It’s a Friday afternoon, and 30 students are seated in a circle in Room 116 of Powdermaker Hall on the Queens College campus.
City Councilman and adjunct professor of urban affairs James Vacca has just received final papers from the class of mostly graduates pursuing additional or advanced degrees. He listens attentively as they deliver oral presentations and then leads a lively discussion.
The issues are topical and controversial. A student states her view of children’s First Amendment rights.
“We have a student knowing what her topic was about,” Vacca observes. “She spoke well. She also articulated pros and cons. I thought she did a very good job.”
Other students speak on abortion, immigration. Vacca invites comment: “What are the long-term ramifications of immigration? Any thoughts? Any questions?”
The class, which got under way at 2 p.m., capped a busy morning for Vacca. The Democratic city councilman for the 13th district in the Bronx began his day about 10 a.m. Dropping in on a party at the RAIN (Regional Aid for Interim Needs) East Tremont Senior Center, he was welcomed by its executive director, Louis Vasquez, as “the hardest working guy fighting for the Bronx.” Constituents received him with smiles and hugs.
Chauffeuring himself on his rounds, Vacca, 55, next addressed about 200 people on preventing caregiver burnout at an event he cosponsored. After a brief stop at his office for a brown-bag lunch, Vacca was off to a surprise birthday celebration for a 99-year-old woman to whom he presented a City Council proclamation.
Vacca’s public service career began at age 13, when he organized his junior high school classmates to rally for better MTA bus service. At 20, he stopped the city from moving the Northeast Bronx Senior Citizens Center from its location at a church and became the center’s president. During a stint with Volunteers in Service to America, he worked with low-income seniors in his neighborhood.
When he was 25, Vacca became district manager of Community Board 10. He served on School Board 8 and many civic associations. In 2005 he was elected to the City Council and earned a reputation as a relentless advocate for the Bronx, his hometown. In 2009, he was re-elected with more than 90 percent of the vote.
His district includes Throgs Neck, where he lives with his wife, Shirley, a public school teacher, and their daughter, Elizabeth, 16. He chairs the council’s Transportation Committee and is on the Education, Aging, Land Use, Rules, Parks and Recreation, and Higher Education Committees.
“I feel my role is to be supportive of CUNY and its mission,” he said. “CUNY should be the gateway for all, rich or poor, and every ethnicity …
“I always wanted to teach at Queens,” said Vacca, who earned his master’s degree in urban studies there. Even as a district manager, Vacca used personal time to teach 11th graders in the College Now summer program at Queens College. His B.A. is from Empire State College of the State University of New York in Westchester, and he took undergraduate courses on the city and state courts at Lehman College.
His first assignment at Queens was teaching an introductory sociology course in 2003. The class was Sundays at 9 a.m., and Vacca was hesitant: “That’s my family time.”
But Shirley Vacca encouraged him, saying the time might eventually change. It did. Since 2004, he has taught two urban studies classes on Friday afternoons: “Intro to Public Policy” and “Power in the City.”
“That was wonderful for me,” said Vacca. “I have spent my entire life in public service trying to improve the quality of life of people. I get a reward out of teaching. I get a big thrill out of a classroom.
“There’s an enthusiasm in my classroom that you can reach out and touch,” he went on. “I’m leading discussion on much of what we do in the city; the many things I’m involved in. I stress critical thinking, the ability to analyze, to not always believe what you read or hear, to read between the lines, but I also stress writing skills, grammar, sentence structure and speaking. The classes are also a learning experience for me.”
Not to mention for his students.
Graduate student Lorna Thaxter, 50, said: “I learned more about New York City and government [from him] than I did from any radio, TV or newspaper. When he comes into class you see all of New York City. He makes you think.”
“He addresses current issues and manages to go beyond the issue to its effect on people,” said Imran Keshwani, 22, a law school-bound undergraduate political science major, who added that Vacca’s being a councilman “adds more credibility to what he has to say.”
Mei Hui Huang, 35, of Taiwan, who said she came to Queens College because it has a reputation for urban studies in her country, said of Vacca: “He knows a lot; he taught me a lot. I told him I’m an international student, so he gives me a little more time to research my paper, and he helps me to revise my topic.”
With a calendar reflecting three days at City Hall and the rest in his district, Vacca’s days are full, but he enjoys the pace. “Once you start helping people you get a reward from it; it’s a gift you don’t want to give up,” he said.
As to aspirations for higher office, Vacca, whose term expires in December, 2013, said, “I don’t know what the future holds. They tell me in this business never say never. I want to give back, be it government or the classroom. I don’t see any end in sight.”