The State of the Union Depends on Young Americans

Opinion: A newly established action fund is working to help more millennials who represent changing America — women, people of color, people from lower-income families, people who are disabled — run for office.

Poy Winichakul is co-founder and co-director of the LaunchProgress Action Fund.
National Journal
Poy Winichakul
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Poy Winichakul
Jan. 29, 2014, 4:34 a.m.

At the State of the Uni­on, Pres­id­ent Obama told us, “Too many young people en­ter­ing the work­force today will see the Amer­ic­an Dream as an empty prom­ise.” If you looked at the audi­ence, you would have seen the pres­id­ent’s speech fell on the ears of a Con­gress that largely does not rep­res­ent the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly our young Amer­ic­ans.

Gigi Traore, 34, is cam­paiging to join the Ohio House. (Cour­tesy photo)Mil­len­ni­als — people born between 1982 and 2002 — are now Amer­ica’s largest gen­er­a­tion. Ten thou­sand mil­len­ni­als turn 21 every day, and our gen­er­a­tion is now 95 mil­lion strong.

And even though we vote (49 per­cent of cit­izens un­der 30 voted in 2012), law­makers con­tin­ue to ig­nore us.

By 2015, mil­len­ni­als will make up a ma­jor­ity of the Amer­ic­an work­force. But un­em­ploy­ment rates for work­ers 18 to 34 have topped double-di­gits for nearly six years in a row. Rates for young people of col­or are even worse. The Sen­ate re­spon­ded by killing a be­ne­fits ex­ten­sion. More young adults are liv­ing on the street as the res­ult of this re­ces­sion. Hard­est hit are young people of col­or: 32 per­cent of home­less youth are black. That’s more than double the pro­por­tion of young, black Amer­ic­ans in the whole coun­try.

Saatvik Ahluwalia, 24, is run­ning for se­lect­man in Lex­ing­ton, Mass. (Cour­tesy photo)To be sure, Obama has cer­tainly fo­cused on young people’s con­cerns. His can­did­acy was launched on the backs of mil­lions of young vo­lun­teers, and many of his policies, from health care re­form to stu­dent-loan changes, have done great things for mil­len­ni­als.

But a big part of the prob­lem is the people listen­ing to the pres­id­ent speak last night: Mem­bers of Con­gress are older, rich­er, and whiter than the elect­or­ates they rep­res­ent. It’s time to sup­port a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers who look like Amer­ica and will stand for Amer­ica’s fu­ture.

Stephanie Chang, 30, wants to rep­res­ent De­troit in the Michgan House.

Launch­Pro­gress, an or­gan­iz­a­tion I cofoun­ded, is try­ing to do that. We en­cour­age young pro­gress­ives — Amer­ica’s most di­verse, tech-savvy, solu­tion-ori­ented demo­graph­ic — to run for of­fice and change the con­ver­sa­tion from talk­ing about prob­lems to solv­ing them.

A key part of that goal is find­ing people who can rep­res­ent our chan­ging Amer­ica — wo­men, people of col­or, people from lower-in­come fam­il­ies, people who are dis­abled. Mil­len­ni­als make up 30 per­cent of the LGBT pop­u­la­tion. Forty per­cent are people of col­or. These voices are di­verse, abund­ant, and edu­cated, but they are not be­ing rep­res­en­ted in polit­ics.

Many lack the funds ne­ces­sary to mount a big cam­paign. They don’t have con­nec­tions to the big donors or power brokers needed to win elec­ted of­fice. That’s why Launch­Pro­gress is en­cour­aging young people to run for state and loc­al of­fice. There, a few thou­sand dol­lars can win a race. Savvy so­cial-me­dia strategy can turn out young people in every dis­trict. And little by little, these young pro­gress­ives can build a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers to run for high­er of­fice.

We know in­vest­ing in young can­did­ates works. More than half the mem­bers of Con­gress were elec­ted be­fore the age of 35, but the me­di­an age has ac­tu­ally ris­en stead­ily since 1981, and our cur­rent Con­gress is one of the old­est in U.S. his­tory. Our polit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture is risk averse, and it con­tin­ues to re­ward politi­cians who main­tain the status quo.

For­tu­nately, some young people of col­or are already run­ning. For ex­ample:

  • Saatvik Ahluwalia, the 24-year-old former cam­paign man­ager for Cam­bridge City Coun­cil­lor Le­land Ch­eung, is now run­ning for se­lect­man in Lex­ing­ton, Mass.
  • Gigi Traore, the 34-year-old lifelong res­id­ent of Clev­e­land and founder of a col­legi­ate ser­vice-learn­ing non­profit, seeks a spot in the state House.
  • Stephanie Chang, 30, is a com­munity or­gan­izer, dual-de­gree gradu­ate stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Michigan, and cofounder and im­me­di­ate past pres­id­ent of APIAVote-Michigan who is ready to serve De­troit as a state rep­res­ent­at­ive.

But change must also come from the in­side, on a na­tion­al level. Last month, we cre­ated an on­line pe­ti­tion to the lead­ers of the DNC and RNC, call­ing on them to cham­pi­on young, pro­gress­ive can­did­ates, re­gard­less of party iden­ti­fic­a­tion.

At Launch­Pro­gress, we be­lieve gov­ern­ment can work if the right people are work­ing in gov­ern­ment. If we want a gov­ern­ment of the people, by the people, and for the people, we need politi­cians who can rep­res­ent this chan­ging na­tion. Young Amer­ic­ans, the most di­verse, tol­er­ant, and self-em­powered gen­er­a­tion yet, are the an­swer.

Poy Winichak­ul, 24, is a 2011 gradu­ate of Ober­lin Col­lege, where she ma­jored in polit­ics, law, and so­ci­ety. She served as spe­cial as­sist­ant to the pres­id­ent of the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Justice for two years and in Oc­to­ber star­ted Launch­Pro­gress with Luke Squire, 25, a Sen­ate re­search man­ager.

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion. Email us.

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