Vivian Cook started learning what it meant to be a leader when she was a small girl.
Many family members were looked up to in her community – homeowners who were active in civil rights and other expressions of civic duty – but it was her grandmother who taught her one of the foundational principles that put her on her own path toward leadership.
“You have to be able to stand up for your beliefs and you don’t have to back down,” Cook said.
Outside her family, Cook had many real life lessons in courage as well. Growing up in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, she saw and was involved in front-line activism from an early age. She even met the movement’s icon, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Those experiences taught her about civic responsibility and that asking questions is one of the most important parts of being a leader, she said.
“It just made you want to be in the middle of things,” Cook said. “It made you want to keep your mouth going.”
With such strong figures shaping her youth, it’s no wonder that Cook got involved in the community after coming to New York.
Shortly after buying her first home in Jamaica, Queens, Cook started showing up at meetings around issues related to projects at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was at one of those meetings that, after standing up and voicing her concerns, she was told by a man that she should let others handle the discussion. That didn’t happen, as she was quick to let him know that she owned her home and would certainly be speaking for herself.
“It caused me to get involved, because there were people speaking for me and I didn’t like what they were saying,” Cook said.
From there Cook got involved with the local Democratic Party, becoming a district leader in Queens County, an assemblywoman and a member of the Democratic National Convention. Her work in the Assembly over the last 25 years, which has focused on education, economic development and the battle against drug addiction, has earned her dozens of awards.
Moving forward, Cook sees many challenges ahead, particularly in the likely battles the state will have with the federal government. She cited President Donald Trump’s temporary ban of travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations as a good example.
New York, as the home of Ellis Island, has long been a haven for the world’s immigrants and refugees, and there will be resistance from many of the state’s leaders, she said.
“We have to understand that this country was built by immigrants,” she said. “We have been a place that opened the door and welcomed people to come and live in our country, live here without being in war zones.”
As Cook sees it, the country is moving away from some of its core values.
“It seems like there’s something going on in this country and we’ve forgotten that people matter,” she said. “We’re going to have to be concerned about people, young people, all people.”
Even if national politics look messy right now, there are opportunities in New York state to advance important initiatives. While the relationship between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature is not perfect, there is an opportunity for everyone to sit down together and come to a consensus to make progress, she said.
“It’s a give and take,” Cook said. “You have to learn people and you have to sit down and have dialogue with them. But I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Going forward, Cook said she will faithfully return to the lessons she learned from her family and community as new challenges arise.
“It’s a privilege for me to sit here in this office and be able to work with people, stand up and give my opinion on what I believe in,” she said.