We are featuring an important interview today to start Multiracial Heritage Week. Karson Baldwin, our Project RACE Teen President, interviewed Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, New York, and received a Multiracial Heritage Week proclamation from the city!
Featured Interview: Millennial Mayor Svante Myrick
Some people think you should never meet your heroes. What if they don’t live up to the greatness you’ve imagined? Or if they just aren’t nice? What if you embarrass yourself in front of them? But I think, if someone inspires you, you should give it your best shot to connect with them and, if you’re fortunate enough to connect, to learn something from them. My Dad will always be my first hero. I also have a few spiritual heroes. Chance the Rapper is my musical hero. Lebron is my athletic hero (and he ought to be yours too, Svante.). As someone interested in politics, my professional and intellectual hero is Svante Myrick, the Mayor of Ithaca, New York. And while I’m still waiting for the opportunity to spend time with him face to face, I am really grateful that after three years of trying I recently spent nearly an hour on the phone with him talking about his life, his work, basketball and more. He was super chill and even more awesome, brilliant and encouraging than I knew!
— Karson Baldwin
Below are excerpts of our talk:
S: Hey Karson. How are you, man?
K: I’m great! I’ve been trying to reach you for a long time, so I’m excited to be able to do this!!
S: Well, I’m flattered and thrilled to finally get to talk to you.
K: How do you think your experience with poverty as a child and your student volunteer activities led you to a career in public-service?
S: Oh, that’s a very interesting question. I think growing up poor is definitely what made me aware of government. Government is all around us whether we’re rich or we’re poor. It’s what paves the streets, it’s what’s reinforces the social compact. And we’re all constantly benefitting from a host of public government programs. If we’re wealthy we’re receiving tax breaks for owning a home. if we’re poor, we’re receiving food stamps or welfare or medicare. It’s just that when you’re poor, the hand of government is not quite as invisible as when you’re wealthy. So I was always wondering, as we walked through a store with food stamps, what is this thing called government and how could we make it better. So I think that’s part of why I was first interested in government. And I think too, taking a leadership role as a student, both when I was in high school and in college, gave me practice for the weight of responsibility. That feeling of having other folks rely on you to help make their life just a little bit better is a big deal, and it can be intimidating. It’s still intimidating at times. But I think for sure that the experiences that I had as a young person growing up in poverty taught me how to live and operate with pressure, but also my experiences as a student activist helped me too.
K: Awesome. So were government and history courses or humanities type of things always your favorite subjects growing up?
S: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, well, and gym class! But yeah. History, civics, social studies… those were my favorite, but actually, I always had a knack for, I always liked the sciences too. I liked and appreciated biology and chemistry. You know, I was not a good student, but I was a very curious one. I missed a lot of school. I was kind of a knucklehead. But I read, and still read constantly, and would always do well on the standardized tests, in part because I read beyond what was happening in class, but I just couldn’t bring myself to show up for class.
K: You were 20 when you were elected to council?
S: Yes sir.
K: So you were still in college at that point?
S: I was. I was still a junior at Cornell.
K: So how did you balance such a rigorous Ivy League education with the work of a councilman?
S: That’s a good question. And I also had another job too. I was still tutoring and I was still working as a bouncer at night at a local bar. But how did I do it? There’s no real secret to it. I didn’t sleep as much as I should have. I didn’t get to hang out with my friends as much as I would have liked. It’s kind of tough. When all your friends are going to the library and you’re going downtown to City Hall for a meeting. Everybody else is going our for a night of college fun and hanging out and I’d be starting my shift working at the bar. So it required some sacrifice, but it was also neat, ya know? I felt like I was getting a college experience that was most fulfilling and I was also getting a chance to serve my community. And boy, I loved that. I mean, it sounds like you like government too.
S: I loved being on City Council. I was trying to figure out how I could spend more time inside of City Hall. I mean every time I had to leave City Hall, I felt like I was leaving where I was supposed to be. It sounds like you’re the same. Do you follow local government there in Cleveland?
K: I do. Not as much as I’d like to, but I definitely do.
S: You begin to feel a sense of responsibility for your community and it’s a good thing.
K: That’s amazing. I didn’t even know about the other jobs! That’s a crazy schedule. How did you choose to go to Cornell?
