Pipe Dream spoke to Jason Richberg, a Suffolk County Legislator. Richberg graduated from Wilberforce University, a private Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and started his career in government as chief of staff for Legislator DuWayne Gregory. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why is it important for people, especially people of color, women and younger people, to become more involved with government?
A: “It’s important for our communities to be engaged in the political process, in government and in systems of power, because it’s where decisions are made. A majority of the decisions that are made in respect to education, to health policy, to roads [and] law enforcement are handled by those areas of power. And especially for communities of color, it’s important because sometimes those areas have been off limits and have not been a place of access, and they decide our lives — and because we don’t necessarily have representation, there isn’t a way for us to be engaged [or] be involved in the policymaking process. So how can I make policy affecting folks who are from Mars, if I don’t know any Martians? But just from a perspective of if you’re in the room, whether you’re the elected official or you’re an aide, you can help design the policy [and] help uplift your community.”
Q: How did your experience at Wilberforce University impact your approach to politics, also considering your involvement with Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically Black fraternity?
A: “Many, many years ago, there was a show called ‘A Different World,’ which was based off of HBCU, and it was sort of my first real idea of what a historically Black college was about. And going to a historically Black college, especially a small one, was great because it’s a different experience. The folks who I met there, [including] the administration and professors, pushed me in a direction to be uncomfortable, but also put me in a position to engage [in] new experiences. I was put into a different couple of fellowships and internships that pushed me in new directions, which if I didn’t go [in] I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I wouldn’t be an elected official.”
Q: “Unleash Radiance” is designed to showcase individuals that use their passions to give back to their communities. What is an initiative you are currently working on at the Suffolk County level in this vein?
A: “We’re doing a couple of things. One, we have a maternal mortality task force that meets about once a month and creates policies with medical community members, including health care professionals, doulas and midwives to [discuss] the issues of women during childbirth. We just put out our first report, and we’re looking to do a baby shower. There’s also the ability for folks to see what each hospital system does in the county and [to] learn what a midwife and doula is, as well as other general knowledge. With our Youth Caucus, we have a group of young people, from the seventh grade to graduating seniors, [and] they meet once or twice a month. And we talk about strategies, growth, mentorship and leadership. The majority of folks are people of color, and the idea is to give them an example of this is where you’re going. From that we’ve been doing that for roughly 13 years, and we have some folks who are in medical school. We have folks who are going to be lawyers, and we have folks who are professionals in other places, and so those are just a couple of things that we’ve looked at.”
Q: What are a few defining moments in your life, and how did they contribute to putting you on the path that you’re on now?
A: “We were taking care of my grandfather, and I had been taking time off from school to help him. My grandfather had a moment of clarity from dementia and Alzheimer’s and asked, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ He told me to, ‘Get your rear out of here and do something,’ and in that same moment, my mother had a friend who was an [alumnus] of Wilberforce [University] and asked if I wanted to transfer. I had just filled out the application in the middle of the summer, got accepted and [moved out] to Ohio in the next two weeks. That was one defining moment.”
Q: What advice would you give to students who want to become involved in government?
A: “I would say just my general advice to anyone is be ready to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we are taught that we have to be comfortable with every decision we make and who we are as people and sometimes, you just have to be uncomfortable. You have to put yourself out there sometimes. The other thing I would say is to learn about [your local officials] and their position. It could be somebody who is aligned with you or not, but you’re asking them the questions because there’s so many layers of government. It’s important to know those levels because we’re not always taught.”