“We’re Creating a Society That’s Better for All of Us Together”

Vanessa Agudelo

Socialists have seen electoral gains in many major American cities in the last few years. But they’ve also won local races in towns like Peekskill, New York, where Vanessa Agudelo recently won a race for city council. We interviewed Agudelo about what socialism means to her.

Vanessa Agudelo, city councilmember for Peekskill, New York. Scott Heins

Interview by
Scott Heins

At DSA’s biennial convention in Atlanta this summer, photojournalist Scott Heins interviewed and photographed several dozen elected officials from around the country who are members of the socialist group.

One of them was Vanessa Agudelo, who is a city councilperson in Peekskill, New York.


SH

You’re one of sixty or more members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who hold some sort of office or elected position. Why do you think it is that so many people who identify and run as democratic socialists are gaining office and doing well in political races across the country?

VA

I think that DSA has been able to articulate the class struggle, or the struggle of the working class, in a way that neither party has been able to, in a way that really resonates for regular people who are living paycheck to paycheck and just want to put food on the table for their kids and their family. Personally, I came into local office because of the Bernie Sanders campaign. My parents were immigrants from Colombia, politics was never a topic of conversation in our family, and I knew that my parents were being oppressed by the system, but you could never really put a name to it.

Finally, DSA is able to present capitalism as being the enemy — the reason why the system is operating the way it is and how we’re all at a loss because of it. DSA is putting forth a vision that no other party has put forth. A vision where we can live in a place where it’s more harmonious, where we’re living in the wealthiest country and we can provide basic needs such as basic income guarantees, or guaranteeing health care and free college for all. These are all things that really matter to regular, working-class people. I think that’s what it’s really about.

SH

During and after the Bernie Sanders campaign, to whatever extent his campaign put democratic socialism more toward the foreground of the political conversation, you did hear some pushbacks of people tying Bernie’s identity as an older white man to the identity of socialism. Socialism got characterized by some as a white man’s ideology. DSA gets labeled as too white and too male. As an elected socialist woman of color, how do you respond to people who might say that?

VA

I think you have to look around. When people are making that case, they’re dismissing a lot of people that are in the room. They might not be the majority, and that is a problem, a problem that DSA is fully aware of and acknowledging and working toward changing. But we’re here. Our perspective is valid, and it’s valued by the people around us. DSA, at least for me, has really done a great job of amplifying these voices, as minimal as they may be in terms of quantity. They’re doing the best they can to put forth the infrastructures so people of color can be a part of this movement.

The truth is that those of us that are struggling to make ends meet don’t have time to organize with DSA. That is the reality. I think that is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to recruit people of color to join our movement, because they’re taking everything day by day. We’re in it for the long haul, and DSA’s in it for the long haul, and it’s a long game, and I think that, like I said, they’re filling a vacuum that existed for a very long time because the Democratic Party is not being held accountable. They’re not putting forth a vision that America feels is their own. They’re not putting forth a story that we feel is going to truly bring forth change in our lives. And DSA is putting forth that vision, and that’s the difference.

SH

We’ve seen a big uptick from the last DSA convention two years ago of how many electeds we have here. Do you think this steady growth of elected socialists is going to keep continuing across America?

VA

Absolutely. We’re seeing a change in what we as a collective look at or desire in our leadership. I think in the past people wanted folks that were experienced, well connected, established, and seemed secure and pragmatic. But now, people want people who are going to stand for their values and principles and be held accountable by the people. Represent the people that you’re serving and not your special interests and who’s funding your campaigns. A lot of people running these campaigns aren’t taking corporate PAC money — we’re really relying on small donors and grassroots organizing and playing a really great field game, which is one of the things that DSA does best. I think we’re only going to exponentially increase from here. It’s not going to happen overnight, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next year with Bernie in 2020, but even if he loses the nomination, I think we’re still going to see a ton of new socialists in the coming elections.

SH

What do you say to the Fox News types who decry socialism as doom for America — that this is the end of society as we know it?

VA

I think they’re right, this is the end of society as we know it. But we’re creating a society that’s even better than what we know and is going to serve the collective as a whole, and that’s better for all of us together. It’s not going to be just serving the 1 percent or those few in power who are calling the shots.