Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s resurfaced in public memory in March during the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a seminal march that resulted in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On Sept. 17, at the Annual A. Leon Higginbotham Voting Rights Braintrust, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) acknowledged a new group of voting rights advocates.
“We need to hear from the people who are featured in this room today; they really are the next generation of leaders in this country,” said Rep. Fudge as she opened the event, which was part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference.
The first half of the discussion engaged millennial elected officials, including Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, New York City Councilmember Jumaane D. Williams and Ohio district representative Emilia Sykes.
Getting young people involved in the voting process requires getting them in office, said Sykes, who urged senior legislators in the room to open doors for millennials. “We want you to help us learn and get the information we need to know. If they see us do it, they can model our behavior just like we’re trying to model your behavior so we can get more people involved.”
Once a young activist or grassroots organizer makes the decision to run for office, they should not discount their experience or background, Sykes continued. “If you’ve been a sincere community volunteer, you know what the issues are, you know what the people are thinking on the ground level—[you] are the best [person] for these positions.”
Youth who may not be inclined to run for elected office are just as integral to the political process. “We are at a very unique time in American history,” said Mosby, “We have to capitalize on that by showing how people’s lives are directly affected.”
In New York, connecting means everything from speaking with constituents about police brutality in regard to the Eric Garner case to housing issues such as broken elevators in apartment buildings, said Williams.
To broaden the discussion, the event turned to panelists who mobilize youth across the country, including Sammie J. Dow, national director of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division; Ashley Spillane, president of Rock the Vote; and Aunna Dennis, national coordinator of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Legal Mobilization Project.
In the past, entities like Rock the Vote were able to tie-in popular culture to policy issues. However, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, youth are more astute and less likely to listen to entertainers for their celebrity status alone. “You want someone who is passionate about a particular issue,” said Spillane, who referenced John Legend as a partner with Rock the Vote because of his genuine concern for criminal justice reform.
If groups are not strategic about their spokesperson, things can go bad, quick, said Dow. “If [the artist] has some jacked up issues on whatever I care about, I’m going to check him when I get to your event,” he said. “I think we have to get away from this notion that we patronize young people with food and celebrities and the babies will do whatever we need them to do. We’re at the point where we want to engage with people who are serious about our issues, who are moving in the direction that we’re moving in and who are talking about something other than the fact that they are a celebrity.”