By Hannah Schoenbaum
BU News Service
BOSTON — Democratic House of Representatives nominee and Boston University alumna Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ignited a crowd of over 500 BU students and faculty at a sold-out forum Monday afternoon with her message that anything is possible for young people who believe in the power of their story and the connections they build on the grassroots level.
“The seeds of social change come from organizers and everyday people like the ones in this room,” Ocasio-Cortez told the BU community. “It has always been young people who are the conscience of this nation.”
Ocasio-Cortez, 28, skyrocketed into political fame after she unseated New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a historic primary election on June 27. The shocking upset made Ocasio-Cortez a common household name overnight after the Bronx native scrapped together a low-budget campaign. She began by slipping flyers into grocery bags and campaigning door to door after her bartending shifts, she said.
Ocasio-Cortez was labeled an activist early in life for demanding better education for other low-income children of color. She said she grew up feeling the pressure to become something greater than what society told her she could be.
“The zip code that a child is born in determines much of their destiny and opportunity in life,” Ocasio-Cortez said, echoing the message she was taught in her childhood as a first-generation Puerto Rican. “You start to learn that just your existence is a form of resistance.”
The activism of late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — both members of the BU community — led her to enroll in the university where she said she discovered the “soul of the mission of social justice” and her own role as an activist for marginalized communities.
When she began her political career, Ocasio-Cortez said she was told she had to be crazy to believe she could improve the world.
“And so,” she told the crowd, “I was crazy.”
She deepened her activism in 2016 when she worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and was moved to launch her own campaign for Congress.
The candidate urged audience members to deepen their own activism and approach issues dealing with fundamental human decencies from a human perspective, rather than a party perspective. The greatest issues of our time, Ocasio-Cortez said, were prison reform, having living wages, and access to quality public education. These are not partisan, she said.
“We have to break the paradigm of red and blue,” she said, “and we have to move into the paradigm of right and wrong.”
Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez responded to a question about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s recent sexual assault hearing, saying sexual assault should fall into the category of non-partisan issues.
“Sexual assault is not about a crime of passion,” she said. “It is about the abuse of power.”
Ocasio-Cortez called on the men in the room to step up on behalf of women, instead of discounting or discrediting their stories of trauma.
“We have to make sure that the people experiencing injustice are not the only ones advocating for themselves,” she said to the crowd. “Could you imagine if Kavanaugh was facing a panel of 11 women?”
As a Democrat and political science major, College of Arts and Sciences junior Owen McNamara said he was “stoked” to hear Ocasio-Cortez speak at BU and thinks the country needs to follow the ideas she discussed in the forum.
“She really wants to make a change in the people at the bottom and the people that are not seen in the community,” McNamara said, “people of color, LGBTQ and other minority groups that have not been represented well. I’m happy that she has really been pushing for all those groups to take more power and take more control of their lives and their destiny.”
Although she disagrees with many of Ocasio-Cortez’s political positions, CAS sophomore Eleni Spiru said she found common ground with the candidate on the issue of education inequality.
“I’m not a Democrat myself,” the political science and classics double major said, “but I find very interesting the way she got elected and how she knocked on doors and she worked very locally. I find that inspiring.”
Samantha Delgado, student organizer of the forum, said she was inspired to bring Ocasio-Cortez to campus because she is a politician who stands for the people and causes Delgado supports.
“I was just so happy to see someone who has shared a lot of similar identities to me, being a young Hispanic woman, pursuing a career in government,” the CAS junior said. “I hope to do the same one day — to be able to connect to the people around me — and I hope fellow BU Terriers do the same.”
In addition to her other responsibilities, Delgado said she was tasked with selecting a song to play before and after the event. She chose “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys.
“That was one of the songs I play every morning to pump me up,” she said. “It applies. Alexandria is a girl on fire.”