Developing Political Voices

Scores of young adults, most of them Latinos, recently attended the first alumni reunion of Model New York State Senate Session, founded by CUNY.

Roberto Perez was already a self-described “political junkie” when he was introduced to state politics through CUNY’s Model New York State Senate.

He produced and hosted a political radio show while he was a liberal arts student at LaGuardia Community College. “Now I’m doing my own thing,” he said earlier this month, referring to “The Perez Notes,” an online program he produces and hosts that focuses on politics, entertainment and the arts.

Perez, 35, has interviewed scores of elected officials for bilingual blogs he posts at the website, which has received more than 39,000 visitors from 120 countries since its inception in 2009.

He credits participation in the Model Senate for his success. “You learn about how government works at the state level,” said Perez. “It helped me enormously to achieve my goals.”

Perez was among more than 120 young adults — most of them Latinos — gathered at the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem on July 14. They were there for the first reunion of alumni of the annual Model New York State Senate Session, which is in its 16th year.

The all-day event provided an educational and networking opportunity for the alumni, many of whom were meeting each other for the first time.

Since its inception in 1997, the Model Senate has served nearly 1,000 students from CUNY and the State University of New York, giving them a chance to develop their leadership potential and understand the importance of public service as they learn what it might be like to walk in the shoes of legislators.

In preparation to role-play as sitting senators, the students get four weeks of training that CUNY provides through the CUNY Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program in Government and Public Affairs.

They study democracy and legislative representation, the demographics of state counties, and major public policy issues debated in Albany. Their training also involves legislative decision-making and boosts their organizational, research and public speaking skills.

The project culminates with a mock legislative session on the Senate floor in Albany during the annual Somos el Futuro (We Are the Future) conference of Hispanic lawmakers. El Futuro’s mission is to create opportunities that increase participation of the Puerto-Rican/Hispanic community in the public policy-making process. During the mock session, students debate and vote on real legislation affecting New Yorkers, on issues from rent regulation to hydrofracking.

The Model Senate came about at the request of the New York State Assembly and Senate Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, which sponsors Somos el Futuro.

Due to the growing representation of Latinos in New York City, the Model Senate is viewed as an opportunity to foster leadership among Latinos and for young graduates to “participate in shaping the future,” according to Jay Hershenson, Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations, Secretary of the Board of Trustees and a Model Senate founder.

“These 16 years have been a tremendous success,” Hershenson told the gathering. “What motivated me has to do with the fact that I want CUNY students to have the same public service opportunities as their colleagues at Yale and Harvard. ”

About 60 Model Senate participants are recruited each year by the Office of Student Affairs and Activities on CUNY campuses. To be selected, students must have at least 15 credits, be in good academic standing and have demonstrated an interest in public service and leadership.

Several of the project’s graduates are in public service, including State Sen. Jose Peralta, D-Queens and the first Dominican American elected to the State Senate, and State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, who mentored many project participants.

“To have our grads serving in those leadership positions is terrific,” Hershenson remarked.

Addressed by several speakers including political leaders during morning and afternoon sessions, the alumni were also afforded breaks during which to socialize.

“It’s been great networking, seeing what people are doing,” said Gloria Colon, a political science, public policy and sociology major graduating this summer from LaGuardia Community College. She enters City College in the fall. A 2011 Model Senate alumna, Colon played the role of the Senate Majority Leader, discussing redistricting.

“It was a great experience,” Colon said. “We got to sit in the seat of Senators, learned about demographics. Eventually I want to teach. I’m not sure I want to be elected, but I want to speak for the disadvantaged.”

Describing her 2010 Model Senate experience, Lissette Altreche, a nursing student at the College of Staten Island, commented: “It’s very motivational; I gained a lot from it. I want to reach out to children. I always had a passion to help people, but I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.”

Alexandra Ruiz, who earned a master’s degree in history at Queens College, moderated the afternoon session. She said the 2010 Model Senate was “a crash course” when she wanted to get into government “and gave me the perspective necessary to effect change.” Ruiz is the founder and executive director of Immigration Advocacy Matters, an organization that supports the immigrant community.

For Perez, who played the role of a conservative upstate Republican senator dealing with legislation affecting sexual predators and who now talks and writes about policy, his involvement “helped me understand government,” he said.

Former Secretary of State Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez (a Model Senate co-founder with Hershenson, former Democratic State Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez and the late Brooklyn College political science professor Edward T. Rogowsky) elaborated on the Model Senate’s evolution.

“We knew the only way to get to be a voice in government you needed to know how to affect it from the outside,” Cortes-Vazquez told the alumni. “You have to get to know people who are going to affect what happens to you. This room alone can change New York politics.”

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., told the group, “You may not want to be an elected official but may want to be a doctor; all of that has to do with governance and policy. If a bill being debated in Albany has to do with Medicare, this group should be represented.”

As to the Model Senate’s future, “Our goal is to keep the connections among them going,” Anthony J. Maniscalco, director of the Edward T. Rogowsky Internship Program, said.

He told the alumni, “We want to continue to network, you with each other and with us. We want to reconvene with you on a regular basis so we can step into the future with you.”