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.
Protesters throughout the nation have come out to march and peacefully protest the unjust criminal system that led to Michael Brown being gunned down in Missouri on August 9, including members of the People For the American Way Foundation family.
In Missouri, two members of PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network have taken key roles speaking out for justice. State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal and Alderman Antonio French were both part of the protests in Ferguson; Chappelle-Nadal was tear-gassed, and French was arrested. Other members of the YEO Network have also been organizing national petitions, marching, buying food and water for protestors, trying to dissuade looting, among other things.
Chappelle-Nadal, elected in 2010, represents part of St. Louis County in the Missouri Senate. She has been vocal in her criticism of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and his response to the crisis in her community.
“I never expected to represent a war zone,” she tweeted Thursday.
French, on the other hand, has been documenting the protests through “advocacy journalism.” Born and raised in O’Fallon, French has dedicated his time in public service to improving the quality of life in north St. Louis, often working in conjunction with police to create safer spaces.
During the protests last Wednesday, French was arrested and then released early Thursday, but the reason behind the arrest remained unclear. His arrest, along with his work documenting the protests, have made him a “national voice against the militarization of police.”
In Miami, another PFAW Foundation voice joined the protests. Young People For alum Phillip Agnew, founder of the Dream Defenders, organized a similar demonstration to protest how “police departments around the country will continue to use black and brown bodies for target practice.”
Many Americans are appalled at the actions taken by law enforcement officials in Ferguson, Missouri this month. PFAW Foundation is proud of the work being done by members of our leadership networks to build a more equal America.
A successful movement begins with a plan for change. People For the American Way’s plan is simple: identify people with an interest and a passion for service who represent the diversity of their communities, equip them with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary for success, and offer long-term support and access to a network of like-minded leaders.
This summer’s primary elections prove this plan is not just theoretical. It stands up to the test. Its success can be seen last week in the state of Michigan — a prime battleground for state and national issues ranging from marriage equality to workers’ rights to women’s rights — where a group of young, progressive leaders won their primary elections.
One candidate for a Michigan House of Representatives seat is Jon Hoadley. He’s an openly-gay man, 30 years old, who is running for office for the first time. He’s also an alumnus of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Youth Leadership Programs – Young People For and the Front Line Leaders Academy. Last week Hoadley won his primary race for the District 60 seat in the Michigan State House of Representatives and, if he wins the general election in November, will become a member of the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network.
And Hoadley is in good company. Last month PFAW Action Fund endorsed a slate of young progressive candidates through the Young Elected Progressives endorsement program. Together they represent a progressive direction for the state. PFAW is proud to support these leaders as they move towards the general election in November or toward future efforts to advance progressive values in Michigan.
If the 2014 primary elections and the slate of candidates, including Hoadley, running for office this year are an indication of the payoff of PFAW’s investment in young leaders, then we are off to a great start. It shows that what we have works. We’ve made real change. But it also proves the necessity of continued investment in progressive infrastructure to make a difference on these critical issues, now and in the long term.
We’re at a time when the influence of money in politics goes unchecked, access to the ballot box is challenged, and the far Right is becoming increasingly extreme, intolerant, and out of touch. The individuals endorsed in PFAW’s Young Elected Progressives campaign are standing up to defend and lead with the values of freedom, fairness, and equality for all.
The following is a guest post by Roeland Park Councilwoman Megan England, member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
Before a city council vote last week in Roeland Park, Kansas, it was legal in our town to refuse or terminate housing, services, or employment for someone on the basis of who they are or who they love. I didn’t believe that our community would tolerate this kind of treatment for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors and friends. As a councilmember, I felt the obligation to ensure that everyone — regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or military status — has the opportunity to live, work, and contribute here.
This spring, Councilwoman Jennifer Gunby and I introduced a non-discrimination ordinance providing protections for the LGBT community and others. This seemed like the right thing to do for many reasons. First, it’s fair and just. It shows that our town, like so many others, values diversity and inclusion. It highlights the shared values of our community. It’s good for our economy, since it attracts businesses and visitors who want to feel that everyone is welcome in our town. It supports a strong and productive workforce and happier, healthier communities. What’s more, many of our neighboring towns were already a few steps ahead of us. Cities like Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri have had similar non-discrimination protections for over 20 years. In every corner of the country, cities and towns are increasingly understanding the importance of passing laws that prevent discrimination. And we were thrilled last week when Roeland Park finally did, too.
However, we still face an uphill battle in the larger fight for equality. In my work on this ordinance, I’ve learned that many people — even members of the press — are still unaware of the lack of federal protections in place for the LGBT community. There’s no end in sight to congressional gridlock in Washington, and it may be a while before our state of Kansas has the leadership necessary to wipe discrimination from the books. My hope is that other local elected officials will realize, like I did, that they have the power to make a simple but profound change in the lives of those they are sworn to represent. While change may be slow nationally, at the local level we have a tremendous opportunity to protect and serve our constituents, and to drive progress and innovation.
When Councilwoman Gunby and I began this process, we thought change might come quickly; we didn’t expect five months of revisions, public hearings, and tense discussions. While much longer and more difficult than we imagined, I now realize the importance of that process. It reaffirmed my respect for the political process. I saw the benefits of engaging the community in a critical dialogue, and in bringing light to the issue week after week. In some of the more difficult moments, when I wasn’t sure that the ordinance would ultimately pass, I wondered if it had all been worth it. One local transgender man answered that for me by sharing the story of how speaking publicly for the first time and simply telling his personal story encouraged young trans people to reach out to him for support and guidance. It was this act of kinship, of humanity and community, that reinforced for me the importance of the process no matter the outcome.
When focused on the big picture, we sometimes fail to see the smaller impacts of our work, the daily reverberations. But now, with both the ordinance in place and many conversations started, our community is all the better for it.
Andrew Gillum is the Director of Youth Leadership Programs at People For the American Way Foundation.
Julián Castro, current mayor of San Antonio, was just confirmed in the Senate by a 71-26 vote to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department. Castro, one of the earliest members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, is the first to become a Cabinet member.
I remember meeting Julián at our very first YEO convening in 2006, and being impressed with his passion to serve and better his community in Texas. We are incredibly proud of Julián and excited to see what he’ll accomplish in this new position. His proven leadership in fostering urban revitalization and economic growth make him a natural fit for this position, where he will be able to combat homelessness and help secure access to affordable, quality housing for more Americans.
Julián’s confirmation yesterday demonstrates how supporting young elected officials in our movement can reap tremendous results. I often say that YEOs are the state and local leaders of today as well as the national leaders of tomorrow. While Julián will be the first (former) YEO member to serve in a cabinet level post, I am sure he won’t be the last.