My Story As a Young Elected Official
At the age of 23, I was elected to a city-wide office on the Tallahassee, Fla., City Commission. I ran for office with all of the idealism, determination, and naivete that any first-time candidate for public office would have. I was hurled into politics on the promise that there was room for people who looked like me in vast halls of government; son to a construction worker and a school bus driver, brother to six siblings, and the first to ever graduate from college. I knew I had a purpose to be a voice for people who otherwise had no advocate.
My concept of governing was sound at best; being a graduate of political science from Florida A&M University , where I also served as Student Government President and served as the only student member of the Board of Trustees. I was confident about my abilities to reason and understand complex matters. No amount of experience prepared me to be the youngest voice on a five-member board that controls everything from street maintenance to airport operations, to a budget of over $600 million.
Although I held strong principled beliefs about the needs of our community - to create good jobs with fair and livable wages; to provide more than 13,000 uninsured citizens in our community access to healthcare; and to secure affordable, accessible housing for hard working people - I was quickly relegated to the voice for youth issues (as so many young elected officials are). I embraced this description - wanting not to betray my strongest constituency. However, I wanted to break out of this mold as I noticed my voice being muted on every other relevant matter facing the Commission.
As I began to talk about issues that were "uncharacteristic" of me, my voice fell on unsupportive ears. I questioned myself, my purpose and my effectiveness every time I spoke out, only to hear my comments restated by an older peer and lauded as the "brightest idea of the day." It was frustrating at best! I attended state and national conferences for officeholders and was often met with jokes about my age. Frequent comments from older elected officials centered on them having "shoes, ties and socks" older than me. The immature and superficial side of me wanted to say "update your wardrobe, you outdated mothball," but calmer me prevailed to laugh along.
I am not alone in my story. It is shared by other young elected officials around the country linked by the common desire to be respected and treated as equals. This is the reason I created the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network at People For the American Way Foundation. The YEO Network serves as a meeting place of like-minded and accomplished public servants. There are over 250 officials who associate through the YEO Network.
Our aim is simple -- we seek to network and support YEO members with leadership and personal development training, while also equipping them with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to turn their progressive and innovative ideas into sound public policy.
Twenty years from now, the YEO Network will take responsibility for shifting the political power structure in this country in a direction that supports real progressive ideals and is responsive to the needs of its citizens. We will be a stronger, bolder and younger progressive movement.