S: That’s a long, funny story, but the basis of it is that I grew up in Upstate New York and my family was, and still is, up here and staying close to them was important to me. And they had a good Communications program. At the time, I thought I was gonna be a journalist. I knew I liked government but I didn’t ever imagine I could run for something because I didn’t think that people like me, who came from places like where I’d come from, could actually get elected. So I thought instead that I’d be a journalist and cover politics and influence government in that way and Cornell had a great communications program. And I’m glad I went there even though I decided not to be a journalist.
K: So it was the Communications program that you most liked about Cornell when you applied?
S: Yeah. Well, the campus is beautiful. Have you ever been to Cornell?
K: Yes. I think I have. My older sisters were at Harvard so we went to a lot of the Harvard football games and we went to one at Cornell.
S: Oh, nice. Interesting. Well, we’ll have to get you to come visit. It’s a beautiful campus and how nice the campus was, how much I liked the program, and how close it was to family were the important things for me.
K: So were those still your favorite things after spending 4 years there?
S: I mean, the best part about college… anybody will tell you, it’s not even what you study, it’s the people you meet. The folks I met, both my professors and my fellow students, that’s what I took away from it. So the number one thing I liked about Cornell was the people I met.
K: Got it. So, I’ve heard you do a lot to engage young people in Ithaca. Can you tell me about the Ithaca Youth Council that you began?
S: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure! Gosh. That was way back when I was on the City Council. I started that as a way for teenagers to serve on a body that represents the interests of young people to the City Council, the County Legislature and the School Board. About 15 folks are chosen every year and they meet together, they figure out what’s needed in their communities and they advocate. Then they meet with me and then sometimes we’ll get into debates and they tell us what they need and want to happen and after the meetings they go back to their peers and say “this is what’s happening in the city” and try to keep everyone up to date. I think it’s so important because young people have such energy and creativity and we need more of it.
K: I think that’s a brilliant idea. I think it’s really cool. I wish we had something like that in Cleveland! Maybe you could suggest it to our mayor, Frank Jackson. Have you ever met Frank Jackson?
S: I don’t think I have, no.
K: OK. I don’t know how that works, if mayors know each other, but…
S: Yeah, sometimes we do. There are conferences and things so sometimes you meet folks at the US Conference of Mayors. But, no. I don’t.
K: Obviously you were really young when you were running for these elected positions. How did you overcome concerns about your age and get people to take you seriously when you first entered the political scene?
S: I was young, and I still am fairly young, but I didn’t run for mayor right away. I sort of paid my dues, I guess you could say. So that people I needed to validate me… like I was always around City Hall and I was alive in a couple of different programs so that by the time I ran for City Council, the people who might have been skeptical had already seen me and seen how seriously I took my work and seen why I was interested in the job. And the same thing happened when I ran for mayor. You know, people will always have prejudices. They’ll look at you and they’ll find you too young or too old or too tall or too short. Or too whatever. But the best thing you can do is just show them through work and through effort that you can be taken seriously. So I just tried to show up to meetings early, always be prepared, and I tried to demonstrate through the campaign how serious I was by working harder than any other candidate and I think that’s the sort of thing you need to do especially if you’re the youngest person.
K: Yeah. So, I’ve read about how you did an awesome job turning your city’s budget deficit around in a year and still managed to take make improvements in a lot of important areas. I’m sure there’s no quick and easy answer, but why do you think you were able to do that when your predecessor wasn’t?
S: That’s a really good question too. It required really hard choices, choices like saying no when people were used to hearing yes. It also required new perspectives on old problems. Part of the way we cut our spending was by automating things or using technology to make certain parts of our operations more efficient and I think whenever you have a new leader they come with a fresh perspective which I think really helped.
K: One of my older sisters went to the United Nations in Geneva last year for their Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action.
S: Oh, cool.
K: I’ve seen that you’ve been to Geneva and a whole bunch of other places for some really meaningful events. Do you ever feel amazed at all the places that your life of service has taken you?
S: Constantly, bro. Switzerland was actually the first country I ever went to outside of the United States!
S: Yeah! We as kids, we went on one vacation a year. And it had to be within driving distance and it had to be free, or mostly free. Like the Smithsonian was great in DC because it was free. So anyways, yeah. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. The places I’ve gone and the people I’ve had the chance to meet. The experiences are powerful. And we don’t tell young people enough that there’s more than one way to have an interesting and fulfilling life. ‘Cuz it’s not just about if you make money you can lead a fun and interesting life. For me, I’ve had plenty of fun and certainly had a fascinating time without making a whole lot of money. How many sisters do you have?
K: I have three older sisters.
S: You’re the only boy?
K: Yes, I am.
