By Mara Zuniga
Athens is a beautiful town with diversity and wonderful people.
Having been raised in New York and living there for many years, I experienced a high level of problems, but also a high level of achievements that come with life in a major cosmopolitan city. Coming from such a diverse city, I was more focused on policy issues than party politics. Concerns and determining factors of my vote were not merely about who was running the show, but rather who had presented the better policies for the voters.
Athens reminds me of a small New York City with its restaurants, music, and arts. Albeit it has its share of problems, as do all growing cities. Athens’ charm, achievements, artistic environment, and diverse culture far outweigh the drawbacks. It’s for those very characteristics that we must consider the downfalls and hold those in charge accountable.
I’ve lived in Athens for 15 years as a mother, wife, property owner, and business owner. These past few years have exposed a number of emerging issues and concerns that heightened the city’s inevitable growing pains. The more I got involved in the public schools and the community, the clearer the problems became.
One of the major problems I have found and experienced is the disconnect our local government has with the community. The second major problem is how fragmented our community has become. There is vast discontent from an array of voices, from different racial or ethnic backgrounds to different political ideologies, to different socio-economic levels.
I have tried to rally people to make their voices heard, but within them exists a level of fear of
retribution from some local officials and their bands of social media bullies, as though you cannot be both ethical and have opposing views. The consensus, I fear, is you are either with those local government officials or against them. If you are critical towards them, you will likely be targeted by their followers on social media, disparaged at public meetings as they have done in the past, or trolled and possibly reputationally destroyed you. This goes for all sides. I have gone to City Hall several times to voice my concerns as a resident of Athens and have seen others go and voice their concerns as well. The ones heard are the same ones that appear to be in the inner circle of friends that some of these local officials seem to have. I see the same journalists and commentators speak on behalf of or for these local officials way too often.
I, like many others, have been hoping for someone who would bring change and balance to our local government to run for the position of mayor. I decided to run because I know I can bring innovative solutions. I am happy that so many of us have come forth to run. The quantity of people running alone is indicative of the level of dissatisfaction there is in the current government and the lack of leadership from the Mayor.
These officials claim to be progressive and view themselves as champions of minorities. But take note that it is not coincidental that a majority of minorities are entering the commissioner and mayoral races, which is huge. It’s time to analyze this.
There are things that these progressive government leaders are not addressing, especially in the minority and business communities. This is motivating citizens, like myself, to step out and enter the political arena. None of us are politicians. I’ve already been attacked by one of our mayor’s “progressive” supporters who has a blog, website, and social media. How can you be pro-minority yet condescending when their views and existence do not align with your own? It’s appalling to be called a right-wing extremist. I am sorry to disappoint him- but I am not. He has never interviewed or spoken to me in person. His credibility is lost with the spread of misinformation. I have lived under a Democrat-majority in office, and I have lived under it quite harmoniously.
These are days of hateful politics, where even someone like him can have an audience and assumptions can be taken as fact as long as emotional hype can confer.
This is not uncommon, especially with people who lack the skill of a true journalist. A local publication recently printed an article attributing quotes to me that were inaccurate and again labeled me as a Republican activist. I am sorry to disappoint them, for I’m not a Republican activist. Again, I am an issue voter and hence, an issue activist. When elections come, I don’t care if a candidate is Democrat or Republican. I care only about what they intend to do for the community, and I would certainly hope that all voters would ask questions and vote for candidates that have the community’s progress in mind.
All this being said, I am someone who is unafraid to step into places that I’m not familiar with in order to learn more. You might see me talking to Republicans, but you will also see me speaking with Democrats, Independents, Marxists, Social Democrats, etc. No one in this town will bully me into selecting who I speak with, where I go, and what I do for the sake of learning about the composition of my community, especially not through tactics of bullying. Minorities have put up with that for far too long. I talk to mothers, fathers, students, the employed, the unemployed, Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, Europeans, whites, etc. This is what I bring to Athens. I listen to people, and I genuinely care. Just as I understand our differences, I see the similarities and the parts of our longings that fit perfectly within the insides of a Venn diagram.
Here are some similarities that Athenians share: They care about each other regardless of their differences. The solutions may differ, but our hearts are in the same place. Athenians do not want to play party or performative politics. Athenians want fair politics, which means politics that bring solutions to the whole community, not just a faction or friends of that faction.
We have a steady 28%+ poverty rate, and while we have more bike trails, gardens, and money going to certain organizations and people, while the poor remain poor and with no more resources than when these local officials took office. There is an outrageous amount of money being spent on things that are not necessarily essential for this time, given the poverty rate and lack of resources for all parts of Athens. Follow the money people say, except there is no transparency in which to follow it. We as citizens don’t have a clear picture of where the money goes, and there are many who share this opinion as well. The streets have gotten dirtier, and criminals are being arrested and set free almost immediately. We have a gang problem, and to top it all the unsheltered population is increasing because of the local government’s unsustainable actions and policies. We are relieving other counties of their social welfare responsibilities and placing that burden on Athens’ taxpayers, where there are no sustainable venues for people to grow.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I have lived through gang problems. Engaging our youth in recreational activities, within the school and after school, will keep our youth from opting to seek membership into such destructive affiliations. I had friends in my high school who used to be gang members (The High School of Art & Design). They were young men from rough neighborhoods and were accepted into this specialized high school because of their talent for art. This school had zero tolerance and set expectations from all its students giving everyone some semblance of direction. This led to the success of many of its students, including those who were formerly involved with gangs or gang-related activities. One of my friends is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, where he teaches Hip-Hop dance/movements. Pop Master Jorge Pabon is a perfect example of how someone went from gang life to famous entertainer, businessman, and professor: https://www.nextlevel-usa.org/pop-master-fabel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWx3grC0sCE
My other friend who had been in a gang works for a prestigious marketing company on 5th Avenue. All that remains from the gang affiliations of their youth are their jackets and their friends that also pulled away that way of life. My
friends growing up in New York were gang members, punk rockers, hip-hop artists, break break-dancers and graffiti artists, all of whom were rich, middle class, and poor; and all from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. When we spoke of problems that related to our lives and our community, being part of a political party never came up. It makes for better problem-solving.
In the coming days you will see my platform cultivate. It will outline the problems and possible
solutions for government transparency, safety for the UGA and Athens communities, initiatives to help the unsheltered population, youth opportunities (in work development and entrepreneurship), and promoting both knowledge and resources to prepare a path towards financial independence and homeownership.
I support local businesses, small businesses, and community pride in our city. I support cleanliness for ALL parts of Athens. No one, especially a child, should come out into their neighborhood regardless of financial background to see a dirty street. I support the elder people in our community, who are facing challenges that pertain to their age group, but feel their needs are not being addressed by our local government.
These are all very serious issues, which should not be minimized by the distraction of personal attacks. By attacking me, these inner-circle supporters of the mayor and some commissioners influence news outlets and use social media to very blatantly go against their own beliefs of defending and fighting for minorities. That is utter and unarguably hypocrisy at its peak. I would hope that as adults I, alongside my running mates, can engage in discussing very important issues in a civil manner.
I am running for the people who do not, or feel they do not, have a voice in this town. From all areas of this town, and all identities, I am here to address their concerns. I urge the concerned residents of Athens, from all walks of life, to unite and silence these attackers and instead focus on the issues that matter most.