The New York Public Interest Research Group, a student organization that has had a presence on the Queens College campus since its founding in 1972, held an event on the night of Monday, Nov. 12th, celebrating its 45th anniversary. In attendance were members of NYPIRG chapters from other universities throughout the state, plus members of some other organizations. The price of admission for each of them was a donation, a non-perishable item for the soon-to-be-opening food pantry on campus.
The opening of the food pantry is a project NYPIRG is involved with in conjunction with Student Association and other organizations to aid financially disadvantaged students, and is one of a large variety of activities it participates in for that purpose. For the duration of its existence over the past few decades, it has protested, petitioned, written and otherwise worked to promote the interests of students throughout New York. A brief history of its origins, and those of PIRGs (public interest research group’s) in general, was given by Levi Castle, a member of NYPIRG’s Board of Directors, to officially kick off the event that night. “Students forming PIRGs in the early 1970s recognized that to bring about meaningful social change, there needed to be an informed, skilled and active group of people who work to make those changes happen,” he noted during his speech.
The lineup of people set to speak at the event were indicative of NYPIRG being precisely that sort of group even from its beginning, as current or former members spoke of their time with the organization. One of these was Haris Khan, the current chairman of University Student Senate and a former Board representative of NYPIRG, who took the opportunity to show appreciation for the organization’s role in CUNY and the state, and how it shaped his own growth in student activism.
“My journey in student activism, student organizing, and now representing the half-a-million students at CUNY started right here at NYPIRG,” Khan told the audience. He described his first exposure to the organization at Queensborough Community College, and the work he has done with it since that time to stop budget cuts and tuition hikes that would have affected CUNY schools. Noting his origins from a country where political dissent was unwelcome, he holds a special appreciation for the work NYPIRG does, having stated that “the ability to organize on campuses, that’s a student right, that’s a fundamental American right, that is our tradition.”
The keynote speaker of the night, Jay Hershenson, was a founder of NYPIRG, a former QC student, the previous Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Secretary of the Board of Trustees for CUNY and the incoming Vice President for Communications and Marketing & Senior Advisor to the President at QC. His resume denotes him as a living testament to how closely tied to this college’s history the organization is. His words at the event recounted his memories as a student and the circumstances surrounding the beginnings of not only this PIRG but others throughout the country.
After calling for a brief moment of silence for Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics founder who had died the same day, Hershenson began to recall how he first became aware of PIRGs. While working as a delegate to the Student Association, he and its president at the time, Mark Litwak, attended a conference in Colorado that included a workshop on the subject of PIRGs. This, coupled with reading Action for a Change by Ralph Nader and Donald Ross, kindled their interest in forming their own PIRG for New York.
“We kind of liked the idea of thinking of students as citizens, active citizens, not simply in their student role, and that there were issues that students were concerned about,” Hershenson described. With a large support base from students, approval from staff at QC and from the CUNY Board of Trustees and after a 9-hour by-law meeting to set it up as a state-wide organization, NYPIRG was officially formed. In the time since then, it has managed to influence legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Law, laws regarding the practice of redlining, which promotes discriminatory financial practices by state and private institutions against minority neighborhoods, and more.
“Whenever you think about the challenges before you, whether it’s public speaking, or trying to make change,” Hershenson said in his closing statements, “my motto is the following: fear is a choice. Preparation is a better choice. That’s what NYPIRG teaches us.”