ITHACA, N.Y. — Carolina Osorio Gil has been an activist and community organizer in the community for years. She said she feels it’s time to step up into public policy and lawmaking and is running for the District 3 seat of Tompkins County Legislature.

Osorio Gil is running on the Democratic and Working Families lines. Most of Osorio Gil’s family lives in Colombia and South America. She came to the U.S. from Colombia when she was four years old. She came to Ithaca to go to college at Cornell and has been here for 19 years, though she did leave to get her master’s degree in early childhood development.

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Ithaca Voice Reporter Kelsey O’Connor spoke with Osorio Gil to talk about why she’s running, affordable housing and other key issues for Osorio Gil.

Why are you running for Tompkins County Legislature?

Earlier on in my campaign and I think my answer had to do with the times and the times that we’re in and feeling as a community organizer this impetus, this obligation to take that next step to public policy and to policy making and lawmaking. I still feel that way and also in the time (since announcing campaign) after attending Legislature meeting and other meetings of the sort, I have come to realization that another part of the reason that I’m running is because there is, in my opinion, I’ve yet to confirm actually, inadequate representation of working class and low-income people on the Legislature.

And so the people who are making the laws, it appears to me, there could definitely be more representation from traditionally marginalized, low-income working class people like myself. Longtime renters who are the subjects of a lot of the legislation and the topics that are being discussed, such as affordable housing, I’m a person who struggles with affordable housing and I’m a person, who — I don’t think you need to experience all of these things, but I do think that adds something, to have a voice at the table of someone with that actual experience. And it’s not like I’ve experienced every single issue, but I do spend a lot of time in the trenches with people who do have a lot of these experiences, and I’m very tapped in to the receiving end of a lot of the services that are managed by the county legislature.

What do you think are the biggest issues facing Tompkins County?

I think there’s several issues that go hand in hand including affordable housing and the housing situation that affects people in different socio-economic levels and situations, including students, low-income recipients of Section 8 for example and other services like that and all the way to homeowners and renters. Then hand-in-hand with that there is the issue of transportation and access to services. Property taxes go with that as well, which is one of those issues, I don’t think any of us are going to present a solution necessarily to that, but it is an issue. In my first round of canvassing and campaigning, I asked what the biggest issue was and that was one that came up across the spectrum. It affects renters as well, whether they realize it or not because when you pay you’re rent, you’re paying into somebody’s property taxes as well.

And some of the issues that are coming up with the living wage across the county, and the issue of the jail and incarceration and the massive drug epidemic and how to deal with that affects community members throughout the county as well and I think also an issue that I don’t know if this is an official issue or how this is going to be dealt with, but an issue I constantly have is representation and participation of the public in policy making. Even in the articles I’ve read it discusses repeatedly how few people show up, how few people participate in the discussions that lead to lawmaking and I think, at least historically from the work I’ve done, it comes from both ends. Maybe people don’t show up but maybe not enough is being done to bring people to the table to make all of this accessible. And so that’s also part of my platform also of what I’m doing.

Whether I’m elected or not, the first thing I’m going to do is prepare a guide of how to run, what to do, simplifying and demystifying some of those elements of running for office. And not just running for office, but participating and getting to know local government and getting to know the county legislature and what it does. Why should you care? And how you can participate, whether it’s attending meeting and speaking at them to running for office yourself.

I don’t know if there’s more to say on this topic, but what issues do you think need more attention in Tompkins County?

Yeah those ones. I don’t know what more can be done, if anymore can be done, but it’s worth mentioning that we are living in the context of this federal government that is attacking immigrants and attacking undocumented people, people who come here to work and to live and to go to school and to try to live their lives. It’s not one of those issues that’s a county issue, but when ICE comes and picks people up, it feels like an issue for sure.

I’m a cultural organizer. A lot of it comes from the culture of the community we create together. Those are changes that come from the grassroots, but they can also be addressed through policy and lawmaking for sure.

Do you think any voices or community are underrepresented on Tompkins County Legislature?

