From Ground Zero
Rapper to City Council Candidate
Adapted here (and expanded) is a story
that first appeared on the regularly scheduled 30-minute TV
news magazine Study With The Best (CUNY-TV Channel
75, Sundays at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.).The show highlights CUNYs
myriad academic programs, outstanding faculty, students, alumni,
and important research initiatives. The lively, fast-paced series
is aimed particularly at the large pool of prospective CUNY
students in local high schools.
|George Martinez on the campaign trail
As a poor kid growing up in Brooklyns
Red Hook neighborhood, George
Martinez was told he had little chance of going to collegemuch
less becoming a scholar. So much for seeing into the future.
Martinez, in fact, has become one of that growing cadre of
upwardly mobile students proudly referred to within CUNY as
a three-fer. He hit the books at Borough of Manhattan
Community College, graduated and moved on to Brooklyn College,
and is now homing in on a doctorate in political science at
the Graduate Center. To top it off, he has also been teaching
political science as an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College.
And along the way he has combined his passion for education
with two other consuming interests. In a nutshell,
says Martinez, I am an artist, an activist and an educator.
The particular art Martinez refers torapmakes
a pretty ideal fit for a political activist/scientist, since
rap is well-known vehicle for social and cultural commentary.
I was in a very politically conscious group called Ground
Zero, a name that has taken on a new significance since 9/11.
Like so many City University students who have graduated since
its founding, Martinez is the first person in his family to
go to college. He and his sister were raised, with public
assistance, by their single mom. My sister was embarrassed
to use food stamps in stores, so I had to go and do the shopping
instead, he recalls with bemusement.
He also recalls a lot of negative reinforcement about going
to schoolits not for youand
dismissive attitudes about politics. You watch it on
TV, but it wasnt something you actually do! CUNY,
Martinez adds, helped me to develop my voice
Base camp for the Martinez ascent was a remedial math course
at BMCC. He had gone to a very good high school (Brooklyn
Tech), but did not walk away with his Regents diploma.
When my application to Brooklyn College was turned down,
I went to BMCC and got my Associates degree.
Soon Martinez was back at Brooklyn College and picking up considerable
momentum. Professor of English Gail Smith, administrator of
the CUNY Pipeline program, recalls, I first met George
in 1996 or 1997. He was a junior and wanted to enter the CUNY
Pipeline program. The program is designed for minority students
who are interested in earning a Ph.D., college teaching, and
doing research. George was interested in all of those things.
He applied to the program, we interviewed him and we accepted
him. The rest is history.
The last chapter of his Brooklyn College history: a Bachelors
in political science magna cum laude in 1998.
Columbia University was ready to welcome Martinez as a graduate
student, but he chose instead to remain at CUNY and the Graduate
Center. I just felt at home at CUNYand
also considered its program in American politics was the stronger.
And it did not hurt that Martinez won one of the competitive
Minority Access/Graduate Networking (MAGNET) four-year fellowships
offered by the Graduate School.
Martinez expects to receive his degree in two years, but his
studies have not prevented him from putting his knowledge
of political science to practical use as a resident of a Latino
community that, he says, resembles the one I grew up
inin many ways: poor, without many advantages, and continuously
getting put down.
Prof. Smith recalls Martinez as an activist. Hes
always been interested in his neighborhood, in the people,
in making life better for them. Being of this mind,
Martinez did the obvious thing: he ran for political office.
When the county party organization got him knocked off the
ballot, he was only further invigorated to take his campaign
to the grass roots. His slogan, with its discernible rappers
lilt, was: Go where others wont; say things others
dont; do things others cant.
One issue particularly raised Martinez blood pressure.
My community is part of what is called the lead poisoning
belt. From the South Bronx through the lower East Side, through
Williamsburg, through Sunset Park and Red Hook, we have the
highest rates of child lead poisoning. No one was talking
Running against an incumbent, Martinez did manage, as an Independent,
to garner 13% of the vote in the primary. Thats
the most ever in the history of the 38th District.
It was grass roots efforts. It was knocking on doors,
going to trains in the morning. And, at the end of the day
we affected the conversation. We made sure that people who
were not part of the process became part of the process. We
may not have won the election, but you cant tell me
that isnt a victory.
Martinez dissertation willno surprise herefocus
on voting behavior. He is already looking back on his run
with a scholarly eye. And he is already planning to gather
more data in the same hands-on way: his name will
be on the ballot for Democratic party district leader on Sept.
10, and he has his eye on the Districts now term-limited
incumbent, Angel Rodriguez.