Jacob Testa, Director of Clarity Compliance and Deputy Title IX Coordinator in the Bard Office for Gender Equity, won a seat on the Red Hook Town Board on November 5. With connections to both Bard and Red Hook, Testa’s campaign represented how civic engagement and involvement in local politics can bridge gaps between communities.
Before moving to the Office for Gender Equity, Testa worked in the Office of Residence Life & Housing for two years beginning in 2015. Testa’s responsibilities in both offices have allowed him to work with students, something he has found rewarding since working as an RA in college.
“I’ve always really liked being at a school, whether that’s growing up or being in college or being in grad school. I like the culture of learning. I like working with people who are working towards something,” Testa said.
In addition to his experience working with students, Testa said he gained a transferable set of skills by attaining a law degree from William and Mary law school.
Though he is not a lawyer, Testa said that his work at Bard often involves critical thinking and problem solving. He also said that working with the Office for Gender Equity allows him to use his institutional knowledge to help students find the resources they need.
“So whenever we’re actually in the room with someone [at the Office for Gender Equity] it’s counseling to a degree,” Testa said. “It’s not practicing law, but it’s a lot of the same skills about being able to talk people through their options and try to help them make a decision; you can help them with it. You can empower them to do that.”
Testa always aspired to run for office growing up. His decision to run for town board was connected to his experience and skill set at Bard and the political landscape after the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
“[Running for office,] it’s service; it’s getting involved in the government; it’s helping your community, and a lot of that is tied to some of the work I did in housing, some of the work I do in the Office for Gender Equity,” Testa said. “Also the political climate of the past few years[…] thinking about what comes after something that I think has been bad for the country and a lot of people within our community, particularly here at Bard where we have more people that are people of color, we have people that are LGBTQ, plenty of women. You know, thinking about ways to mitigate some of that harm on a local level.”
Testa said that his involvement in local politics as well as his growing connection with Red Hook helped him decide that now was the time to run. After engaging his interest in politics by volunteering with the 2018 congressional race, Testa said he felt ready to get politically engaged in his own community.
“The involvement [with the congressional campaign] made it a little bit more tangible and now that I’ve been around this community for four years and change [..] it feels like I’m at the point now where I can take that first step,” Testa said.
Having grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania, Testa said that he felt connected to the Red Hook area since he visited Bard for the first time.
“When I came for the campus visit, you know, it felt like a place that was home” he said. “It just like kind of clicked. […] It felt more like where I grew up even though [my hometown] is 6 or 7 hours away.”
Testa said that he saw his connection to both Bard and Red Hook, along with his age, as a selling point for his campaign.
“I think […] having that connection to Bard is appealing,” he said. “I think that it is important to have diversity on the board. We are running a slate of six white men but you know, I’m young […] I’m half the age of some of the people on the board. So that’s something that I think is important, to have young people be heard and my career has been working with young people. And that’s also one of the things that, one of my main focuses is having that be the representation that I provide.”
Considering the influence of Bard on the Red Hook community, Testa said that it is worth having someone on the town board who understands the Bard community’s contributions to the town’s economy and culture. One of the most prominent issues on his mind is housing and how the town can make it easier for members of the Bard community to continue their lives in the area.
“[Bard is] bringing people from all around the world that are really talented that are getting a world class education, and then leaving […] and taking the value they’ve gotten out of Bard elsewhere. And that’s great […] I want people from Bard all around the world, but it’d also be nice for some [members of the community]–maybe they lived here for four years and love the Hudson Valley and want to stick around–to be able to choose to do that, and to be able to choose to do that in Red Hook,” Testa said.
On the experience of running for town board, Testa said that knocking on doors and talking with people one-on-one about the campaign was the most rewarding for him.
“I think that [canvassing] is probably the most valuable piece of running for office,” he said. “Like, if I could not go to the community events and I could not print the mailers and send all that stuff out, I would rather just get out and talk to people, and do it in a way that’s one on one.”
In the midst of a heating up presidential primary and impeachment proceedings, Testa said that as a local candidate it is at times hard to compete with flashy national political issues. However, the local elections are where votes truly count.
“Whenever you think about what’s actually happening in your local community, your vote’s worth more voting in a local election just because the voting pool is so small,” Testa said. “And it’s actually the people that are going to have the opportunity to do something for you, directly.”
Overall, Testa said that local politics and civic engagement provide many opportunities for investing in one’s community. In his words, running for office is “being engaged as I should be.”
“I feel like all of this comes back to having some sort of connection or investment in your community and that looks different for different people, but you know, the more you can promote that I think the better the outcome is,” Testa said.