“Be a Hero,” Urges ALS-Afflicted Activist

Ady Barkan ’06 has strong opinions. As the program director at The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), he’s committed to righting the inequities he sees in our democracy. During the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Barkan lobbied against the nomination and stood with fellow activists at Congress while sexual assault survivors shared their stories. His October 2018 op-ed in The Nation called on his fellow citizens to unite as activists and movement builders — to go beyond the ballot box and “solve [problems] with people power.”

a man in a wheelchair surrounded by activists

Ady Barkan ’06 (center) at the Los Angeles Supports a Dream Act Now! protest at the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on January 3, 2018.

Gabriel Olsen / Getty Images

But Barkan is running out of time to fight. He suffers from ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Diagnosed in 2016, the disease has steadily depleted his nervous system and robbed him of the ability to communicate verbally. Yet Barkan appears indefatigable; he tirelessly campaigned all of last summer for the “Be A Hero” initiative, appearing at rallies and mobilizing voters to “be heroes” by backing progressive candidates supporting affordable and accessible health care.

During the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Barkan was arrested for protesting in the Capitol building, but others relayed his appeal: “I have ALS. I am dying. But when we come together, our voices echo so loud through the halls of Congress, out to the Supreme Court, up Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way to Wall Street.” Barkan later went viral when he confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) on a plane, imploring him to “think about the legacy that you will have ... If you take your principles and turn them into votes, you can save my life.” Flake tweeted about the exchange, thanking Barkan for healthy debate on the issue.

Barkan says that when he arrived at Columbia, his politics were more traditionally centrist Democrat. But as the Iraq War devolved from “mission accomplished” into disarray, he saw friends joining protests and was perturbed by the funneling of funds into war rather than into public programs. Inspired by courses with famed economists Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, he began to view progressive economic policy as a curative for bias in health care and education.

Barkan’s first job out of college was as communications director for Democrat Victoria Wulsin, a longshot congressional candidate in the Republican stronghold of Cincinnati. He pitched press coverage, wrote speeches and prepared the candidate for debates. “‘People before politics,’ he came up with that,” Wulsin told the Ohio weekly CityBeat. “Other people have said it, but it’s sort of his brand.”

The last two years have been filled with challenges for Barkan as his health deteriorated and the political losses piled on. “We lost the tax fight, we failed to get DACA renewed and, of course, we lost the Kavanaugh fight,” he laments.

But he’s been spurred on by fellow activists and average citizens he has met touring the country. And his young son has served as an inspiration, as well. “I especially enjoy talking with him as his language develops, watching how his mind works.”

Barkan’s perennial optimism bleeds into his message: “Political outcomes are not predetermined. By being involved, we can change what happens.”