Connecting With Puerto Ricans Helps NY State Assembly Hopeful

Nov 23, 2021
3:48 PM

Shaniyat Chowdhury, whose running for the New York State Assembly in the 5th district (Shaniyat Chowdhury for Congress NY5/Facebook)

From the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revolution emerges a former United States Marine leading a fearless political endeavor of his own. The eldest of three siblings from a working-class Bangladeshi family, Shaniyat Chowdhury rose from working retail to interning at the New York State Capitol while simultaneously excelling in rugby both locally and nationally.

The Jamaica, Queens native, 29, ran against Gregory Meeks for his seat in the 5th New York Congressional district and lost in June’s 2020 Democratic primary to the established politician once named among the most corrupt members of Congress and cited by the New York Times as being full of it.

Now, as a New York City public high school educator, he’s running for the New York State Assembly in the 24th district in Queens and is using a recent trip to Puerto Rico for the SOMOS Conference as another inspirational springboard to unseat long-time Democratic incumbent David Weprin.

Chowdhury and I discussed the work that was —and wasn’t— being done at the five-day conference, the connections he drew to Puerto Ricans, and how working on AOC’s campaign shaped his own political aspirations. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did working on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign inspire you to go this route? Were politics always an endeavor you had in the back of your mind?

I remember seeing a video of her on The Young Turks. She was speaking the truth! Automatically, I knew I had to do something, so I ended up volunteering (for her campaign). At the time, there were probably about ten volunteers, maybe less. Six months later, when we had the primary election in 2018, she just blew up. We won; we changed the narrative, changed the political landscape, changed the world, changed everything. I wasn’t sure that I would run for office after that, but I felt like there needed to be more of us who come from the same experiences as AOC and just really go against the grain and believe in ourselves.

You ran for the first time against Gregory Meeks for his Congressional seat in the 2020 Democratic primary. COVID even blew up in the middle of your campaign. You lost, but ultimately, was it a good learning experience to kickstart your career?

I lost, but I didn’t look at it as a political loss because I built more relationships and I gained experiences I needed. On top of that, for me, the impact and the win were just seeing how we got a lot of other working-class young people of color involved. That’s where our campaign did so well. We gave them the opportunity they never had before. And now, those same young people have worked on are continuing working on other campaigns or anything that’s politically related; they’re doing it! That’s the impact we’re trying to make. Everything we’re trying to implement today is gonna affect the generation of tomorrow. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day, because we’re only here for so long. But when you look at the housing prices, climate change, national healthcare, people can’t buy a home, that’s all been done by people that came before us, and we’re suffering. So now we have to worry about the next generation and put them in a position where they feel like they could make a difference.

You went against Meeks; now you’re going to challenge David Weprin for the New York State Assembly seat in the 24th district in Queens. His father was State Assembly speaker in the early ’90s and his brother is a former State Assemblyman too. Why is it important to get rid of such political dynasties?

(Dynasties) go against everything that we do in a democracy. He’s been in office for like 15 years, but before him, his brother (Mark) was in that seat. Before his brother was there, his father (Saul) was in that seat, so they’ve been there for 50 to 60 years. During those years, the demographics were different. The community was different. There were a lot more white moderates, but now, there are a lot of working-class immigrants there. When we’re talking about representation, one, that’s really important, but two, that should really reflect in a representative because there’s a culture barrier, there’s a language barrier to overcome. Because then, they understand the issues that you’re going through, and they could actually help you. That should be reflected in your representative.

This Assembly District encompasses many smaller assembly seats or state senate seats, so when I ran for Congress, we won a lot of seats in that Assembly District. A lot of it had to do with demographics, the working-class policies we put out, and people believed in it. So, it shows that it’s possible. And (Weprin) ran for another political seat in the middle of the pandemic. When he ran, it was at a time where the communities needed him, and he was just like, you know what, I’m gonna run for another seat while people don’t have access to food and people are still struggling to keep a roof over their heads. It just shows that he doesn’t care, and he doesn’t wanna be here, and that’s totally fine! It’s cool, you did your time, but if you don’t wanna be here, then maybe it is time for a change. No one is entitled to a seat. This job is about being a public servant, not about being a career politician. If that’s what you’re about, then you’re self-fulfilling.