S: Oh, that’s like us in reverse. There’s three of us boys and one sister.
K: That’s funny. It’s kind of nerve racking, as a freshman, to get to interview somebody like you…
S: I don’t know why. You’re doing great. You’re doing better than most journalists.
K: Haha. Thank you. Do you ever find yourself among groups of people that leave you feeling intimidated?
S: Oh yeah, constantly. Sure. Constantly. I mean, I think, anybody who puts their life on the line. Somebody who works for the fire department or the police department, people who protect and serve for a living, folks who are in the military, whenever I meet them, I find myself in awe. It’s like meeting celebrities. I think too, anybody who’s survived a career in politics, like President Obama, these are folks who have done what I’ve done but for decades and at a higher level. So I’m often left a little bit dumbstruck and when I’m lucky enough to find myself in their company, I do the best I can to listen instead of talk, which is hard for me because I’m a talker.
K: Tell me a little bit more about meeting President Obama!
S: Sure, yeah. I’ve had the opportunity to shake his hand on a few occasions and he’s everything you’d hope he’d be, man. He’s a little bit taller than you’d think he’d be. He’s much skinnier than he looks even on TV. But he’s the coolest guy in the room and I had the chance to tell him how much his life’s meant to me. And being mixed, you go through a whole journey of discovery about who you are and racial identity, and for me that meant reading a lot of books, books by Malcolm X and W.B. Dubois. And when I read his book, Dreams from My Father, it was the most useful for understanding my own racial identity and frankly, boosting my own self esteem to see that somebody from where he came from could rise to the top – and realize at the time I read it, he was running for the US Senate, so he wasn’t President yet and I never thought he could be President. So I got a chance to tell him all that. And he was really kind and he said that he was glad I was inspired by the book and that he was proud of me and proud that I had been elected Mayor. At that point I had been mayor for about a year and a half so it was really nice.
K: Wow. That’s crazy! This is a kind of a different kind of question. Switching gears, I guess. In July, I had a 22 year old cousin who sadly died from a heroin overdose.
S: Oh, God. I’m sorry. You said 22 years old?
K: Yeah. Thank you.
S: I’m sorry. That’s tragic.
K: Thank you. I’m really fascinated by the work you’ve done on the Ithaca Plan. Where do things stand with establishing supervised heroin injection sites? And, I think I understand the thought process behind it, but why is that a good idea in your mind?
S: Sure. We’re still waiting for approval from New York State. Mayor Diblasio, the Mayor of New York City, just yesterday endorsed supervised injection facilities and says that New York City wants to open them too. So it looks like it will be New York City and Ithaca that open them once we get approval. And the reason for them is actually quite simple, if counter intuitive, which is that if you can’t stop people from doing something that’s dangerous, that is using heroin, you should do everything you can to make sure that you make that use less dangerous until you can get them in to treatment. So it’s a term called “harm reduction” and it’s a technique that we use in all sorts of aspects of public health planning. It’s like seat belts, for example. We couldn’t get people to slow down. We created speed limits and we kept trying to arrest people and give them speeding tickets and still people were dying until the introduction of seat belts. And once seat belts got introduced, fatal car crashes went down even though car crashes stayed the same. So this idea has been tested in other countries and they found a few things. First thing, they found that fewer people died as a result of overdose. Two, people who go to the injection centers, were more likely to enter treatment and recover then people who don’t go to these facilities. And three, it really cuts down on transmission of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis, which improves the quality of life for people who use drugs, but also saves a ton of money because those are very expensive illnesses to treat. So it saves both the user money and taxpayers money.
K: Wow. I think that sounds like a really great idea. I think it’s cool and I’m excited to see how that goes. So I don’t know how much you know about Project RACE. But it is a multiracial advocacy organization. The “RACE” stands for Reclassify All Children Equally. And I’m the co-president of the teen branch of that organization. So I was wondering, could tell me about your racial makeup and identity.
S: Yeah, sure. That sounds like a great project. My father is black and my mother is white. So I’m mixed. I always grew up believing that I was a black American and a mixed American so it’s sort of a dual identity. And it comes with all the good and bad of both. The rich cultural legacy and a feeling of connection to my past, but also the awareness of both personal individual racism and systemic nationwide racism.
K: I talk to a lot of multiracial people about how they feel about their identity and I know that some people who are black and white say that they feel that they don’t fit in with anyone because they’re too white for black people and too white for black people. Personally, I feel like I’ve been lucky enough to feel like I fit in with everyone. How do you feel now and when you were younger?
