Taking a stand: alumni run for office, with Bowdoin in mind
November 1, 2019
There is a long history of Bowdoin alumni going into politics at all levels, from state and local seats to the Presidency. Two recent Bowdoin alumni may soon join the growing list of Bowdoin graduates in political office.
Joe Sherlock ’16 and Zohran Mamdani ’14 are both in the throes of campaigns for city council in Haverhill, Massachusetts and New York State’s 36th Assembly District, respectively.
For Sherlock, a government major and economics minor, politics was always a significant part of his life, having served as a member of student government and student council in high school.
“When I was in high school, I spent my time organizing and advocating for students. We were met with a lot of tedious, bureaucratic answers in what was, at the time, an underfunded school system,” Sherlock wrote in an email to the Orient. “At Bowdoin, I wanted a different perspective on policy-making and social movements.”
Mamdani, an Africana Studies major, didn’t enter politics immediately after graduating. He worked as the third assistant director and music supervisor for Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” and wrote rap music that was ranked in the Associated Press’ top 10 songs of the year. But his passion for organizing that started at Bowdoin—he co-founded the first Students for Justice in Palestine and spent time organizing, setting up events, planning film festivals and starting petitions for that cause—never dissipated.
“It’s not that everything changed in college, but I went from having Facebook arguments and long back and forths with friends about it, never making any headway to realizing that just an active group of 10 people can totally change the discourse on a campus and realizing what the power of organizing is,” Mamdani said. “Through organizing around Palestine and Palestinian solidarity issues, I saw a very different side of the administration. That was a very formative experience in understanding how things work when you’re trying to push for demands that are not popular with the people in power.”
Both alumni noted that their time at Bowdoin influenced their ideology and subsequent campaigns. For Sherlock, Bowdoin provided exposure to a variety of ideas and perspectives. His time at the College also instilled a strong belief in the common good.
“If you’re running for something, a version of the ‘common good’ needs to be part of your ‘why’ when someone asks why you’re running,” Sherlock explained. “I imagine it would be quite deadening to not think about the common good every day that you’re on the campaign trail.”
Mamdani explained that his time at Bowdoin shaped his political ideology, exposing him to influential writers and thinkers.
“Bowdoin is where I read Frantz Fanon [and] where I was introduced to a lot of texts and discourses about the urban crisis,” Mamdani said. “[I took] very formative history and sociology classes that really shaped the way I think about cities in our country and what the problems are and why they exist and who made them exist.”
Mamdani is running as a Democratic Socialist and identified the two main issues of his campaign as housing and school desegregation. A graduate of a New York City public school, he wants to change the system.
“The way we do admissions to these top public schools in New York City is via a single test that you take once. And that’s it. I firmly believe that isn’t the way we should be testing students’ admission into these kinds of schools,” Mamdani said. “There’s another proposal out there which would guarantee admission to the top 7 percent of students in middle schools across New York City. I think that would be a test that not only would be a better measure of students’ aptitude but would also better reflect our actual city.”
Sherlock’s campaign is similarly personal. A Haverhill native, Sherlock noted little change in the town when he returned home in 2018.
“We’ve seen a rise of gang violence and in my community, like many, affordability is a struggle,” Sherlock wrote. “I want to make sure Haverhill stays affordable and safe with a fantastic public school system. The campaign itself is as grassroots as it gets: campaign HQ is my apartment and volunteers are friends and family.”
For Mamdani, personal ties are the most important part of organizing.
“I think the most effective organizing is when you organize at home and [when] you organize about issues that are right in front of you. Bowdoin is such an idyllic place to study and be a student for four years,” Mamdani said. “But I very much would encourage students to get involved in [issues they care about] and not to feel like any position is too radical.”
Aside from encouraging students to get involved with issues important to them, Sherlock leaves Bowdoin students with critical advice: “Engage with people who think differently from you, and always get the buffalo chicken soup.”
Editor’s Note: 11/2/2019 at 11:23 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Mamdani referenced a proposal in which the top 10 percent of middle schoolers would be admitted to top New York City public schools. The proposal instead suggests that the top seven percent of students would be admitted.
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