Absolutely. That’s what I’m saying, if there’s one thing that really frustrates me is that the people who are affected by the services provided are not, from what I see, represented in the leadership of those (boards and committees in Tompkins County) and so you’re just over and over again receiving and what’s being decided about you. And it’s not to say they’re not at all represented, but it’s definitely a place that more work can be done. The onus is not just on individuals to find out about these meetings … but also to the organizers of those meetings and those of those circles to be more inclusive of people. And that’s for people of color, low-income people, people with disabilities across the spectrum. I don’t know every single demographic. Young people, old people. That’s one of the lessons I think that can come from community organizing and grassroots organizing that can be applied to local government, like in county government. Who’s at the leadership table? Who are the stakeholders? Who is being affected most and where are their voices?

…I also want to acknowledge the issue of the blue cards that came up in the (Government Operations Committee). I am supportive of having a more, less of a stringent policy of having to name yourself. A lot of LGBTQ people, people of color, different communities feel very in danger in those situations and I can certainly understand that.

What do you think the biggest gaps in housing are in Tompkins County?

My personal story is a desire for home ownership and being a low- to moderate-income person wanting to own a home. And seeing that as, if I won this election, I would not be able to buy a house because I can’t afford to buy a house in the third district. It’s like the only way you can afford a home is to become a landlord and to buy a property where you can rent part of that. That creates another one of these cultures where we’re all landlords if we want to own homes. Something about that just doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not the biggest issue, but it is an issue.

I’ve talked to people in my district who are not going to be able to afford their homes because of the property taxes. So affordability of home ownership is a big issue. Another really big issue that I’ve seen on another, that one is more personal to me, is an issue, there was recently a Human Health and Services Committee meeting where DSS gave a presentation and they were talking about temporary housing vouchers, emergency housing vouchers.

I, several years ago, experienced helping a couple women receiving those. … They were at that time, several years ago, there was no housing downtown. From my experience, it was like you better get in line for months. So the people I knew dealing with this emergency housing had to go live in a small, rural area outside. When I went and took them out there, it was dangerous. … It’s creating this situation where you’re in an emergency, you need to go live somewhere right away, and this is your only choice. And not only do you have to live in these unsafe and kind of slovenly living conditions, but there’s a few buses a day that will bring you to town. … It just creates this situation that’s really problematic.

I don’t know all that goes into checks and balances or regulation of that, but that seems like a real crisis.

What were some of your takeaways from the jail study?

I was glad that those were the results and not surprised. I’m not an expert on the topic, but I was in line with what a lot of us have been saying about focusing on alternatives to incarceration, on preventing people from entering the criminal justice system. Diversion programs and just keeping that head count low there. This is a main thread of all of my thoughts on a lot of these issues — if we can create the kind of communities and the kinds of cultures we wish to see in the world, then part of that is changing our views on who goes to jail and why and how often.

When someone is sent to jail, to prison, their life is change. Regardless of due process, they’re stigmatized. And everything is different. The way they view themselves is different, their chances for success and how they see themselves. One change in our culture in dealing with this can really help so many people. A lot of the people who go through the criminal justice system have drug problems. Dealing with some of those kinds of issues that bring you there in the first place, and in this community we’re grateful to have a lot of services in the community, and just continuing to work on those.

What is your stance on Tompkins County having a living wage?

I’m a total supporter of living wage. It’s something that definitely, what it comes down to for me is that people, I’m someone who cares deeply about undocumented workers, farm workers — whether undocumented or documented — people of color, who some of them are not going to be affected by this legislation because they’re not even counted as people. … People making a dignified living wage is something that is really important. I was asked by somebody — when you get into debates about this, it’s like ‘Well what about the businesses and small business?’ and I think it’s something that’s definitely worth sitting and talking about and working through with the goal of having people make a living wage in a timely manner, not in 10 years.

There’s people who say a lot of young people are working like teens, but really if you go to a lot of places, the people at the cash registers are people who are working multiple jobs. They’re not teens, they’re people trying to make enough and not having time to spend with their kids. The priority to me is that people make a decent wage so that they can live a quality of life that then allows them to go shopping, to spend their money locally, to participate in community building and to run for office and to do things like that.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.