S: Yeah, I think I feel lucky too that I fit in everywhere. I find that the people I seem to click with most are what you might call “Third Culture Kids”; like people who are children of immigrants, or folks who like me, where their parents didn’t go to college, but they go to college, or anybody that they call a Third Culture Kid is anybody who has one culture at home and one culture out in the world and has to live in that third culture all by themselves. Those folks end up getting used to code switching quite a lot or defining themselves in different spaces where they both have to feel comfortable and let other people feel comfortable around them.
K: Yeah. That’s really cool. It sounds like you kind of feel the way I feel. So you would say that you identify with both sides of your heritage, right?
S: Yeah, sure. I think it’s a little bit more difficult to feel white. Again, like DuBois learned about this too. No matter what you think you are, you’ll be reminded of what you look like.
K: For sure.
S: So, I’m proud of my mother and my grandparents who helped raise me and I owe so much to them and have certainly absorbed so much of their culture. But if you just surprised me on the street and said, “hey, what’s your ethnicity?” I’d blurt out “black.”
K: Yeah. Makes sense. I understand that. It can be hard to identify with a race when people don’t see you as that.
S: That’s right. There’s a writing about it. It’s like, you can feel tall, but if you’re not actually tall then you won’t be able to reach stuff on the cupboards. Or if you feel short, but you can’t fit into the space, then you’re not actually short. And it shows just how much race is socially constructed too. So, here you can be black, right? If you’re in Ithaca, you’re in Cleveland… you walk down the street and somebody looks at you, they’d say you’re black. Well, if you go to Africa… you go to parts of Europe… you go to Brazil, they look at you like you’re not black, you look Egyptian, or you look North African, or you look this or that or whatever. So it’s all socially constructed anyway, right? So we all have to decide for ourselves what constructs we’re gonna buy in to.
K: One of the main projects I’ve worked on at Project RACE since 2014 is trying to get people with political power to proclaim in their jurisdiction, governors, mayors, Multiracial Heritage Week, which is June 7 – 14. We’ve gotten 12 States and Washington, DC, for example, to proclaim it. And I was wondering, if I sent you some information about it, if you would consider proclaiming it in Ithaca.
S: Yeah, I’d be glad to. I’d be glad to.
K: Thank you! Thank you so much.
S: Of course, of course. Send me the info and what the other states passed and we’ll put together something similar.
K: Alright, awesome. Thank you so much. That’s amazing.
S: Yeah, of course.
K: Now, Svante is a Swedish name, is that right?
S: Yes. It is a Swedish name.
K: Is your white side Swedish?
S: No. Well, I think a tiny bit. There’s a lot of German. I believe there’s some French and some English. But, my mom just liked the name.
K: Yeah, it’s a cool name. I was just wondering if that’s where it came from.
S: Oh, thank you.
K: Where do you think right now as a country we stand as far as race relations?
S: Oh God. I think it’s not good. I don’t think it’s as bad as it once was. That might be obvious, right? I mean it’s certainly better than times of slavery or legalized discrimination. But we still have a long way to go, ya know? Folks with black sounding names don’t get called back from resumes that are exactly the same as those with white sounding names. Black folks are sent to prison for longer for committing the same crimes as white folks. So we obviously have a lot of work to do. But, I’m of the belief that it’s getting better all the time. And President Trump won his election, particularly the republican primary… the reason he beat the other folks in the primary was that he was willing to exploit people’s feeling of racial animus. I think that’s why he was elected. And that might make you feel that we’re going backwards. But the truth is I think that that was just a backlash against President Obama and his success and I think it was sort of this last gasp that people were feeling like racial equality was on the march and they wanted to come out and march against it. So I think that while I wish that Trump were not elected, and actually worked quite hard to see that he wasn’t elected, unsuccessfully, but I think even that you have to view as a sign that well things must be really getting better if so many folks wanted to stop it.
K: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s kind of funny that you brought up President Trump ‘cuz my next question is that my family and I think that you’d make a great President of the United States some day…
S: HaHa. That’s very kind of you.
K: I know we aren’t the only ones who think so. I’ve heard people talk about this and read about it. Do you have plans to run for any other public office? If you’re allowed to talk about it…
S: I’m allowed to talk about it. I don’t have plans. I would be interested though. I mean I really like government. I’ve only ever been in elected office though. I would also try something else. Or maybe go back to journalism. I’m keeping all my options open though. I don’t mean to be coy and pretend that — I don’t know — I don’t want to act like I’d never run. Because I might run for something in the future. But, I don’t know, President, man, that’s a tall order.
