NYPIRG Hosts Student Empowerment Conference, Invites AG Letitia James 

The virtual event featured Attorney General Letitia James./@NYPIRGofficial via YouTube

By Gabriela Flores 


    In its annual conference to encourage members and their respective causes, the New York Public Interest Research Group hosted virtual panels for CUNY and SUNY students last Friday, Mar. 24. Past and present NYPIRG leaders discussed their roles pertinent to bettering civic, social, and environmental issues. The state’s Attorney General Letitia James kicked off the event, answering questions from Queens College and SUNY New Paltz student journalists.

   “We’re excited to continue the groundwork and continue working with you and others across the state to protect the public interest,” said Sadiya Hoque, Brooklyn College student and chairperson of NYPIRG’s student board of directors, during the event to James.       

   Coming days before Governor Kathy Hocul’s executive state budget finalizes on Apr. 1, the annual event highlighted issues pertinent to student activists. The afternoon was divided into three sections, with Attorney General James first sharing how she addresses climate change, to the challenges she has undergone in holding exploitative corporations accountable. During her career in politics, James has become the first in several roles, including the first African-American and woman to hold the attorney general seat. Since 2018, James and her office removed more than 4,000 guns from NY communities, protected tenants from exploitative landlords, including through the state’s lead-based paint laws, and defended the continuation of DACA in the Supreme Court, among other accomplishments, according to Hoque. 

    James discussed her latest efforts in canceling student loan debt. In helping thousands of New Yorkers whose student loan debts were mismanaged by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, James helped to implement an agreement that led the company to identify errors that cost borrowers loan forgiveness or lower monthly payments. In supporting President Joe Biden’s push to cancel student debts in the wake of COVID-19, James has also pushed on the state level to end a law that charges a 22% fee on outstanding student debts owed to New York State. 

   “I hope to continue to work with all young people in this coalition, obviously to make that vision a reality and to continue focusing on student debt, canceling student debt in this nation,” James said, noting earlier that student loan cancellation could lead to “one of the most impactful economic justice initiative in history.”

   Following James’ appearance, NYPIRG alums hailing from alma maters around New York discussed their work and commitment to public interest on a panel. For most panelists, becoming an attorney enabled them to implement fundamental changes to systemic issues they addressed prior to launching their careers. 

   “I still fight for the things that I believe in, I just have more tools at my disposal than I did before,” said Melanie Prasad, legal director of Jobs To Move America, while explaining what led her to become an attorney. With their days in canvassing or protests against tuition hikes and other concerns, panelists shared their upbringings as student activists with NYPIRG. In continuing to make strides in NYPIRG, Statewide Outreach Manager Gabrielle Alper shared that her daily motivation is rooted in her work connecting, discussing, and effectively persuading constituents for a common cause. 

   “The thing that motivates me more day-to-day is thinking about essentially the exponential impact of talking with people one on one, and knowing that me and all my colleagues talk to a bunch of people,” Alper said. 

   For other panelists, bringing concerns and stories of constituents to elected officials, while actively working to address them through the legislature, has been a fulfilling component of their career. Each emphasized the importance of appreciating big and small wins despite any significant losses to campaigns or other plans. 

   “When you get to pass legislation that is then signed into law, there’s really nothing like it. It is so satisfying when you do that,” said Liz Moran, NY public advocate for Earth Justice, who noted the importance of having “an entire life” outside of one’s passion for legal public work. 

   In growing as communicators through NYPIRG, the panelists learned to execute their message for addressing public issues effectively and pivot topics to better connect with communities, elected officials, and colleagues. Despite the challenges they encounter daily in their respective roles, the panelists encouraged student activists to remain persistent through their campaign work and beyond. 

   “I would say that setbacks really are growth, and it’s like strength training – so to speak. You use your setbacks as a tool for learning,” said Michael Hernandez, NY policy director for Rewiring America. 

   The conference concluded with breakout rooms that focused on NYPIRG’s ongoing efforts pertinent to higher education, the environment, and healthcare.