Shaquana Boykin is running for an office she did not know existed last year. The determined resident of Walt Whitman houses admits she used to not be interested in politics until her neighbors asked her to represent them and run for District Leader in D57. She also has the endorsement and support of the New Kings Democrats. We talked to Boykin last week about running for office and serving her community.
Back in May of 2019, Boykin was working with I was working with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice on the mayor’s office action plan in public housing. “It was just this amazing experience having everybody, even police officers, having everybody in the same room and just talking things through like – when I say safety, what does that mean to you as a police officer, as a resident? Being able to take everybody’s language and facilitate dialog and understanding how we can make our community safer.” One Saturday, the residents surprised her with food and they read a poem, Boykin recalled. “And at the end of the poem, I remember them saying ‘Shaquana, we want you to know that we want you to represent us. We want you to represent our district.’ And I didn’t really understand what they meant by that.”
Boykin is one of the youngest residents part of the Tenants Association and has been working to organize to help and increasingly – to feed – neighbors in need all around her. An avid gardener since age 14, an organizer with ACORN at 16, an AmeriCorps graduate – she knows how to showing up for people and work with people being empathetic and understanding, and seeing people and not dollars. Running for an unpaid elected position feels to her like the right next step:
“I’ve been doing this work. We give out food on Saturdays with the mutual aid group, and people are working together to give out food and we don’t get paid. There’s something about just showing up for each other that I like. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been in volunteer positions and learned from each. So why not show people how you can still do good things, even when you are not paid for it? You can still connect with people. You can still do voter registration and participation. You can still do democracy classes with the community to connect people to resources and not be a paid official. I want people to understand that volunteering, showing up for each other is how we all will get to a better world that we all want to see. We can’t keep count and depend on paid officials.”
What do you see yourself as doing in this position, we asked her.
“I see myself making sure that the Democratic Party reflects Brooklyn people who are who live in Brooklyn. I’m from Brooklyn. I am a black American. A lot of times we have elected officials who are learning because I’m in this race that I didn’t know if you can be black. If you identify as a black immigrant, then you don’t see another black woman who’s an American. And I want to change that. I want to make sure that we can have space for all cultures. So showing up as a black woman in spaces so I can show other black women can be like, oh, I don’t have to, you know, be from an immigrant descent. So I feel like I could make a change in a community. I can be from here and make a change also because I’m learning so much about what the district leader position and the democratic activities are. I’m learning that we are not transparent in the Democratic Party.”
Empowering and educating American born residents is a big part of Boykin’s agenda.
“I didn’t start going to primaries until I was probably like 21, which is not good at all. I always go to presidential elections. Learning that this election happens in primaries, you just felt like it was another way that our politicians keep their power and how we don’t understand what they are supposed to do with that power because we don’t even know when we vote, or what we’re voting on. When I researched about the judges, they say like, ‘oh, you know, you pick your judges’. And I’m like, I don’t know any of these judges.”
“I don’t have even politicians in my family. I’ve never worked on a political campaign. I’ve just always been that organizer working with elected officials on issues and opinions,” Boykin says, realizing she’s got a lot to learn. “I can make sure that I’m showing up as elected official and also respecting the agency and residents and their, you know, their role. So especially me living in NYCHA, I feel like all our elected officials from city council, assembly, Senate, Mayor – they all go private. They all come to our press conferences on our grounds and then they leave. And now everybody knows how horrible we’re living and no one ever goes ‘Let me email the chair or maybe e-mail the head of the maintenance.’ You know, it’s never about a real connection where we can really partner.”
“But we can actually serve our residents. And that’s what I want to do – be that vehicle of change in the Democratic Party. There are over 125,000 registered Democrats and only six thousand voters voted in the primaries. So that means the only people who are voting are county committee and that people like me, who work and are in the community and care about the issues are not voting because they think their vote only counts in November. So I want to engage more voters.”
And even after the elections, win or lose, Boykin is planning to keep doing pledge to vote and voter registration drives.
Brooklyner: How have you and your neighbors been weathering this pandemic?
Boykin: I will say every day is a learning lesson. I used to manage the City Harvest Mobile Market with Myrtle Avenue Partnership. Since this happened, we took the pantry from being once a month to being every Saturday, and we do deliveries. Each night our development has a list of people who want food. The people every week we work with Brooklyn neighbors, neighbors who can buy us hand trucks and masks and gloves so we can work safely, who can help distribute food. We all work together.
And I really will say that here, in Fort Grenee, Clinton Hill – organizations, groups and individuals are just really showing up for each other. We even have a mutual aid fund that they’ve allowed me to manage for Witman residents to reimburse some groceries. When people submit receipts up to 50 to 100 dollars a week, we can give them cash or more of more cash at them. And I think that was really important, especially for myself, because I literally just started work two weeks ago as a paid food organizer working on emergency food distribution to Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights residents and I haven’t worked since February.
Bklyner: Is food the biggest need right now in your community?
Boykin: It is food, especially where we get to give out fresh groceries. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but there are some people who do eat meat and you have families who have like four to six people in a house. And all they have is like, you know, the fresh produce that we give. The tenant association gets about 300 bags from Lori Cumbo’s office, our city council member. And then the mutual aid group – they will always somehow get the food.
We’ve noticed that the city council food is mostly canned goods and boxed stuff. And that’s because we can’t hold -we don’t have refrigerators. So that’s another capacity that we don’t have. And sometimes I do feel a little powerless in my role.
But then there are amazing partnerships where they’re giving out hot meals. And I’m loving that. So we have a partnership from Calexico’s in Park Slope, where we get platters of chicken, rice, beans, steak and pork. And I tell you, when you give out the food, the people are so appreciative. They know that we’re practicing social distancing but they are like, ‘I’m so sorry. I know I’m supposed to wait for you to leave, but I haven’t seen nobody in two weeks. And I can’t believe this is a hot meal. I don’t have to wait for anybody to cook it’. And times, we are like, my heart is just like melting. I’m like, wow, this is amazing.”
This is neighbors helping neighbors in the best of ways: