This op-ed by Andrew Gillum, Director of Youth Leadership Programs, People For the American Way Foundation, was originally published at The Huffington Post.
In the quick unraveling of Rep. Aaron Schock's political career, some have questioned if Millennials are ready for Congress, but it’s wrong to conclude that Schock’s youth was the reason for his mistakes. And it’s even worse to write off young people as unfit for public office.
To the contrary, electing Millennials to public office has the potential to be tremendously beneficial to our country. As Tina Nguyen at Mediaite puts it “Hell, there needs to be more Millennials in Congress, but ones that demonstrate other millennial virtues — tech-savvy, ambitious, and striving to be self-sufficient.” I couldn’t agree more.
And while it’s easy to celebrate the potential that young people could bring to the business of governing, no one should think that it is only future “potential” that young people have. A quick look at communities around the country demonstrates the striking impact that young people in public office are already having. I know, because I see it up close every day. As Mayor of Tallahassee and as Director of Youth Leadership Programs for People For the American Way Foundation, I’ve collaborated with young elected officials who work diligently and effectively for their constituents and communities, while progress by their – literally – senior counterparts in Washington stalls. (This Congress has one of the oldest median ages on the books, so anyone who thinks that longer life experience is all it takes to be an effective legislator hasn’t been reading the news.)
While Congress’s inability to govern has been on display time and time again, I’m constantly amazed at the ability of young people at the state and local level to actually get things done. We don’t expect to see an increased federal minimum wage anytime soon, but young electeds have sponsored both living wage ordinances and minimum wage legislation across the country. One of our members, Rep. Matt Lesser, co-sponsored and successfully advocated for the historic minimum wage increase in Connecticut. A cohort of young electeds pushed for a minimum wage increase in Wisconsin tied to inflation.
Young legislators in Colorado have tackled what seem to be losing battles in Congress: universal pre-K and Head Start funding. Rep. Crisanta Duran sponsored a bill to provide affordable child care for low-income families, and Rep. Dominick Moreno helped create the “Breakfast After the Bell” legislation that now gives more than 80,000 kids free breakfast in Colorado, a state where one in five children experience hunger.
And across the country, young people in public office bring innovative solutions to the problems their communities face. Nebraska State Senator Amanda McGill has worked on initiating telehealth services in schools. Cambridge Councilman Leland Cheung created incentives for start-ups in mixed use zoning areas. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak in Pittsburgh has championed open data and transparent government.
Everywhere I go, I meet people of every age eager to tell me about some extraordinary young elected official they know, as if that experience is unique to their community. It’s up to me to tell them that dedicated, effective young people in government aren’t the exception in communities across the country — they’re the rule.
In all 50 states, young people are offering new perspectives and outside-the-box solutions. In a country that’s seemingly more divided than ever, we need more young people lending their voice and stepping up for public service. Don’t look to Aaron Schock as the face of young politicians – look in your own backyard.