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CALLICOON, NY — On the porch outside of Matthew’s on Main, Dana Borowski is searching for the right words.
She stops several times mid-sentence, while describing the demographics of Sullivan County or talking about the current political climate, to question herself: “What am I trying to say?”
Borowski, who became Executive Director of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission (HRC) in April, is prepared to deal with hefty issues. For this, she knows that words are important. Words have always been important. Today—if a millennial could dare to venture any kind of historical comparative—words are perhaps more important than ever. The way we refer to each other—to sexuality, gender, race, identity—is in constant evolution. One would like to think that we’re getting closer to being more right. More kind. More empathetic.
But it’s hard to tell.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think there are some people who just stick their foot in their mouth and don’t realize they’re doing it,” Borowski says. “You need to be aware of what you’re saying. And just because you don’t realize you’re saying it, doesn’t make it right… Why are we afraid to point that out? Why are we afraid to say, ‘That was not OK?’”
With her new title, it’s no longer possible for the 23-year-old to be just Dana from Hortonville who likes to rescue Persian cats. Now she answers to her community. Even if Borowski could afford to be blunt, she probably wouldn’t. An old friend of hers told me, lovingly, that she was always a “stickler.” Borowski is cognizant of language, believing, it seems, that it’s best employed responsibly.
In talking about a hair discrimination event HRC Commissioner Shanita Artson is planning for August, Borowski stumbles over pronouncing the word Hijab. Instead of butchering it, she admits that she forgets the correct pronunciation. “Part of my job is to communicate,” she says. “And I take it seriously.
Much of what she does is based on understanding the reality of the world, and then translating that reality to a population.
“A big part of what we do is the educational aspect,” she says of her position at the HRC. “So what is gender equity? What does being trans mean? What is it like to be an ‘illegal immigrant?’ Well, are ‘illegal immigrants’ actually here illegally? Or were they here legally, and then their Green Card ran out?...What is implicit bias?...What are restorative practices? And how can they affect human rights? How can they change the outlook of the future?”
More and more, human rights is a study on how we talk about humans. Political correctness in speech—the correct use of a person’s pronouns, for instance—is a forefront concern for much of Borowski’s generation. The blowback has been the election of a president whose supporters appreciate his unfiltered, at times flippant, attitude toward language.
“I think the current political climate has a lot to do with why people are either more afraid, or more willing, or more ambitious,” Borowski says.
In college, Borowski changed her major four times before eventually deciding on political science and economics. She spent a year at Elmira University and the rest at Binghamton University. She tried out straight politics, interning with Sen. Chuck Schumer. She got pretty far into the process of becoming an intern with the FBI—which requires taking a lie detector test, among other invasive tasks—and then decided it wasn’t for her. She wanted to be a professor for a time (she still might). It seems that what Borowski enjoys most is the learning process, both for herself and others. She still writes research papers in her free time. “I’ve always wanted to plant seeds and watch them grow,” she says. “And I’ve always wanted to challenge myself and others to be better.”
Borowski doesn’t recall being particularly interested in human rights issues until she transferred to Binghamton her sophomore year, when a 13-year-old boy was shot at a mini-mart near her apartment.
“That was a bitter pill to swallow… I’d been ignoring politics, I’d been ignoring human rights, I’d been ignoring issues such as gay marriage and rising crime rates and school shootings,” she said.
Borowski began working on projects that promoted financial literacy to underrepresented populations. She volunteered with Student Support Services at Binghamton, a program for first-generation students, low-income and minority groups aimed at assisting in the college-degree process. She participated in the College Fed Challenge, in which teams of students analyze economic conditions and make speeches at the Federal Reserve on monetary policy. She took on political science and started considering American politics comparatively.
As words like “dictatorship” and “totalitarianism” were suddenly being tossed around in relation to U.S. politics, Borowski studied their meanings elsewhere. She looked into case examples in Turkey and Russia and assisted with three different research projects, one of which focused on gerrymandering and voting bias in New York and Michigan.
Professor Kenneth Christianson said that in his 35 years of teaching, Borowski was one of his best students. “Dana has a profound love of learning,” he said. During the pair’s frequent talks about her work in Sen. Schumer’s office, replying to constituent complaints and concerns, Christianson said Borowski “seemed to relish her ability to help others navigate through the political process.”
In her new position, Borowski is constantly learning. A Juneteenth information session at the Ted Strobele Center featured speakers reading about the importance of remembering the day when slavery was formally abolished. Borowski , sitting at the HRC table, nodded. She laments never learning about the day in school. Perhaps the subject was too fragile, or teachers didn’t think it applied to the pupils in front of them.
“You have to stand up and have those conversations no matter how hard they are,” she says. “If you choose to ignore the things that are happening around you, you can’t implement change.”