By Estelle Anderson
New York City, New York
18-year-old and lifelong Queens resident Seth Breland is no ordinary college freshman. After cultivating his passion for politics throughout middle and high school, he has launched a City Council campaign to represent District 23, which includes areas of Northeast Queens. If elected, Breland would be the youngest lawmaker in New York City history.
Breland has served on the Community District Education Council 26 for six years, which consisted of visiting classrooms across the district, listening to family and teacher concerns and tackling prevalent issues including drug use and vaping. He has also served on the Queens Borough Student Advisory Council and represented North Queens on the NYC Department of Education Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council. Because of his experience and passion for improving local schools, Breland is centering his platform on the issue of education.
Over the summer of his sophomore year, Breland got firsthand experience in federal politics when he was appointed by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to serve the Democratic Caucus of the United States as a Page. Currently, Breland studies political science at Long Island University Post.
How and when did you first realize your passion for politics?
Back when I was in fifth grade, I watched the vice presidential debate between Paul Ryan and current president Joe Biden. That was the moment that launched me into politics. While watching the debate, I would wonder about the issues the candidates addressed. What was affordable healthcare? What was going on with immigration? It was my curiosity about these issues that inspired my interest in a career in public service. By the beginning of sixth grade, I was very different from a lot of other kids in the sense that I didn’t want to be a firefighter or a lawyer, but instead wanted to be Secretary of State.
What inspired you to launch your campaign for City Council? Had you always planned to run for office at this point in your life?
Running for office is always something I had thought about, because there really is no better way to make change and bring your voice to the table. Did I expect it to be this early? No. I definitely was planning to wait until after college and give it a try then. However, I saw an opportunity and a lot of problems in my community that I wasn’t happy about, and that’s how my current campaign was born. We saw what happened this summer with movements for racial equity, and even three years ago when the Parkland shooting happened, we saw the creation of the March for Our Lives movement. If young people in high school can organize an entire movement for gun control, why can’t a young person run for office? I felt that it was time for a younger person to bring their passion and enthusiasm to the decision-making table and really fight for their community.
Tell me about your work on the Queens Borough Student Advisory Council and the NYC Department of Education Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council. What were some of your greatest takeaways?
During my time as a representative on the Queens Borough Student Advisory Council, one of my biggest takeaways was that the issues that our schools are facing are incredibly vast and very different as you go from district to district. One of the things that I loved about my time on education councils was that you always felt like the moderators were receptive, welcoming, and ready to hear the feedback of young people and let them take charge. I’m young, and I know many people may look at that as a negative thing and won’t want to give us a chance, but we have a lot of young, competent people out there who can get things done.
When I served on the Chancellor's Advisory Council, we tackled issues from youth vaping to funding for transportation. However, the Chancellor’s Council was disappointing at times because of the fact that the Chancellor didn’t come to the Council’s monthly meetings. If it’s your name on the Council and you aren’t coming to meet once a month for two hours, it’s disheartening. I think it shows how members of the Department of Education, and elected officials in general, often use kids as props, which is something that I and many others have had frustrations with.
If elected, what would be some of the first items on your agenda?
The first item on my agenda is making sure that our schools are fully funded. The way that money is currently allocated and given out to schools is inequitable, to say the least. In my district, for example, we have good-performing schools, and because of their high performance, they are given less funding. When you live in a very working class area and schools do not have enough money to fund after school programs, parents who work from nine to five are left without critical child care. Especially in a rich city like NYC, it is unconscionable that principals and Parent Teacher Associations have to beg Department of Education officials for money to get developments like new technology and updated libraries and cafeterias.
Supporting our small businesses is also an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I have a lot of fond memories of going to local shops where they know my name and order, and to see so many of these small businesses suffer and close their doors has been disheartening. These storefronts and local businesses are the backbones of our communities...No person deserves to be out of work right now. No person deserves to have a business shut down right now.
I am for payroll relief and rent relief for small businesses. We need to make sure that they get the economic break that they need to get past this pandemic. Post-pandemic economic guidance is also crucial - we can’t assume that once the virus is gone, small businesses will automatically be able get right back to it.
Could you speak a bit about your work as a page in the U.S. Senate? What was it like to transition from working with local politics and issues to getting involved at a federal level?
I applied and got into the Senate Page Program during my junior year. I went down to DC - which is like my Disney World - and worked with 29 other pages from across the country, which was an experience like no other. Apart from the senators, the Senate Pages are the most visible members of the Senate. It was big to go from working for a local assembly member to seeing people like current Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) every day. Being able to sit with them and interact with them and learn about the issues that people face around the country was just an amazing experience.
One of the things that the media sometimes gets wrong is their painting of DC as an extremely polarizing place where there are no friendships. During my time as a page, what I got to see behind the cameras was that there are actually a lot of across-the-aisle friendships. One night, for example, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) brought her newborn baby to the Senate floor, and so many Republican senators came over to greet her and hold her baby, which just shows how there is a lot of comradery and bipartisanship that people out there don’t see. That instilled a very valuable lesson in myself and fellow pages that compromise is not a dirty word, and that respecting each others’ ideological backgrounds is not something to be afraid of. We don’t have to hate each other to get things done.
In what ways has your youth been advantageous on the campaign trail? How would you respond to those who feel unsure about having an 18-year-old represent them?
Especially as a young person, I knew what I was going to be facing going into this race. I did get some ageist remarks, like “you’re too young” or “how about you get some experience.” However, I see my youth as a strength. It brings a certain media attention because I am a young person running to make history. I’m going to channel that attention into advocating for solutions to the most pressing issues in my district. As a young person, I also strive to be a bridge-builder between young people and older people in my community.
I have a grandmother who is elderly who is on hospice care, and her healthaid person couldn’t come today because of the lack of transportation to Eastern Queens and because of the snow. That’s unacceptable and something that a lot of our seniors are currently facing. My grandfather also passed away from COVID-19 this year. This just shows you that you can be young and have these personal, firsthand experiences with the most prevalent issues that your community and country are confronted with. Using my age and what I’ve seen and experienced will only help me to better advocate for constituents and get the attention that these issues deserve.
Based on your experience thus far, what advice do you have for other young people who might be interested in running for office at your age?
If you know your district well and think that you have ideas and solutions that will change lives for the better, then my advice is to just run. There is no harm in launching a campaign and getting your name out there. Run and show that this movement to put more young people in public office isn’t just about me and my one campaign but will spread across the city and country. Even if you decide not to run, get involved. Join your local community board, your local Democratic or Republic club, or local chapters of organizations. When I was younger, I was always frustrated with the lack of opportunity that young people were given. Call up your legislators and City Council members to see if they have internships and demand that they be more responsive to young people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.