February 2021 Student Spotlight
Ari Gershman, Executive MPA ’21
Marxe Executive MPA student and NYC Council Chief of Staff Ari Gershman talks LGBTQ+ activism, his interest in transportation initiatives, his role as Chief of Staff, and more.
How did you get involved in LGBTQ+ activism? What are some notable initiatives you’ve taken part in?
I have long felt a responsibility to do my part to advocate on behalf of my LGBTQ siblings and myself. I started at the local level, joining the LGBTQ Democratic Club of Queens and Queens Pride. I gradually took on more responsibility with both organizations, eventually serving in significant leadership roles.
In the Democratic club, I served as executive vice president for several years, working with club members to help elect candidates who supported marriage equality. We were instrumental in switching four Queens senators from opposing to supporting marriage equality (by replacing George Onorato with Michael N. Gianaris and Frank Padavan with Anthony P. Avella and getting Shirley L. Huntley and Joseph P. Addabbo to switch their positions). I was also part of the team that helped elect current city council finance chair Daniel P. Dromm in his groundbreaking 2009 race. Dromm bravely came out as an openly gay teacher in 1992, paving the way for so many LGBTQ New Yorkers to be out and proud in the workplace; he also started the Queens Pride parade in 1993 in response to the brutal antigay murder of Julio Rivera. I am proud to call Daniel P. Dromm a mentor and a friend.
I joined Queens Pride in 2005 and have been active in the pride movement ever since. I was the organization’s secretary for a few years and continue to work as a dedicated volunteer. Through Queens Pride, I have attended citywide, regional, and international pride conferences, connecting with colleagues around the world who are doing the life-saving work of bringing pride to communities across the globe. There are many places around the world where pride organizers face significant challenges and even threats to their safety; it is truly my honor to work with them and to support their efforts.
Tell us about your role as Chief of Staff for District 23 of the New York City Council. What are some of the most challenging aspects of the job you do?
As chief of staff, I am responsible for overseeing all operations of the city council office, including constituent services, community relations, legislation, budgeting, and communications. Since I have worked in the community since 2004 and at the council since 2010, I know people in city and state agencies, in the council’s central staff, and in the neighborhood, and they know me. Maintaining relationships over so many years often gives me the opportunity to interact with key individuals in a way that a newcomer might not be able to. I am privileged to serve a council member who brings decades of experience and a true passion for public service to his role, and I am grateful every day to the members of my staff, without whom my job would be impossible. Two aspects of the job are most challenging. First, the volume of inquiries that the office receives is quite high, and my priority is making sure to be responsive to every single person. Second, there are many situations that local government cannot address, and it can be frustrating to have to deliver that message to residents.
What made you decide to come back to school? What has your experience with the Marxe School and its Executive MPA program been thus far?
I have learned a tremendous amount working for the state and municipal legislatures, and I have a strong understanding of how local government works. As I begin to think about the next phase of my career, I want to equip myself with the knowledge and skills to take on a leadership or executive position. Having completed the first year of the program, I am so honored to have the opportunity to be a student in the Executive MPA program at the Marxe School. The quality of education is truly top-notch. I appreciate that the professors have real-world experience upon which to draw and that they consistently bring in guest lecturers who add timely and practical content to our curriculum.
Tell us about your interest in transportation issues. Obviously there are no shortage of critical transportation issues in and around New York City – what are some of the worst problems by your estimation and what do you think could be some potential solutions?
I have long been interested in transportation. The council district that I serve is the only one in the entire city without any train stations, so I am keenly aware of instances in which public transit fails to serve New Yorkers. Though the popular conception is that New Yorkers can go anywhere by subway, there are huge swaths of the city that have no subway service – they are known as transit deserts – and buses often get short shrift. The MTA started a much-needed bus redesign program but unfortunately was interrupted by the pandemic and now faces a crippling budget crisis. One solution to transit deserts is a plan called ride fair, which would allow riders to affordably access commuter rails that already run through underserved parts of the city; the idea, supported by a broad coalition of advocates, is starting to gain traction, and I hope to continue to work on it.