Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Captivates the Audience At John Jay College

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Captivates the Audience At John Jay College

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Captivates the Audience At John Jay College

On Thursday, April 18, John Jay students started lining up at 8:00 in the morning, all in anticipation of seeing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Gerald W. Lynch Theater was packed with excited students, faculty, and staff ready to hear from the U.S. Representative from New York’s 14th Congressional District. “I’m so excited to see A.O.C. because, I see a lot of myself in her, especially coming from a low-income background,” said John Jay senior Lisa Cho ’19. “Her ascent means that we are open to diversifying fields that once were thought to be only for white, elite men. Seeing her in this position is really amazing.”

“Her ascent means that we are open to diversifying fields that once were thought to be only for white, elite men.” —Lisa Cho ’19

John Jay students clapping for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
John Jay students gearing up to hear the Congresswoman

Associate Professor Susan Kang, in the Political Science Department, took to the stage after Student Council President Jasmine Awad ’19 opened the program. “I had the privilege and honor of knowing the Congresswoman back in 2017, when she was a candidate and we just called her Alex,” said Kang. “We all thought she was amazing back then, but we didn’t know how amazing she was going to be as a freshman Congresswoman. We didn’t know that she would change the way a lot of young people feel about the political possibilities in our country.” Before the Congresswoman took to the stage, the students started chanting—A.O.C., A.O.C., A.O.C.—and applauded enthusiastically when she made her first appearance. 

Deciding to Run
A.O.C., as the crowd affectionately called the Congresswoman, started her initial talk with how she got to where she is today. “One of the main things I want to share with each and every one of you all today, is that this is not about one person getting one seat in D.C.,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “This is about each and every single one of us participating in a movement. People say we’re trying to change our country and move it into this radical new direction, but in some ways, I feel like we’re just trying to come back home. We’re just trying to reassert and renew the values of justice, freedom, liberty, human dignity, humanity, and looking after one another.” For her, being on the cover of Time magazine felt surreal, especially seeing that her very first political canvas consisted of a clipboard and some mocked up palm cards she stored in a grocery bag. “We had no idea what we were doing,” she said with a laugh. And with every step of the campaign, she learned from her mistakes, and continually elevated her game. There was no “blueprint” to follow, but for her, there was also no time to wait for the perfect plan to be dropped at her feet.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“We’re just trying to reassert and renew the values of justice, freedom, liberty, human dignity, humanity, and looking after one another.” —Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

When asked what was the moment when she knew she had to run for office, she said it was “when I went to Standing Rock and stood with the Lakota Sioux and other indigenous tribes. That for me was the tipping point. There is really something to be said for bearing witness when it comes to activism. There is something to be said for actually going to Rikers. There is something to be said for actually going to the border, or actually visiting native reservations, or actually having a lived experience or a personal experience in NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority]. There is really something to be said for seeing, smelling, tasting, and breathing this entire experience and you really internalize what these issues are. When I was at Standing Rock—looking face-to-face with a private security corporation, people with tanks, and being with indigenous people who just wanted the same rights to their own land that anybody else had—it really internalized the intersection of racial, economic, and criminal justice into one. I felt like we had to do something. And that’s when I decided to run.” 

Elevating Our Collective Consciousness
The Congresswoman went on to say that with the advances in technology, we’re reaching critical tipping points, and we have to start answering challenging questions that as a society will affect us all. “Because of the amount of technology that we have, because of the way that we’re doing things, what happens when some things are not scarce anymore? What happens when we actually have the technological capacities to feed every single person in the world? Because we do have the capacity to clothe every child and feed every hungry person, but we do not have the systems and the distribution of resources for that advancement in our technology,” the Congresswoman said. “Those are some of the core questions that we have, especially when we have conversations about immigration. People ask, ‘How are we going to fit all of these people?’ This idea that there is not enough isn’t matching the reality that there’s a labor shortage in this country. There aren’t enough people to fill jobs in critical industries, whether it’s high-skill, whether it’s meat-packing, whether it’s construction, whether it’s new technology. There are vacancies. But we’re so tied to this idea of zero-sum. We’re so tied to this idea that there is not enough.”

Reimagining Our Human Rights
Before the rest of the panel joined the Congresswoman on stage—including Kang, Political Science Assistant Professor Brian Arbour, and Political Science student Ravenne Reid ’19—Ocasio-Cortez talked about FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights, and how we need to fully understand the concept of human rights. “I believe that health care is a right. Education is a right. That we have access to clean water is a right,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“I believe that health care is a right. Education is a right. That we have access to clean water is a right.” —Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“This is not an idea that I came up with, this is an idea that was established by the President of the United States in the 1940s, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presenting the Economic Bill of Rights. It included a right to a job, a right to dignified retirement, and a right to health care. These were things that we started to recognize were possible 80 years ago. What we’re charged with doing now is challenging the limitations of our past thinking, and trying to advance to what a good, just, and innovative America looks like for the 21st and 22nd centuries.”

Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field
One of the first student questions that the Congresswoman answered was regarding her advice to young women preparing to enter a career or field historically dominated by men. To help illustrate her advice, Ocasio-Cortez took the students back to her campaign, when she sought the advice of Ruth Messinger, the first female candidate to run for New York City mayor from a major party. “She sat down and had breakfast with me when I was a nobody. She’s this remarkable person and fighter for justice, and I was this girl from nowhere who wanted to do this crazy thing,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “She told me, ‘Grow your rhinoceros skin.’ A big part of being a woman, and trying to ascend to a very male-dominated space, is learning to grow that really thick armor, without losing your humanity. You want to be tender and tough at the same time. If you lose your tenderness, then you lose everything that makes you special. You lose your advocacy. You lose your empathy. You lose your compassion.”Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“Grow that toughness, but protect your tenderness.” —Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

She continued by explaining that you should be tough, but not defensive. Her advice: Let the person get out their thoughts and learn how to not let it impact you personally. “Just stay focused on your goal. It doesn’t mean fighting everyone at every step of the way, but it also means learning what fights to pick. Even though it looks like I’m fighting every single thing, trust me, for every fight that I’m having, there are 10 that I choose not to have. Grow that toughness, but protect your tenderness.” 

