ITHACA, N.Y. –– Veronica Pillar is a teacher and a community organizer — and, after announcing her candidacy on Jan. 10, could be a Tompkins County Legislator representing District 2, a zone that includes Fall Creek, Cornell Heights, and the area between University and Stewart Avenues. 

If elected, Pillar would fill the seat of Anna Kelles, who left the legislature in order to start her tenure with the state Assembly. The special election is set to take place March 23.

After approximately 10 years spent in Ithaca, Pillar now works as a physics and math teacher at Cascadilla School and as an adjunct professor at Tompkins Cortland Community College. She said that attending community meetings like recent ones on reimagining public safety made her notice a strain on the relationship between community members and the local government — a key issue she hopes to mend in office.

“(There’s) some frustration from community members at how constrained the communication process is and (…) a divide between the public and the government, as if sometimes they’re in opposition instead of collaborating,” Pillar said. “If I get elected, I could be at least a important part of a bridge between community and government and shift what that relationship looks like.”

Representing District 2 would mark Pillar’s first time in public office. Rather than politics, Pillar has lead in community organizations like the Tompkins County chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the Tompkins County Antiracist Coalition and Mutual Aid Tompkins.

On Pillar’s list of issues to address, protections for human rights shines the brightest, with accessibility to affordable housing and broadband internet for the community highest in her priorities, she said. To foster a connected, honest relationship with community members, she said she would send out regular newsletters and plan Zoom calls to hear concerns from the community. Office hours come naturally to her as a teacher, she said.

A graduate of Cornell University’s PhD program in physics, the reason she came to Ithaca in the first place, Pillar said that her background in science speaks to her reasoning behind running.

“What I’m committed to is the grassroots community, centering voices of poor people, black, brown, indigenous people, and people who are struggling the most,” Pillar said. “I do like to focus on evidence-based reasoning. That doesn’t mean there have to be numbers attached. People’s lived experience is evidence. But that’s how I think about things, is gather input, do research, make decisions based on that.”

Ellen Jackson, a SURJ member alongside Pillar and now a campaign advisor, agreed about her colleague’s cerebral nature and added that she was initially struck by Pillar’s intelligence and thoughtfulness when she first met her. 

“She’s constantly zooming out to evaluate the decisions that (SURJ is) making as a group and contextualizing our work within the broader landscape of racial justice organizing,” Jackson said. 

“She’s spirited and speaks up when she feels there’s an important question or point worth discussing. She’s very convicted. She’s got a really clear sense of her values, and she’s not afraid to be vocal about those.”

Though serving in public office comes with its caveats, Pillar said she feels confident in her choice to bring justice to her community by operating within local government.

“I could be spending more time thinking outside that structure, like ‘What else can we do that doesn’t need government? Could we even rethink the whole structure of it?’” she said. “I’m choosing to not focus on that but focus on accepting the structure of the government as it is. (…) And that is a limitation, but it’s a limitation I’m choosing because I believe there’s a lot of power there and in particular immediate power to change how people are living.”