Adult Leadership is Needed — We Can Find it in the Millennial Generation

If there was ever a time to find new voices in our political system, this is it.

Our Constitution is in crisis, our democracy is eroding, and the progressive movement is struggling to figure out how to rebuild at the state and local level. The largest threats to the future of our nation — climate change, economic inequality, social injustice — have been kicked down the road by too many leaders in Washington. The average age of United States senators is 61.

And the oldest president in American history was just elected by promising that, if anything, he’ll only make those problems worse.

Thankfully the next generation — the most diverse and most progressive in our nation’s history — is ready. Ready to take the baton, with gratitude and admiration, from the progressive champions who fought the battles of the previous generation. So to that end, we’re building a progressive pipeline for young leaders and a “Cabinet of the Future” to counter the dysfunction and disappointments in Washington.

I was first elected as a councilmember when I was 20 years old and have spent the entirety of my twenties in elected office, now serving as the mayor of Ithaca, New York. In that time I’ve received immeasurable support from my colleagues in the Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network.

The YEO Network is part of a pipeline for fresh leaders built by the People For the American Way Foundation. The Network now includes over 1,000 elected officials from all over the country, who hold offices from local school boards to the United States Congress. Our members have shown leadership and progressive impact while progress in Congress continues to stall. YEOs in Connecticut have partnered to fight for their innovative public campaign financing system; YEOs in Wisconsin collaborated on a model minimum wage tied to inflation; YEOs in Colorado cosponsored a cutting-edge comprehensive sex education bill. While the federal government institutes unconscionable bans on refugees and immigrants, YEOs have courageously declared their communities sanctuary cities and joined forces to fight against Islamophobia.

This month I will proudly take the reins as director of youth leadership programs at PFAW Foundation, which include both the Young People For program and the Young Elected Officials Network. We are proud of our model — one created and led by young leaders themselves. We provide up-and-coming leaders with a national network and mentors, policy support, resources — and a platform.

Now, more than ever, we need the innovation and pragmatism that young people bring to this work. We need their energy, their creativity, and their moral authority. People are looking to their local leaders for stability and guidance. And we know that diversity in leadership — of race, gender, age, life experience, identity — creates richer results for all of us and role models for the next generation.

And as I begin my tenure as director, I see an opportunity to redefine our role and vision as youth leaders. We want to work with our members and partners to resist the openly hostile, top-down agenda coming out of Washington, D.C. and protect the rights of the most vulnerable, learn from and collaborate directly with other communities, and create a new shared vision and message for progressives that will keep us moving forward — and help us win again.

Here is just a snapshot of the YEO Network’s goals for the coming year.

1. Resources. We provide a number of tools and resources for our members, based on the needs they identify. This ranges from the network itself and its mentorship model, to continued leadership training with the best advisors, to the tools we can provide via partners and supporters.

a. In 2017 and beyond, we will grow the resources we provide by building out a more formal mentor and sponsor program. We will connect with cutting-edge advisors, trainers, and transformational leaders to provide tools and inspiration.

b. While we’ve always worked closely with our partners, this is the time to grow progressive partnerships in every way possible to maximize resources. We will talk to our partners, all the time. We will make sure we aren’t duplicating work, that we’re complementing each other and supporting each other. And that we’re winning together. In fact, want to talk? Want to meet us? Give us a call.

2. Policy. We will grow and enhance our policy support and coordination to develop and incubate innovative ideas. This could be as boundary-pushing as things like supervised injection facilities, which we’re developing in my city of Ithaca, to ideas as pragmatic as streamlining services or improving the ways we communicate with constituents.

a. We seek to find new and effective policies to model within our network and with the movement more broadly. We will play both defense and offense. We will prioritize good governance and balance innovation with results. We want to prove progressive ideas work and serve us all.

b. We also plan to grow our advocacy action arm in an effort to better coordinate and more effectively advocate for the policy goals we share. This is the time for bold leadership. We came to play.

3. Platform. We seek to always provide opportunities to elevate our YEOs’ leadership, both in their communities and the national arena, but this is the time to turn it up. We want young, progressive voices to be heard. People are listening.

a. We plan to create a policy chair structure, a “Cabinet of the Future,” to amplify the voices of our spokespeople and create a contrast and an alternative vision to that of our current administration.

b. We want to do a better job of getting the word out. We want to give our members a platform and a bullhorn, but we also want to communicate our overall vision and our work more clearly, and more often.

Our members represent the changing face of leadership in America. And they will be — in fact they already are — leading the resistance and the path forward for our movement.

On that note, stay tuned for more. If you’d like to learn more, support our work, or get involved, come visit us at www.yeonetwork.org or www.pfaw.org. We’re rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. We hope you will join us.