Why We Run: Joshua Lafazan
When he was elected to the Syosset Board of Education at age 18, Joshua Lafazan officially became New York’s youngest elected official. Today, at age 23, he remains one of the youngest — and, potentially, most optimistic and driven. Below, he talks about his campaign and why he thinks it’s so important for more young people to run for government.
What inspired you to run?
My political career actually started in 2001, when I was elected to the Walt Whitman Elementary School Student Council.. That was my first foray into politics — since that day, my love for politics and continued to grow. I was eventually elected as senior class president of my high school. But two reasons really prompted me to run, as opposed to specific moments in time:
One, there were no youth representatives on my school board. As a student government representative, we would try to provide the administration with information about what we felt needed to be changed, but there was no interest or avenue for this input. I wanted to be a voice for students and for young people in my district.
Two, our superintendent was the most highly compensated superintendent in the state. She made over half a million dollars, and she ran the district with an iron fist. Residents were afraid to speak up, call out injustices, or offer solutions.
As an 18-year-old senior, I had nothing to lose! I had time on my hands. And I wanted to make a difference in my community, and it was clear that this was the way to do it. So I got together some buddies of mine. We had nothing but energy and time. We knocked on 6,000 doors and we won with 82% of the vote.
In the month of June, I was a trustee elect and a student in class. So, that was an interesting transition for me. Definitely a unique time period in my life.
But also the most exciting year of my life.
What surprised you most about campaigning?
Something that surprised me and really upset me was the lack of support I got from other young people. I assumed, because I was a teenager running, that other young people would rally around me. What I learned was that — when you’re doing something that’s a little different — it freaks people out. And they will try and tell you that you can’t do it. My best friends told me, and this is verbatim, that I was “pursuing the worst life plan ever.”
This really upset me. I remember going home that night and being destroyed, because I thought these kids were right.
I was lucky, though, that I had wonderful parents who were my support system. And who told me that I could do this and who gave me the strength to go on. Adults in my community and senior citizens really came out and supported me. Ironically, young people supported me later.
The one piece of advice I always offer young people: don’t be surprised or upset if you don’t gain a ton of support, especially from other young people, at the beginning. Go out there and work as hard as you can. Because there’s no substitute for hard work — and you will categorically earn their support through your efforts on the campaign trail.
What was the best campaign advice you got?
In September of 2011, filmmaker Michael Moore came to speak to us at the local bookstore. He was one of the first 18-year-olds ever elected, so when he asked “Are there any questions?”, 17-year-old me, in a suit, raised my hand, and I asked: “I’m running for the school board. Is there any advice you can give me?”
He thought about it. I’m there waiting for this really profound answer, that I think is going to change my life. And instead, all he says is: “Knock on every door. And when you’re done, do it again.”
And he moved onto the next question.
I was really disappointed! I had waited in line for an hour, I had put on a suit, come to see Michael Moore in the flesh, and he had totally blown off my question.
But then, at the meet-and-greet afterward, I spoke to him privately. And he told me that “face-to-face wins the race.” I realized how profound that was. That, to me, was burned into my memory, because at the local level, oftentimes voters can’t name many of the candidates, but if you knock on their door, and you tell them what you’re all about, they are not going to forget you. And you are going to earn their vote.
It changed my life. It also changed the face of my race. It turned out to be everything for me.
What was an unexpected obstacle you had to overcome?
The first day of knocking on doors, I put on my suit, I got my literature in hand, I gave myself a pep talk and I’m ready to go, and about the third door I walk into, a woman looks at me, I give her my elevator pitch, and she says: “I’ll never vote for a kid. Nice try.”
And she slams the door in my face. That was day one, door number three.
I have to admit that I called it a day after that. I had had enough of campaigning for one day. And I went home. And again, my Mom and Dad told me: “You will deal with this. And for every one person who tells you, ‘Nice try. Get lost’ — there will be five people who will say, ‘Way to go, I’m going to have your back.’
And that turned out to be the case.
Anything you wish you’d known before you you’d run?
I wish I had known that most campaigns are an emotional rollercoaster equivalent to the tallest ride at Busch Gardens. And I mean that in all sincerity. Campaigns are emotionally exhausting. There are peaks and valleys and it will test your emotional stamina. The only way to prepare for that is two fold:
One, tell yourself time and time again that you are running to make a difference for your community. Win or lose, you are going to run your race with integrity and do you best to make a difference.
Two, surround yourself with a support system of people who love you unconditionally. No matter who that is — guy at the bagel store, grandma, mom and dad, whomever it may be — surround yourself with those people and they will pick you up when you are down.
Campaigns are not a single person effort. They are a family affair — through and through.
You wrote a whole book on this subject, so I have to ask: why is it so important for young people to run?
Millennials are the largest, most educated, and most diverse generation in American history. Yet we’re the most underrepresented demographic in politics.
What I tell people all the time is: it’s very easy to get discouraged by all the bad things that we see on the news, because things like tolerance and embracing diversity and supporting our LGBT brothers and sisters, that’s second nature to us. That’s the generation we grew up in! These are our friends and family members. So I tell young people there are two courses of action you can take: you can sit at home and post a Facebook article,and you can be an activist behind your computer. Or you can step up and make a difference.
You can fight for the voices that need lifting up and make a difference in your local community. It’s a fallacy that if you don’t start a soup kitchen that feeds 15 million people, or something on a scale of that magnitude,, that you’re not really making a difference. That’s categorically false. If you change the life of one person, you are changing their world. And when you change their world, you change our world as we know it. So, making a difference on the local level is changing the world.
Get out there and make a difference.
I was so proud to have cast my vote in favor of recognizing Diwali, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as official school district holidays, making Syosset the very first public school district on Long Island to do so.
At orientation on my first day of school at Harvard, my program director said, “Turn to the person on your left, and then turn to the person on your right, and say to that person, ‘You belong here.’”
Not even one day in and already beginning to ask myself how I gained admission into this place, this was a profound moment for me.
But over the past week, with the advent of the Diwali and Eid petitions, I began to think more about this concept of “belonging.” In my 13 years as a student in Syosset, there was never a moment where I felt that I didn’t belong. Yet when speaking to my friends of Hindu, Muslim, and other faiths, they told me that there categorically were days when they felt they didn’t belong.
So yes, last night was important because it allows students celebrating these holidays to enjoy the ceremonies of the day and the company of their friends and family without the rigors of school.
But it’s about so much more than that- it sends a strong message to our community that no matter what faith you practice; no matter the color of your skin or where you came from, you absolutely, without a doubt, belong right here in Syosset.
Last night was a special night that I’ll cherish forever- I’m so lucky to call Syosset my home.
What’s something about you that might surprise people to know?
I am an avid fan of the show The Bachelor. I watch it religiously. I’m rooting for Vanessa this season, I think she’s gonna bring it home. A little shocked when Corinne went home, but I think Nick is going to make the right choice in a couple weeks.