Mayoral Candidate Shaun Donovan Speaks with Students on Organizing and 'Good Trouble'

The Spence Civics Club continued its hosting of political candidates with 2021 mayoral hopeful Shaun Donovan, who spoke at an Upper School assembly. The series is designed to provide opportunities for students to engage in conversation with candidates seeking local office in upcoming elections. 

Civics Club head Mena S. ’22 introduced Donovan by outlining his experience as the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, allowing the candidate to frame one of his primary platforms: anti-homelessness. "I know each of you is seeing more and more homelessness on our streets...that’s what I saw when I was a kid growing up," he told students. "I would urge all of you, living through a moment of crisis in New York, it may be hard and make you angry, but take that anger and turn it into something."

A large part of Donovan’s political progress is owed, he said, to public service, specifically to the late civil rights activist and Georgia Representative John Lewis. "Thirty years ago I was reading about him. I was so inspired that a group of friends and I retraced the Freedom Riders route." Before Donovan and the group set out on their journey, they had dinner with Lewis. "Seeing that young people can rise up and turn their anger into action—turn it into 'good trouble,' which John Lewis called it—I would encourage you all to go and make good trouble."

During his time as the US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, Donovan was one of the first sitting cabinet members to openly support gay marriage. Civics Club member Sabine C. ’22 asked the candidate when he knew it was necessary to be uncompromising, and when he knew it was necessary to work across the aisle. 

"There are times for compromise, there are times for reaching across the aisle," Donovan responded. "There are times when there is no compromise, and it’s important to go march in the streets against injustice, to raise your voice. It’s always important that protest is peaceful, but from inside the system I’ve always tried to make good trouble."

While speaking about the value of public service and bipartisanship, Donovan also highlighted the value of collective work, and shared that no single person can do anything alone, especially when addressing complex city-wide issues. "There’s only power in people. I try to apply that lesson over and over again. When I led the anti-homelessness strategy for Obama, what I knew is that the only way we were going to solve it was to bring every part of the government together; homelessness is a mental health challenge, a substance abuse challenge, a criminal justice challenge. You can only solve it by bringing all of those folks together."

Civics Club members were also interested in discussing this year’s ranked-choice voting. For the first time in the city’s history, voters will not only mark on their primary ballots their first-choice candidate, but also their second, third, and so on. "When you have five choices instead of one," Donovan said, “you have a real say in elections. You don’t have to compromise." 

But a bigger say isn’t the only effect of the new voting system: the tone and breadth of campaigns is changing as well. "You have to run a more positive campaign," he explained. "If you run a negative ad it might hurt who you’re attacking, but it might hurt you too. You also have to campaign in every part of the city and appeal to lots of types of people. My campaign team is majority women of color—we’re building grassroots organizations across the city."

Coming full circle in the conversation, Donovan reiterated to the students once again the importance of trusting one’s instinct when searching for purpose. "Live your values. If something is making you angry, if something you believe needs to change in your neighborhood, city or country, go and change it."

The series continues with guest Julie Hootkin '95, P'29, who will discuss voting theory and New York City’s ranked choice voting for the upcoming mayoral election. The Development Office has been instrumental in collaborating with the Civics Club in arranging guest speakers for the series.