A recent widely-circulated Atlantic article about millennials is a current source of fear for many members of older generations. According to author Ron Fournier, young people born between 1985 and 2003 are highly cynical about the political process, to the extent that they have little to no desire for a career in public service. In Fournier’s view, this all seems to spell very bad news for Washington, which could be potentially destroyed. That’s a lot of doom and gloom about the potential collapse of our government, but it raises an important, even scarier question: Have we no conception of politics or government outside of Washington?
Fournier only extends the implications of millennials’ disinterest in public service as far as its potential impact on the state of our nation’s capital, and indeed, many of the millennials he interviewed did also. Which began to sound eerily familiar.
Over the summer, I worked as an education policy fellow for Michelle Wu, a candidate for Boston City Council. It was an incredibly exciting time to be involved with Boston’s political scene, and at one such lively political event, a rally for now-Senator Ed Markey, headlined by President Obama, I ran into an acquaintance who happened to be interning for Markey’s campaign. After exchanging pleasantries, I mentioned that I was in town to work on a city council campaign, to which she responded:
“Oh. That’s nice. I’ve never been as interested in smaller government, but that’s nice.”
Besides a patronizing tone, her words revealed a dismissal of civic engagement not directly relating to Washington present in The Atlantic article. Which is a pity, considering what a space “smaller government” can be for creativity and innovation, and what immediate effect it has on individuals’ day-to-day lives. Here are four reasons why no one, especially millennials, should overlook state and local government:
I know, I know, this is supposed to be a piece about the importance of local government in general. But I’d be completely remiss to not mention that Boston is one of the most interesting places to witness politics unfold on a local level. From Dorchester to the North End, Jamaica Plain to Hyde Park, the “City of Neighborhoods” is home to 21 distinct neighborhoods, each with its unique character. At the same time, there’s incredible diversity within Boston neighborhoods. Once, while door knocking in South Boston, Michelle was able to utilize her English, Spanish, Mandarin, and French language skills, in a single precinct. To be there in the midst of the most hotly contested mayoral race in decades, which has paved the way for one of the most competitive City Council races in years, both crossed with a whirlwind special election for former Senator John Kerry’s open seat, all preludes to the beginning of a sure-to-be exciting Massachusetts gubernatorial election in November 2014. Boston residents do local politics like it’s their job.
However, even though Boston neighborhoods have “wicked” diversity, this hasn’t completely translated to their representative bodies, and Boston isn’t alone in this respect. We already know that Congress has this problem: In this 113th Congress, 67% of seats are occupied by white men, who made up only 34% of voters in the 2012 election. But our cities are faring no better. For instance, there are only five people of color sitting on the Boston City Council currently and only one woman (also a person of color). In the race for mayor, one of the most hotly contested in recent history, half of the candidates are non-white, but again, only one is a woman, former State Representative Charlotte Golar-Richie. At only 28, Michelle Wu is certainly one of the youngest candidates in the field and one of the only people paving the way towards millennial representation in Boston local government. Across the country, countless voices are going unrepresented in their local and state governments. This is not a time for Millennial disinvestment.
One of the most profound lessons I learned this summer was one about comprehensive, nuanced policy-making. One of the first things Michelle and I did, before writing any position papers or crafting any platforms, was to was to go on almost a dozen school tours near the end of the school year, where we spoke with teachers, administrators, and educational partners to hear what their greatest needs were, and how they could be best served by their elected officials. From public to charter to pilot schools to their educational nonprofit partners, we saw at least one thing in common: dedicated people working tirelessly for the good of their students. We got a sense of shared best practices, as well as ways in which the local government could be modified to best fit the needs of the people. It wasn’t gleaned from removed policy briefs or removed statistical analysis, but from this grassroots approach to policy that, in my mind, was an embodiment of public service.
This was perhaps the most profound lesson I learned over the summer. Part of the reason I was so inspired to work for Michelle was because of her story. The oldest child of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle went to college at Harvard University and was originally set to work in Boston’s Financial District. But after her mother was diagnosed with a mental illness, she moved to Chicago to care for her and become the legal guardian of her younger sisters. She opened a small teashop and experienced the impact of local government while applying for a restaurant permit, navigating the education system, and generally caring for her family. After getting admitted to Harvard Law School, she moved back to Boston with her entire family and grew even more connected with the community, serving as chair for her sister’s school, working with domestic violence survivors, and advising entrepreneurs through a legal services center. She’s worked for Mayor Menino in City Hall, before finally serving as constituency coordinator on the senatorial campaign for her former law professor, Elizabeth Warren. Her approach throughout the campaign, whether during her field effort or trying to inform policy, is to connect with and hear from as many voices as possible. It’s an embodiment of politics as public service, and it’s perhaps best realized on a local level. As she’s said, “My goal is always to have in mind the big picture, long-term, ideal solution, and be working toward that, but in the meantime identify little things that can be done to make people’s lives better immediately…. If my only role is to help shape the conversation, and bring some of the ideas that I’m hearing in the neighborhoods into the public sphere, I think that will be a positive contribution.”
Let us not underestimate the power and significance of local government. Whether you’re a New Yorker canvassing for your favorite mayoral campaign, or a Bostonian voting in your local government primaries on September 24, or elsewhere, remember: You don’t have to wait for Washington to enact the change you want to see in your community.