Common Sense Exclusive: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi
Noa Yolkut, Grade 11, Entertainment and Features Editor
HSAS is in the State Senate District NY-34, where Alessandra Biaggi has been the State Senator since 2019. In her heavily blue district, the Democratic primaries were the most critical part of the campaign, and she beat a more moderate Democrat by nearly nine points in said primaries. During her run, she became beloved by her soon-to-be constituents, and today, she continues to be a progressive voice in the New York State Senate. Here is my interview with her:
Can you tell the students who will be reading this a bit about yourself and your job? And for fun, what is your favorite restaurant in your district?
I'm four generations in this district . I was born in Mount Vernon hospital. I learned to ride my bike at Seton Park, the White Hall is where we spend every Sunday as a very large Italian American family. So this district is very special to me, not just because of those memories, but because it is my home. And every day that I am representing this district, not only do I feel responsible because it's my job. So in addition to those things, I went to Pelham public schools. I went to NYU undergrad, I went to Fordham law school, I practiced law for a little while I did storm recovery work. And then I worked on the Clinton campaign to national operations. I'm sure everybody knows what happened with that campaign. It was heartbreaking, really. And then I went to work for the [Former] Governor of New York, and that experience is really what catapulted me to do this, because I got to take the curtain and pull it back and see what was going on behind the scenes. And it was not pretty at all. So it made me see the truth. But it also made me motivated to run because I just thought, how could this be that we could have somebody like this representing us, and it just wasn't right, it wasn't somebody who really cared about the people.
The restaurant is so hard because I have so many in different areas that mean different things to me. Growing up, the Villa Barone, which is in Pelham Bay is where every single child in my family had their baptism, communion, confirmation, sweet 16. anniversaries, birthdays, even funerals. I'm sorry to all the other pizza places, Louie & Ernie’s in the Throgs Neck area is one of the best pieces of pizza I have ever had ever. And I have had a lot of pizza. If you had to ask me what's your favorite deli? Mike's Deli on Arthur Avenue, which is right outside the district because I share Arthur Avenue with Gustavo Rivera. That has to be honestly the best deli. Similarly, since I was the size of a crumb, I have been going there.
How would you recommend an everyday high schooler get involved in politics? What are the best ways/places to volunteer?
I want everyone who reads this to understand one thing that I'm trying to change actively, even as I'm talking to you right now. Politics is very exclusive. We blew the lid off the government because of Trump. And still it's hard for people to get involved in politics, in government, and campaigns. That's not good. And I don't usually do the good and bad dichotomy, but I don't think it's good because we do want everybody to be involved and we want all hands on deck, and to any person who feels like they're not welcome here means that we have failed as leaders and as a government. Politics, the best way to boil it down is like this. Every problem and everything that we do and interact with is politics. The air that we breathe, the computer that I'm on right now, the internet that's coming through the wires and the air, the ability for me to have access to why all of these things are political, because a political decision went behind all of these things happening. So I think the idea that we are outside of the process is a myth. And it's a myth that I think the people in power want us to believe. The best way for somebody in high school to get involved is, I think, twofold. Number one, look for a problem, you can probably think off the top of your head, what's something that really bothers you that you don't like, and then look for the people who are trying to solve that problem. If those people don't exist, well, then the second route exists, which is that you create something, you organize. Number two is that every person has the ability to reach out to their elected officials. So what does that mean? The responsibility is on every high schooler to understand who represents them at every level, local, state, federal, everyone should know that. And if you don't know, it's okay, but look it up. Because you need to know and you need to know, because these are the people making decisions for you, every day, no matter what, no matter if you pay attention to them or not.
Were you politically active as a high schooler? If not, when did you start to become politically active?
So I grew up in a political family, so politics was very normal around the dinner table, like it was just what we did. And so that meant that even if I wasn't actively volunteering on a campaign, I still was always talking about politics. It really wasn't until after high school, and I got to college, that I would just do a lot of volunteering. But after I graduated from college, I interned as a congressional intern for congressman Crowley, and I got to work on constituent cases. And they were like, okay, here you go, because they saw that I could do it. And I enjoyed that. And they gave me a lot of responsibility. And I loved it. I loved it so much. But every experience after that along the way, just kind of built upon the other one. And ultimately, what it meant was that I was just continuing to learn. But I think what made me feel confident about the ability to be here today is that I kept seeking out those experiences, even when I did not feel welcome in the room.
We’re a school that puts a big emphasis on history. Is there anything you learned in history class that has stuck without throughout your political career or even just your life in general?
This is probably going to be a surprise answer. What has stuck with me about what I learned in history is what I didn't learn, meaning that I cannot believe how much they left out of the curriculum, and I am perpetually raging about it. Because it is such a dereliction of educational duties to leave out massive swaths of history, and to really brush over things like oh, we're gonna learn about slavery and colonialism, but it's fine. Everything's fine. It's over. Like, no, it's not over and also, let's learn about these things in a truthful way. The things that I feel like I learned were completely whitewashed. And were delivered to me in a way that just made everybody feel comfortable. Our history as a country is uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable. It is embarrassing, in some ways. There's things to be proud of, of course, but you know what I'm getting at here. I'm talking about all of the racial inequalities. And just the deeply rooted social inequity and racial inequity that runs from the beginning of this country, and still exists in so many rules and laws and regulations, and generational wealth and income inequalities and, and criminal justice reform systems and educational systems. I think that it's important that someone like me, and others who know that we were not taught these things educate ourselves about what really happened. I have done a lot of reading and research and listening and just trying to understand and wrap my head around. And a lot of things I've learned, I brought to my parents, and they didn't know it either. And so it just shows you how, just how, unfortunately, we've been really taught things with blinders on.
The High School of American Studies is one of nine New York City specialized high schools. In order to be admitted to eight of these schools, students must take and pass the SHSAT, a test that has become increasingly controversial over the last several years, as many students of color and students in poorer neighborhoods don’t have access to the learning resources that wealthier students have. Some wish to keep the test, others wish to reform it, and several want to abolish the test altogether. Where do you stand on the issue? What are some ideas you have to fix it?
I have always been a straight A student. There has not been a time in my life where I've not been obsessed with getting straight As. But I've never been good at taking standardized tests until I took my last bar exam, my last standardized test ever. And that's because I did not know that I had testing anxiety and overall anxiety. And there's a lot of underlying things behind that. But because of that, and because I also had ADHD and dyslexia, I struggled so much unnecessarily. And if I had more time, I would have been fine. But I didn't and so I struggled with my SATs, my PSAT, my first bar exam. And also want you to know one more thing, I could not have had more access to help. I had a tutor for everything I ever needed. I had access to prep schools, prep programs, prep, whatever. I had every book, every flip card, I wasn't for a shortage of that. So imagine if you take away the ability of that. It's impossible, you're never gonna get anywhere because you're just not capable of doing it. So I think that for me this question, and just this issue, like the disparities among students that are admitted to specialized high schools, is very real, it is very concerning to me. This year, 4262 out of about 23,000 8th graders who took the SHSAT received an acceptance. And the percentage of offers, in addition to that, for black and Latino students was 9%, compared to last year, which was 11%. So that's a problem, because what's happening is, it's obviously decreasing in terms of who has access to the schools. I know, I think we all know, that this is a disparity that is hurting black and Latino students, it harms the students who also attend specialized high schools, in my opinion, who really do not read the intellectual and emotional and social benefits from learning in a more diverse environment. And especially as a student in New York City, nothing represents New York City more than its diversity. I'm a co-sponsor of legislation that allows New York City to change the process of how specialized high schools admit students. Because currently, right now, under the law that we have, all of the specialized high schools are required to use the test, as their sole means for admission. And so since the enactment of the Hecht-Calandra Act in 1971, New York City has really not been able to make any decisions about admissions to specialized high schools. This bill is important because it does give the city school districts just the ability to determine if there are other metrics and to be able to determine if somebody should be admitted to schools. And I think that standardized tests are one of the most troubling ways, even though it's there to equalize the playing field. But in order to do that, everybody has to start from the same position, and everyone is not starting from the same position. So I think we can do better. I know we can. And I know that we can also put more responsibility on the admissions committees to look at a little more than just a standardized test score, because people are not only a number, that one time, one day you took that test.
As we’re wrapping up, is there anything else you’d like to mention to the students of HSAS that I didn’t bring up?
If you do what you love, you will truly never work a minute or day in your life. And I can tell you that because not only do I feel like I don't work, but I love what I do. And I think a lot of the myths that we are told is that we are supposed to, you know, go to school, get good grades, get married and get a good job, and then have children buy a house. There's nothing wrong with that, but also, what do you do if you want to take an alternative route? What if you decide “You know what I want to do, I want to walk on glaciers. That's what I want to do for the rest of my life.” That's amazing, you should do that. Because that's what makes you happy. When we don't do things we love, we actually have the ability to cause more harm. And I can tell you that firsthand, because a lot of the people that I serve with, do not love what they do. And are still not there for the right reasons. And they do cause harm. In fact, we see all the time. So it's an important thing to not let go of because nobody can take that away from you. And that is the most powerful thing in the world.
At the end of the interview, Senator Biaggi offered to make a short video saying hello to my grandmother, who lives in the district and is a big fan of hers. When she received the video, she could not have been more excited. Senator Biaggi, on top of being smart, qualified, and making important changes in Albany, genuinely cares about her constituents and community, which is what truly makes her great. This interview took place in May of 2021. In August of 2021, Senator Biaggi got a significant amount of news coverage talking about former Governor Cuomo’s sexual assault allegations and resignation. If you’d like to hear more from her on the subject of former Governor Cuomo, she has several video interviews on various news websites. The entire Common Sense team thanks Senator Biaggi for agreeing to interview with us. It was such a pleasure to speak with her, and I hope to do it again.