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Organize Locally, Urges Konvitz Lecturer

Basil Smikle Jr. headshot

A national strategy alone cannot solve U.S. political issues, people need to organize locally, Basil Smikle Jr. '93 said in the annual Konvitz Lecture on Monday.

“The best influencer is not an elected official, but it is your neighbor or your friend,” Smikle said. “In the end, it all comes back to you, you really are the new voice and you have to house the platform and venue that works for you.”

Director of Hunter College’s Public Policy Program, where he is a distinguished lecturer, and of the Roosevelt House Institute for Public Policy, Smikle was raised by Jamaican immigrants in the Bronx during the height of the crack epidemic.

As a Cornell student, Smikle said he relied on food stamps, learned how to use his skills and expanded his world view, he said during a 90-minute talk in 105 Ives Hall. The recorded lecture, entitled "New Voices and New Venues: Organizing Against the Assault on Democratic Principles,” can be seen here.

As a political analyst and educator, Smikle pointed out the increasing political polarization and divisions. The media relays political information with the harshest words and places the public in echo chambers where we only follow, listen, and interact with those who confirm our biases, he said.

The current political climate makes people afraid to have conversations with one another and that has reduced our civic spaces, he said. “If we don’t have common truths, we cannot have conversations that are meaningful to us.”

Smikle urged the audience to fight divisions by getting involved in local political party activities, describing how he met with county-level Democratic Party organizations in New York state’s 62 counties when he served as executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.

Encouraged by recent gains in organized labor such as the April 1 vote to unionize by Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island, Smikle said he is optimistic about the future.

The Konvitz Lecture was founded in 2006 by Joan Jacobs '54 and Irwin Jacobs '56. Joan Jacobs graduated from the College of Human Ecology. Irwin Jacobs graduated from Cornell with a degree in electrical engineering.

The couple, from San Diego, Calif., continues to sponsor the event, named for the late Professor Milton Konvitz, an ILR School founder. In a popular course called "American Ideals," Konvitz taught students from across the university about the U.S. Constitution. A leading authority on constitutional and labor law, and civil and human rights, Konvitz was a professor at ILR and Cornell Law School from 1946 until retiring in 1973.

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