Community organizing: The path taken by District 26 candidate Steven Raga

Steve with powerhouse support from (left to right) Kinding Sindaw’s Potri Ranka Manis; Tess Abutanmo Dela Cruz, RN;
hate crime survivor Noel Quintana; community leader Myrna Gutierrez; Ambassador Mario de Leon; and Makilala TV’s Rachelle Ocampo (with baby).  Photo: Tess Abutanmo Dela Cruz, RN

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

Ever since Steven Raga was a young boy, he was always a people person.

He was born in Queens, New York where his father Andres Raga and his mother, Adela Cabildo Raga, were staying with her sister Dr. Mila Cabildo Liwanag, who immigrated to New York amid major reforms in the immigration laws in 1965.

But when he was 1 year old, his parents decided that his mother would remain in New York working as an administrator at St. Vincent’s Hospital. His father had gone back to the Philippines and stayed there until it was time to return as a lawful permanent resident, in which Steve followed.

Steve grew up in San Pablo, Laguna under the care of his father, as well as his Lolo and Lola on both sides of his parents. He was content and accepted the situation as the ordinary way of living.

His mom’s father Lolo Miguel was a businessman dealing with agriculture. There was always a large number of people working for him. Steve would come along meetings with the farmers and cargadores when his Lolo brought him to his farm. His dad’s father Lolo Félix was also a businessman owning street carts in different sections of the town selling groceries, soda, cigarettes, candies, a small portable Sari-Sari store. Steve remembers a photo of him as a 4-year-old beside one of these traveling carts.

His father was working in the local government office in Manila so Steve would visit him and feel comfortable with his father’s fellow employees. He was used to talking and mingling with employees, laborers, farmers, adults, especially since his caregivers were his Lola Melitona or Lola Pricilia. When he was 7 years old, his father and he came back to Queens, New York. Although Steve already finished kindergarten in a Laguna public school, he had to repeat kindergarten. He was also placed in the English as a Second Language Course. However, when Steve was in Grade 2, his father died of a rare disease. His mother had to earn double income to raise her only son. They moved several times around Queens, from Woodside to Bellrose, to New Hyde Park.

In high school, he was point guard in the school basketball team and was also a member of the Math Olympiad Club and school year book. He was selected out of 500 applicants into the Special BioMedical Engineering Program in his junior and senior years. Although he was accepted to Ivy League schools, for financial reasons, he and his mom decided to enroll him at Stony Brook University because of the lower tuition and that many of his high school classmates were also there.

Steve with parents Andres and Adela Raga and maternal grandparents in San Pablo, Laguna.

At school, he was a student leader, being the National Chairman of the Filipino Intercollegiate Network Dialogue (FIND). He was also elected president of Philippine United Students Organization (PUSO) and was elected into the Judiciary Council at Stony Brook to hear and recommend disciplinary actions on erring students.

While in college, he worked as an intern in Filipino American Historical Society Inc. (FAHSI) Later he became an intern with the Philippine Consulate under Consul General Cecile Rebong. At the same time, he was an intern with Philippine Forum, led by Robert Roy and Julia Camagong, a progressive leaning organization. In that way, he understood the views from the Left and from the Right of the political spectrum.

After graduating with a BA Political Science, he proceeded to study for an MA in Public Policy at Stony Brook University.

In June 2009, Steve founded UniPro (Pilipino American Unity for Progress) for young professionals in the New York Metropolitan Area. It still thrives among the young Filipino Americans across the country.

He was offered a scholarship to Cornell Law School. But after one year of study, he discontinued because he was disappointed at the dichotomy of what he was learning and the practice in real life. While at Cornell, Steve was the President of the Cornell Society for Asian American Graduate Affairs, and a member of both the Asian Pacific Americans for Action and the Cornell Filipino Association. Then Steve received a fellowship from the National Urban Fellows for people of color. It trained him to listen and to work for the underserved communities of color.

He enrolled at Baruch College for a degree in Masters in Public Administration. At the same time, he received a Full Time Fellowship at AARP in Washington D.C. For several years, he commuted every week between Washington D.C. for work at AARP and New York for his MPA studies, keeping both his apartments in Woodside and in D.C.

In 2012, then Ambassador Jose Cuisia and then Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, created the FYLPRO – or the Filipino Young Leaders Program — to acculturate Filipino Americans into the Philippines culture, art, history and people. Out of 500 applicants, Steve was selected one of 10 young FilAm leaders all over the USA, its first graduates to visit the Philippines for two weeks all expenses paid by the Philippine Embassy. Eventually, he joined AARP in charge of projects for multi-cultural communities and events among Black, Latino, and Asian Americans. He continued to commute between NYC and D.C.

In Woodside, where many Filipino restaurants are located, he helped organize a multi-sectoral group called the Defend Little Manila Coalition, which strongly opposed a planned construction of a 15-story commercial building that would have impacted the character and the small businesses of the neighborhood.

Steve and his group succeeded in opposing it and the planned construction was voted against by the Community Board, and later abandoned.

In 2016, he campaigned for Democrat Brian Barnwell as NY State Assemblyman for District 30 in Queens, who won. He was appointed the Chief of Staff. And in 2018 elections, Barnwell won again with better margins from the nearest opponent.

This year’s election presented him with an open seat for District 26 which covers Woodside, Sunnyside, Astoria, Long Island City where his extended family has lived since the 1960s. The incumbent City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer has served the maximum three terms.

Steve feels that it is time for him to serve the community which last year was hardest hit by the coronavirus. He recalls how at the height of the pandemic, for many nights, the neighborhood would be filled with ambulance’ sirens and helicopters hovering overhead. Elmhurst Hospital which was the epicenter of COVID-19 infection is just around the corner from his apartment.

In addition, Asian Americans have been targeted with violence in the subways, marketplace and public places. Therefore, after all his work to empower and assist his community and its working-class residents, Steve Raga says he is ready and now is the time to run for Councilor for District 26 in the New York City Council.

If he wins over 19 other candidates for councilor in this district, he would be the first Filipino American to win an electoral seat in the entire state of New York, let alone New York City. Primary elections for the Democratic Party ticket are slated for June 22, 2021.

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