Jaslin Kaur is on a mission to make politics accessible to all, especially for the city’s most vulnerable populations.
The 24-year-old District 23 City Council candidate became well acquainted with the inequities many face in the borough through her time as an organizer for New American Leaders, which recruits people of immigrant heritage to run for elected office, and for Know Your IX, an advocacy group that informs students of their right to an education free from gender-based violence. Kaur’s experience working with “the people who are at the margins of the margins” inspired her to transfer her efforts from community organizing to governing.
“What really stoked this was seeing so many families, loved ones, people who I’ve known for years being pushed out of Queens — whether their homes had to be foreclosed, their families became unemployed or they were just left out of the political realm,” the Glen Oaks native said.
Kaur is one of 12 running in the June Democratic primary to replace Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens), who announced last year he would not seek re-election.
Many inequities facing vulnerable populations today stem from failed labor policies, Kaur said. She pointed to her father, a Sikh Punjabi immigrant and city taxi driver of three decades, who was just one of thousands to suffer from the 2014 medallion crash, the effects of which linger today.
“Many immigrant families were promised a life of prosperity, were promised a huge return on investment. Those medallions are supposed to be worth millions of dollars, but they were artificially raising the value of those medallions and when the market inevitably crashed, many of us were pummeled into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt,” Kaur said.
In September, Marblegate Management LLC decided to write off $70 million in debt indigent cab drivers still owed, but Kaur believes that the City Council has the power to alleviate the debt that continues to plague drivers — her priority as a city representative would be to establish a bailout fund and retirement fund for all taxicab drivers impacted by the medallion market crash.
The pandemic has not only illuminated the essential role laborers serve in keeping the city running, but the ways in which many workers are left unprotected, she said. For example, she pointed out that food service workers and deliveristas have been at the front lines of the crisis as restaurants shut down and people were ordering groceries to their doors, but those workers only just became eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine.
“We need to be implementing policy that’s going to close those gaps and make sure that we’re not continuing to expose our most important frontline workers in the most dangerous situations, because that’s what it’s been for a number of years,” Kaur said.
“A lot of our policy is responding to crisis instead of being proactive and offering solutions that are going to prevent people from being put in dangerous situations.”
Also within the labor vein, Kaur wholly supports the push to classify gig economy workers as full employees rather than contract workers. Their current status restricts them from workplace protections, which Kaur said in turn leaves them vulnerable to food, housing and healthcare insecurity.
Additionally, she said the nature of gig work often leaves contractors well into their senior years because there aren’t avenues to explore work anywhere else, an issue she wants to be instrumental in changing. One of the ways she believes would correct it is to provide “language justice” to the large immigrant population who find themselves in gig jobs. As a translator for her immigrant parents and grandmother, Kaur understands the need for available resources for all provided in the language they speak.
As a product of the city public school system — she attended PS 115 before heading to Nassau Community College and CUNY Hunter College — Kaur can attest to the “segregation” across facilities: some ZIP codes have stronger curriculums, updated technologies and newer facilities than others.
“What we really need to do is secure funding for all of our K through 12 schools,” Kaur said. She pointed to the Alliance for Quality Education, a coalition committed to equity in schools, which determined that District 23 is owed over $22 million in aid and that the entire city is owed about $4 billion under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit ruling.
“If we’re able to close these gaps then we cannot only repair all the infrastructure that our schools need — whether it’s proper ventilation in our schools or offering our teachers a fair salary — we can implement a lot more programs students are desperately going to need after this pandemic,” Kaur said.
In addition to closing the digital divide, which has left many students struggling to keep up throughout remote lessons due to lack of web access, Kaur dreams about fully funding tuition for two-year colleges in New York City and CUNY colleges in the name of education accessibility.
Kaur was one of the 78 City Council candidates to sign a pledge by Urban Youth Collaborative to remove the NYPD from city schools. The coalition argues that the officers are disproportionately placed in communities of color and that funding should be used for mental health outreach and counselors rather than officers. Placing officers is invasive and establishes the school-to-prison pipeline, the pledge states.
“District 23 doesn’t really have this problem because we have some of the most quality schools in the entire city,” Kaur said. “But we need to extend this opportunity so that everyone has the right and dignity that doesn’t put them into juvenile detentions or systems of incarceration.”
Another concern of Kaur’s is protecting seniors, who have been drastically affected by the pandemic particularly in terms of vaccine distribution — she noted the lack of inoculation sites in the district or nearby areas, which she sees as unacceptable. After a public outcry, Gov. Cuomo set up a pop-up site in Bayside, but it was only open for two days. The lack of access has forced seniors to travel long distances, potentially exposing them to Covid-19 and other diseases along the way, she said.
The issue directly ties into the district’s transportation issue, Kaur said. Not only are there limited bus and train options, but there are not enough protected bike lanes. The future of transportation justice has to be pedestrian and cycle-centered, she said.
If elected, Kaur would be the first female to represent District 23 and the first South Asian city councilmember.
“There’s history to be made,” she said. “Being someone who’s on the ground and knows how to organize communities together is what makes me apt to fight for our people in City Hall. That’s exactly what a legislator’s supposed to do.”