As a high school athlete and a son of two physicians assistants, native New Yorker Alex Rias figured he'd become a physical therapist. He chose to go to college in State University of New York-Buffalo—a blue-collar city in sharp contrast to growing up in melting-pot Jamaica Queens.
Becoming fascinated by psychology, sociology, and American studies, he found new interests, motivations, and purpose. Now he's two years into his job as director of the New York City Council's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, whose 27 members represent 4.8 million residents in the five New York City boroughs. In addition to his work with the council, he is managing director of StepAbove a personal-development company he cofounded that seeks to inspire youth through positive-thinking workshops and appearances that blend poetry, step, and dance. Rias, 28, also holds a master's in public administration from SUNY-Albany.
This interview, conducted by Jody Brannon, has been edited for length and clarity.
I took at journey. I was interested in understanding how people think and behave, individually but also collectively. What stimulates people and decisions? How does that change when it involves two people? Or what changes when it's a group? As I learned more about society and the world, that led me to want to learn about one major factor that influences our decisions—which are our laws and how our laws and institutions influence our behavior.
While in Buffalo, I was doing voter-registration drives and taking part in groups doing political-action surveys and civic-engagement surveys. I started to gain an appreciation for the structures of government, and by my senior year I had decided a master's in public affairs would be the next step for me.
NYC is minority-majority, and the city council is minority-majority [27 of the 51 members are people of color]. The success of a city in transition depends on how well informed people are. For me, it all boils down to access. Access is a huge barrier facing communities of color—access to information, quality education, health care, technology. Everything we do [as a caucus] is about closing the gap.
When I joined the caucus, I helped it create an employment, opportunity, and small-business expo. It's a self-empowerment event where we bring constituents from all over the city and connect them to various resources. We split the venue, so there's workforce development—from resume writing to interview workshops for individuals—and we also have the side for small businesses, from employment screening to working with the Department of Small Business Services and even help on starting a business.
This year our expo is Dec. 7. We'll have all of that, but we'll also have an Affordable Care act workshop that will focus on its impact on small business—how it might or might not impact a small grocery, for example. Some [small business owners] are confused and worried. Some have a language barrier, so we want to answer their questions and close the gap.
So that's one of our biggest undertakings. It's about community empowerment, where we expose people to resources they didn't know about or how to reach them. In addition to workshop and screenings, we'll have 30 or 40 organizations on hand that can connect people with other resources or jobs.
You see things evolve. You see them change and you see them change the community. For instance, the redistricting process was very eye-opening for me. Seeing the shifting demographics of the city made me realize human migration is really affected by policy and economics. So I continue to have my hands in shaping the future of the city and representing the communities with limited access.
Since I have taken this position, just our collective presence as a caucus has strengthened. The process of working with organizations on budget allocations and funneling city funds has improved and sharpened. When we're at the table, I think it really does amplify our needs for the community, and we're able to target some substantial funds, so the climate has changed. I think the level of consciousness within the council is different, and the caucus is a powerful voice, evolving and improving.
There's much more that the caucus can do to engage our constituents. As we see the city shifting, there are just more challenges that need to be met. I hope to be involved in helping to do that.
'MY VIEW' OF THE NEXT AMERICA
Are you part of the demographic that is the Next America? Are you a catalyst who fosters change for the next generation? Or do you know someone who is? The Next America welcomes first-person perspectives from activists, thought leaders and people representative of a diverse nation. Email us. And please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
Jody Brannon contributed to this article.