I would like to do something different, but I have to do what I can now.