You visited San Juan for SOMOS where you were able to connect with Puerto Ricans on the island. As someone whose home country, Bangladesh was also colonized, what connections were you able to make between Puerto Ricans and your people during the visit?

Essentially, what SOMOS is about —and I’m not Puerto Rican, I say this as an ally, as someone whose home country has also been colonized by the West and other countries in Europe— but we’re trying to bridge the gap between the Puerto Rican diaspora here in New York City to the island. There are a lot of synonymous issues that the people of Puerto Rico face that people in New York face. Lack of housing issues, student debt, poverty, mental health, so we’re trying to bridge that gap to see how we could help one another out.

Bangladesh was decolonized during (Richard Nixon’s presidency). It used to be part of Pakistan. They had their own culture, own language, and wanted to be their own country. But the U.S. was supporting Pakistan … There was a whole genocide. People were raped and killed. Bangladesh wanted to be its own liberated nation. It [gained independence] in 1973, but to this day, you could still feel the ramifications of the war. The economy is changing, but it’s still reliant on the U.S. when it comes to trade.

A lot of Bengalis, when they came into New York, blended into Spanish Harlem. There’s a book called Bengali Harlem, which essentially tells stories about Bengali immigrants who came here and didn’t have a home, didn’t really have a community, and ended up in Harlem because there were a lot of brown people there.

What did doing the work in Puerto Rico do for you personally and your campaign? And overall, how would you describe the experience and why it’s necessary for people who share your beliefs to do this kind of work in person?

There’s a lot of animosity from leftist organizers in Puerto Rico because they want to be liberated. But because of U.S. laws like the Jones Act, the PROMESA Act, it’s putting such an economical stronghold on Puerto Rico so they can’t be liberated.

While I was down there, it just seemed like, at some point, people were going there for the photo op. When I’d go to the hotel, I’d see people by the beach that’s right next to the club by the hotel, and they’re just chillin’. They’re completely ignoring what’s going on in the streets of San Juan. Some of the politicians were called out for it, too. Some of them, they won’t support the repeal of PROMESA or the Jones Act, but they’ll go to Puerto Rico to chill on the beach for a whole week. It’s not all of them, some do step out onto the streets, don’t get me wrong. But this is where the work is. It felt good to step out of that nonsense and talk to real people who are experiencing these things every day.

Who were some of the citizens and activists you spoke to on the ground and what were they saying?

I went to an educational center named La Goyco, a cultural arts center in San Juan where a lot of their work is to preserve and reinvigorate arts and education on the island. People are here talking about their experiences and telling us their stories because they want people to listen to them, to really see them, and understand them. Jessica González-Rojas (New York State Assemblymember from District 34 in Queens) held an educational forum with other elected officials from New York. They’re the ones that really connected with the activists and organizers. We need more allies and more supporters to really hop on board. I think as long as that’s happening on the side, as long as that continues, and as long as we’re able to bring what we learned from the island back home, it’s our job now to really spread the message.

Overall, how will this experience help you in your upcoming race and beyond?

One, it makes me a better candidate because I’m learning.

Two, in my district, there’s actually a pocket of the Puerto Rican community that hasn’t been tapped into because no one speaks to them. We could show them that there are people who do care. That’s part of my takeaway from SOMOS—it’s on me and people like me who are running for office to really bring that message like, hey, I’ve been to the island, I’ve seen it, I empathize, let’s try to make something happen, so we’re together. I think it’s really about activating part of my Bangladeshi base and also showing unity with the Puerto Rican community and other communities.

Even though we come from different walks of life, we’re all fighting the same system at the end of the day. I think that’s the most beautiful thing about all this. And that’s what’s the most beautiful thing about running for office in New York: It’s that we’re diverse, but we can’t do it alone; we’ve gotta come together. And I think that’s what I bring to the table. I’m hoping that helps me, but I really hope that helps the community to know that someone has their back.


Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY