I was sixteen years old when I first felt the pure exhilaration and profound sense of purpose through political activism. It changed my life.
I was a junior in high school, elected as a student member of our district’s school board in Rock Island, Illinois. At my very first meeting, I was faced with a disturbing agenda item: budget cuts. Our economy was in the tank, revenues were down and the school board had no choice but to cut sports, music, arts programs, and lay-off teachers.
All of these options seemed unacceptable: Cutting sports, music or the arts? No thanks. Firing our teachers? That one really shook me. The faculty at Rock Island High School defined the community at Rocky. I couldn’t imagine a worse decision than firing teachers.
So, I proposed the only option that made sense to me: raise money. I figured if we increased local property taxes, we’d be able to make up our shortfalls. It worked. We put “Save Our Schools” on the ballot in November as a referendum to give the power back to the community. Most said it was a long shot, and some even snickered at the proposition. But after weeks of organizing students, going door-to-door and canvassing, the referendum passed. We saved art, music, sports, and most importantly, hundreds of teachers’ jobs.
Staring into the teary eyes of a young teacher whose job we’d saved, I’ll never forget what she told me. “My mother was a teacher here, and so was my grandmother. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t teach at Rocky. “she said,” You saved my career. Thank you.” As she hugged me tightly, a feeling of change swept through me. I understood for the first time a fundamental truth that I’ve lived by ever since: I can make a difference, and I should.
Only later did I realize that my decision to get involved and speak up marked my first foray into activism, and in doing so I was unwittingly participating in a family history that stretched back for generations.
Many years after that first campaign victory and my becoming a professional political consultant, I learned about my grandfather, Joseph Rakow—a revolutionary exiled to Siberia at the age of only fifteen during the last legs of Imperial Russia. After ten bitter years in exile, separated from his home and family, Joseph immigrated to Chicago and worked in the very conditions that spurred Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle. My grandfather, whom I never met, dedicated his life to union organizing as a means to enfranchise the working poor. When I discovered his memoir in an attic and had it translated, my heart lit up. I was inspired by his unwavering commitment to justice and equality. I realized I wasn’t alone, but stood as part of a long lineage.
If you’re a young person today, you live in one of the best times to be an activist. According to Jessica Taft, a leading scholar on youth activism and an associate professor of Latino Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz, for every name that makes the headlines— Greta, Malala, Amariyanna, the Parkland students— there are thousands more young people making a difference in their own communities all across the globe. “Adults,” she says, “make a lot of assumptions about children and what they’re capable of, and those assumptions are often quite false.” In other words, the world you see around you isn’t the only possible world. An activist’s job is to recognize that change is possible if they organize, work, and vote.
One of the best ways to begin your activism career is to get smart on an issue or two—social justice, criminal law reform, climate change—and to vote (if you are old enough) for candidates who embody your values. We’re fortunate to live in a representative democracy, but too often we take our ability to vote for granted. That has to change. Apart from the elected positions like the Presidency or the U.S. Congress, we also all have an opportunity to vote for positions that many of us overlook—local city council or school board. Rather than leaving the bubbles by their names blank, research them and develop a sense of how their governance might affect your community and the issues you care about. Activism doesn’t have to be global. In fact, some of the most meaningful changes are the ones that happen right in your community.
Second, it’s important to figure out your story and identify what motivates you. Whenever I work with a political candidate running for office, I don’t just slap a campaign slogan on their forehead, I help them identify a narrative and message that will define them on the campaign trail. A good way to develop your story is to recall a time when you knew something was wrong: maybe you witnessed racism or saw someone bullied. Find your moral instinct and let it develop into the kind of activism you stand by—maybe it is social justice or an anti-bullying campaign. Doing so is a great way to ensure you are guided by your values.
Finally, activism is really a way to give back to your community. There’s an ancient Jewish proverb by Hillel the Elder that goes like this: “If I am only for myself, who am I?” Scholars have discussed this for years, but one answer is clear: no one is truly for themselves. We all exist through our community bonds and ties, and we become who we are from our experiences. We owe it to each other to recognize injustices and ruptures in those communities and to fight for a future where we can all someday turn to each and say, Thank you.
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