Taped above the desk in Destiny Hallenbeck’s bedroom is a quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
“Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Since graduating as valedictorian of Chatham High School in 2018, Hallenbeck ’22 is doing her best to live up to that mantra.
She was elected to her town’s school board in June 2020. Her victory came so soon after graduating that she still calls her teachers by their proper names when doing business for the board.
She served nearly two years as president of the College Democrats of New York, the official statewide college student branch of the Democratic Party. Her members made 51,723 calls and created 78 phone banks to support candidates up and down the ballot in the last election cycle.
Now, her passion, energy and motivation for public service is focused on winning a seat on the town board in her hometown of Chatham, N.Y., a picturesque town of 4,200 at the northern edge of the Hudson River Valley.
Hallenbeck has managed to accomplish all of this while thriving at Union. A history major, she is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, the National History Honor Society. Last spring at Prize Day, she was awarded the Joseph D. Doty Prize, presented annually to the junior or senior who, in the judgment of the Department of History, has done work of outstanding merit.
“Not only is she an outstanding and engaged student in the classroom, but she’s doing all of that while giving back to her community,” said Andy Morris, associate professor of history.
Hallenbeck announced her candidacy for town board on May 17, her birthday. Some of the state’s top Democrats joined her for the campaign launch, including state Senators Michelle Hinchey and Samra Brouk, and Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), jumped in on Zoom to offer his support, serenading her with “Happy Birthday.”
Shortly before she took over as governor of New York, Kathy Hochul endorsed Hallenbeck, saying, “You are inspiring young people to say, ‘You know what, I have a voice, and I don’t have to wait to run for office.’”
Hallenbeck’s path to politics started following her first year at Baruch College in New York City. When her mother became ill, Hallenbeck’s priorities shifted and she transferred to Union to be closer to home.
She decided she wanted to stay in Chatham, which includes many weekenders from downstate who own second homes there.
“I looked at the housing market and thought, wow, this doesn’t work for people like me,” she said. “The average income in Chatham is $27,000, but the average price of a house now is over a half million dollars.
Hallenbeck calls herself a pragmatic progressive. She has made affordable housing a central part of her campaign, hoping to preserve the sense of community for a town a resident once described in the New York Times as a place where neighbors “fix the potholes in your driveway.”
She is one of four candidates seeking two open seats on the town board. The other three candidates are in their 50s. At 21 years old and “barely 5-feet tall,” Hallenbeck works hard to convince residents she is a legitimate candidate.
“If I had a dollar for every person who has said, ‘Are you old enough to run for office?’ I could pay off my student loans,” she said.
Yet having lived and worked in Chatham for most of her life, Hallenbeck is able to connect with potential voters.
“I’ve been your babysitter, your server in a restaurant or your house cleaner,” she tells them.
Hallenbeck makes the 66-mile roundtrip commute to campus several days a week. These days, her red Toyota Corolla is littered with campaign palm cards, lawn sides and to-go bags.
When not in class, Hallenbeck keeps busy making calls, texting voters and introducing herself at community events back home. Her bedroom and her mother’s kitchen table serve as her campaign headquarters.
Hallenbeck is appreciative for her professors, who, if she comes to class and looks exhausted, do not ask questions. She is also grateful for her Union experience.
“I would not be who I am without Union,” said Hallenbeck. “I’m a scrappy kid that got into a private school. Union has helped give me the confidence that I can run for office and that I can win.”
Regardless of the outcome on Nov. 2, Hallenbeck plans to pursue her master’s in public administration. She became interested in the idea of public service as an eight-year-old following Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 2008. She devoured biographies about powerful women who could make a difference.
Hallenbeck was reminded of her ambitions when, at a recent campaign event, a woman asked if she could introduce her daughter to the candidate.
“She told me wanted her daughter to meet a strong woman,” Hallenbeck said. “I was so moved. I got in my car and bawled. It felt like I had come full circle.”