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This summer, I learned about systems.
As the start of my internship for the Bronx Borough President drew closer, my nerves increased exponentially: I did not know what work I would be doing, nor how much time would be required of me. Regardless, I jumped headfirst into the middle of a bustling Education department and quickly learned about the work being done and began working, small assignment by small assignment.
One of my first tasks was to design a flyer for the annual “Back to School” event (an event which takes places at the end of summer to get BX Public school students excited for the upcoming school year. Offers free backpacks, pencils and health services). My supervisor placed a big stack of folders and loose papers on my desk. Over the course of the day, I flipped through several documents about the event, everything from attendance logs to agendas for event-preparation meetings. The longer I read about how the Back to School event was planned and operated, the more, I learned about how the BP’s office engages with the students of the Bronx.
Two weeks into my internship, I came across a stack of more than 125 business cards. After a few minutes of my small talk, my supervisor kindly asked if could insert the information on every business card into an excel sheet. (The cards were collected from various meetings held by the Bronx Fathers Taking Action committee, which works closely with the Bronx Borough President’s office.) “Oh, this should be easy,” I naively thought to myself. I was so wrong. The work was tedious. My mind struggled to remain focused as, card by card, I logged one person after another into the database. After many failed attempts to make the work go by faster through listening to music or podcasts while I work, I found that the only path forward was through: I had to exert all my focus on the business cards. One by one, I began to shorten the stack of business cards to 110, then 90, then 75. In the process of typing up these business cards, I began to realize just how vast and thorough are the web of connections between the Bronx Borough President’s office and small business across the Bronx. This initially tedious work turned into an unforgettable lesson on the necessity of unity and teamwork to make meaningful visions a reality.
Ultimately, it was through countless small assignments that I gradually saw the greater purpose of the office: to, generally, work with and influence the decisions of council people who vote on bills that shape the lives of Bronxites, determine where New York City and New York state allocate money in the Bronx, and to address bureaucratic and everyday civilian issues (there’s a constituent services department, an education department, etc.).
The arc of my learning this summer resembles the arc of change in New York City government. It doesn’t happen all at once. I was aware of my preconceptions of government going into the job - my first thought of a government office resembled scenes of fast talking, aggressive politicians from the West Wing and House of Cards making grand bureaucratic changes in an episode - but I was not aware of the extent to which they existed. Systems don’t change all at once. They change small assignment by small assignment. When my job began, I was under the impression that my work wasn’t important. However, it wasn’t until my last day that I realized the work I was doing was the important work. Every small assignment was gradually building up into meaningful, positive change. Decision by decision, person by person, day by day. For example, my supervisor and other top officials in the Office of the Bronx Borough President were in were in the process of officially approving my flyer for mass distribution around the Bronx.
At the end of the day, the Office of the Bronx Borough President not only showed me what meaningful community engagement looks like, but also that in order to positively change the fabric of this nation, I would have to start small. Really small.
Sam Gallen, 16