Forgiving Student Loan Debt
When Reid asked the Congresswoman about the student loan debt crisis, the crowd roared with appreciation—understandably so, seeing that more than half of John Jay students come from households earning less than $30,000 a year, and 60 percent of John Jay students work full-time or part-time jobs. Ocasio-Cortez started off by saying that she understood the students’ passion for this topic, because she still has student loan debt herself and that many members of congress do too. She followed that by saying that as a country, we need to start talking about student debt and be honest about it. Then she hit the crowd with a fact that most of them didn’t know. “My platform includes federal student loan forgiveness, and that’s not a pie-in-the-sky thing. For the cost of the GOP tax cut that was passed in 2017, we could have forgiven every single student loan,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

“The question is not about possibility; it is a question of priority. What they told us is that billionaires—a handful of billionaires—are more important than educating our entire populace at the level that our economy demands. What we want to do is have these conversations, build those demands from the ground up, and vocalize that need.” She went on to say that this concept wasn’t about wealth distribution, or taking wealth from one person and giving it to another. It was about investments. By forgiving student debt, she believes that it lifts a burden that can help someone start a business, start a family, buy a house, and move on with their lives without getting caught in the many debt traps that inhibit social mobility. “You have to understand that corporations and the very, very one percent, enjoy at scale the types of subsidies that we propose and are called pie-in-the-sky on an everyday basis.”   

Changing Juvenile Incarceration Policies
Being a student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, means that you think critically about issues surrounding the criminal justice system. That’s why it was no surprise that a student submitted a question asking the Congresswoman about her stance on incarceration policies surrounding juveniles. Ocasio-Cortez started her answer with a well-known fact taught throughout the College, “The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. We call ourselves the land of the free, yet we lock up more people than any other nation in the world.” She then brought the conversation around to the hotly talked about “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal. “They were charged with a whole bribery scheme to get their kids into prestigious colleges and universities. And, one of the people who was implicated in this scheme is in negotiations to get zero to six months for her role in it. I say this over and over—and I said it to the CEO of JPMorgan Chase—in my district I represent kids that get locked up because they don’t have money for a MetroCard,” the Congresswoman said to thunderous applause.   

(left to right) Assistant Professor Arbour, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, Associate Professor Kang, and Political Science student Reid
(left to right) Assistant Professor Arbour, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, Associate Professor Kang, and Political Science student Reid

“The poor get locked up more for crimes that are not as damaging than the rich do for massive schemes of fraud that harm millions of people.” —Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“I asked him, ‘Do you think your colleagues should have gone to jail for precipitating a crisis that took 7.6 million foreclosures in the United States of America? And he said, ‘You'd have to talk to a legal expert about that.’ I don’t think I need to talk to a legal expert, I think I need to talk to someone with a moral compass.” She followed that thought by explaining that our criminal justice system has been structured less about delivering justice, and more about functioning as a class enforcement system, especially when you look at the proportionality of sentencing in this country. “Because the poor get locked up more for crimes that are not as damaging than the rich do for massive schemes of fraud that harm millions of people.” As for the specific problem with juvenile detention, she believes that how we fund our schools creates zones of poverty, and we’re continually criminalizing poverty, effectively establishing an unconscionable school-to-prison pipeline.

Ending Prison Privatization and Mass Incarceration
Staying true to their mission of exploring and analyzing the criminal justice system, another student submitted a question regarding the Congresswoman’s steps to end prison privatization and mass incarceration. She answered the prison privatization aspect of the question by telling the students about her determination not to support any budget that included for-profit detention centers—even when it’s much to the chagrin of some of her colleagues. Then she talked about a particular bill she supports. “I've signed on to H.R. 40, which is establishing the committee to examine reparations in the United States. The reason why I bring this bill up, is that we have to recognize that our system of mass incarceration is an evolution of our system of slavery,” the Congresswoman said.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

“Know that mass incarceration evolved from the war on drugs, which evolved from Jim Crow laws, which evolved from sharecropping, which evolved from slavery.” —Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

She explained that she often hears how slavery “happened so long ago,” but maintains that this isn’t really the case. “When people try to dismiss it as an irrelevant issue, know that mass incarceration evolved from the war on drugs, which evolved from Jim Crow laws, which evolved from sharecropping, which evolved from slavery. This is about fixing something that we are living with right now today.”

(left to right) Ravenne Reid, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Awad
(left to right) Reid, Ocasio-Cortez, and Awad 

Making an Impression
For the students who lined up for hours to see The Honorable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she did not disappoint. “I follow her on Twitter, so I’m constantly keeping up with her daily activities and looking at her clapbacks,” said Reid. “For me, to sit there and ask her questions, and actually be in the moment with her, it was an amazing experience, especially because I’m a Political Science major and my next steps are going to be in politics.” For John Jay Student Council President Awad, it was all about her relatability. “She’s just like us. She was a bartender just a little while ago. Now she’s the youngest woman in congress. It’s super motivating because in the future, that could be any one of us.”

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To support informed participation in our democracy, the College provides access to public officials in their official capacity and candidates without regard to political party affiliation or policy views. Views expressed are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the College. See http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/legal_counsel/pol_activities_memo.pdf