K: Yeah, I talked a little bit about my school earlier. It’s called University School. It’s a really cool all boys high school in Cleveland. And I’m on the leadership team for our affinity group for African American students called the Pembroke Society.
K: It’s named after our first black graduate or first black student accepted— although that’s probably the same thing. But I know my classmates would really be inspired by your life and your accomplishments. I know this school year is about to end, but maybe next year… is there any chance that we could schedule a time for you to either Skype in to a meeting or even, if it was possible, it would be amazing if you could like actually be there for a meeting?
S: Yeah, bro. It would be my pleasure. It would be my pleasure.
K: That would be amazing.
S: Yeah, of course. I would like that. Let me text you the email address of my assistant who could help set something like that up and that’d be cool.
K: Thank you so much. That’s amazing. And finally, I have three kinda fun questions that I wanted to ask if you have time.
S: Yeah, sure.
K: What was the last movie you watched?
S: Oh. Avengers. Infinity Wars.
K: Avengers? Did you like that? I thought it was awesome.
S: Yeah, man. It was great. It was great. You saw it?
K: Yeah I did.
S: Have you seen all of them? I’m obsessed with all of them.
K: I have, yeah. I’m hoping I can see it again a second time this weekend. Also, what is your favorite chain restaurant?
S: My favorite chain restaurant? That’s a good question. Would a local or regional chain count or you’re talking a national chain restaurant?
K: Either way.
S: Oh boy. That’s tough, man. We have something called College Town Bagels here. It’s like a local chain. That might be my favorite. Great sandwiches.
K: Yeah, I miss east coast bagels!
S: Ha Ha. Yeah. There’s nothing like ‘em.
K: Finally, who do you think is the best player in the history of the NBA?
S: Whoa! So this is tough to ask and I think I know what you’re getting at coming from where you’re coming from. And after last week… I mean look. I’ve never seen anything like being down three to one against the Golden State Warriors, maybe the greatest team of all time that season, and single handedly… I mean it looked like he was playing with the guys from the YMCA and he single handedly brought them back.
S: And then to watch what he’s done these last two weeks, again, more or less by himself. Kevin Love, who I like a lot, but more or less by himself. And that game 2 last night, it wasn’t last night, no it WAS last night.
K: Yeah, last night.
S: Now on the other hand, I started watching basketball in 1993. I was 6 years old. So we’re talking about the Jordan era, watching them kill the Knicks. So, I’m just gonna duck the whole debate completely and say, Patrick Ewing.
K: Patrick Ewing?? haha. Yeah, alright.
S: It’s more important for me to be loyal than correct.
K: Makes sense. I respect that.
S: I gotta stay loyal to my Knicks.
K: I don’t know. I definitely think it’s Lebron. But I don’t know how much of that is me being influenced by Cleveland.
S: being a local, yeah, yeah. I mean, increasingly you have a case to make. Jordan was incredible. But, now, OK. Jordan was so far, head and shoulders athletically above everybody else. If he were playing right now, he would not be the same. But I don’t want to take that away from him, ‘cuz guess what? Lebron is head and shoulders athletically above everybody else in the league. Like he looks – he just plays different – he looks like he’s playing against the junior varsity team. But the body of work, the fact that he’s stayed healthy, he’s made the finals like what, 7 or 8 years in a row?
K: I think this will be the 8th if he makes it.
S: Wild man. And so, if he is not the greatest basketball player of all time now, if he stays at it, at this pace. And what do you think? It’s hard to imagine when he stops. Let’s say 5 years. There won’t be a question. He’ll be the greatest NBA player of all time.
K: Yeah, for sure. I think Patrick Ewing was a smart answer though. That’s awesome.
S: Gotta stay loyal, man. That’s all I’m saying. Loyal.
K: So that’s all I had. Thank you once again, so so much for this opportunity!
S: Yeah, of course. I hope we can stay in touch. I hope we can. Hopefully I can come out there to Cleveland, but at the very least, I can Skype in. We should stay in touch. I sense you going places and I’d like to ride your coattails if I can.
K: LOL. That’s amazing to hear from you. Thank you so much. I’ll make sure to send you the information about Multiracial Heritage Week and I definitely hope we can stay in touch. Thank you so much.
S: Appreciate it, man.
Photo Credit: The Cornell Daily Sun