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Campus to Congress: A Young Person’s Path to Politics

When it comes to politics, young people are often left out of the conversation. Today’s generation of young progressives are now encountering some of the most challenging issues of our time. Often these problems are sorely neglected. College affordability, student loans, jobs & the economy, climate change, immigration, civil rights, and the attack on women and reproductive health is just to name a few.

 Participation in mainstream politics is usually the only way to effect real policy change. Once young people discover how important it is to make systematic change through policy and authentic representation, our participation increases. But, during these challenging times, most millennials don’t even know who to turn to for political representation.

Many young activist consider a local political career to be much of a challenge and compromise. But it was time for positive change in my city now, so why wait?  I decided that I was going to the lead by doing something that has never been done before in my lifetime. My senior year in college, I was going to run for political office. I never asked for permission from anyone, I just stepped out on faith and pursued it.

In many ways, college students can become the ideal candidates. In March 2013, just three months before the deadline of ballot signatures due, I decided to run for Detroit City Council in District 3. It was time to be the one to inspire a whole new generation of leadership. My campus and high school network became a positive resource and system of support. My friends and I collected over 600 ballot nomination signatures in less than 30 days. Even after my petition signatures and my residency was challenged multiple times by my opponents,  I still made the primary election ballot and began my race by getting boots on the ground, knocking doors, and making phone calls in my friend’s apartment. My entire campaign consisted of young people ages 15- 30 years old. Using fresh perspectives to our advantage and overcoming unique challenges we believed in our mission. We began hosting community clean-ups, planting urban gardens, and fundraising with a cause together as a team.

During one of the most challenging times in Detroit, a city overburdened by corruption, greed, and financial devastation, I knew I was in for the race of my life. But I decided to pursue my passion and there was no other time but now to be the change I wish to see. This was more than a campaign; it was a movement of young people preparing to take charge on the issues. While the suggestions from my mentors and elders advised me that nursing homes and senior citizen complexes were the ideal place to target to secure votes. I went into the high schools, college campuses, and motivated our youth. The future is bright and I wanted to make sure that when the time came, I was going to take others along with me on this journey. It wasn’t about the campaign, the votes, or the race. It was always about the movement.

In the past, I volunteered on various issue campaigns before and even interned in the office of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and my representative U.S. Congressman Conyers. However, this was something entirely different. Young people desperately needed a voice at the table and even if I didn’t make it this time around, I knew it was in preparation for something greater.

This journey wasn’t easy. With just the basic tools of grass-root organizing, the plots and subplots of public office, no matter how connected begin to make sense. The characters of those around me came to life, motivations of others began to emerge, and the power of relationships began to reveal themselves. No matter where I turned, I ran into people with power: the power of influence, the power of the community, the power of money and the power of affiliation.

Cross any border and you had to be prepared to pay a price. Often I would get the same response from many, “Don’t you want to wait to enter politics; you’re just so young? There’s absolutely no chance of you winning. But, I can give you this (voter list/ endorsement/ piece of literature, ect.) for a good price.” In the very same sentence, I was often told that young people don’t have a place in politics yet my money was valuable  towards the cause. One of the lessons I learned was to never allow someone else to determine your destiny. When you are motivated by faith just  remember that you are working for a higher cause. There is absolutely nothing you can’t accomplish when you are focused and determined on the goal.

Even though I ran a very positive campaign; I also had very many negative experiences. During my campaign, I was often stalked, harassed, and even received threats. In a political climate where money is the primary motivation, I encountered many obstacles in almost every situation around me. My mother was initially my campaign manager; however she quit early on when offered a job and a proposition that was only intended to distract her. Half way through my campaign, oddly my PR hadn’t released, promoted, or drafted any material concerning my race or candidacy either. Later, I found out that he was too propositioned by my opponent for work. Even during the most painful times of losing valuable trust, and friendships  I never lost hope. My faith remained strong. I kept working hard. I kept pushing for the cause.  About 600 votes short of becoming a runner-up for the general, I didn’t make it into the race but I made a statement.

At the end of the day, I don’t regret any of it because this was just the beginning of a journey. On my way up, I learned so much about myself and my purpose. One day, in the future I will become U.S. Congresswoman Dorthea E. Thomas, who  represents the city of Detroit and State of Michigan, working on federal policy and legislation in Washington D.C. But, right now there’s a lot of work to do along the way. I intend on running again, but only after I complete Law School.Currently, I’m an AmeriCorps member working as a Green Schools Coordinator in Detroit Public Schools. I will be relocating to work on Federal Policy and Climate Justice issues in Washington D.C. for the upcoming year . Also, I’m in the process of writing my first book too.

The movement does not end here. Young people have the power to make a difference. According to First Person Politics, “Millennials will make up the majority of members of the House of Representatives around 2035, “give or take a couple of years,” It is also noted that Millennials will take over the Senate sometime between 2036 and 2044. My generation is preparing to do something epic. Momentum is building across cities all over America.

On this journey, I found a different kind of power. The power of an attempt by someone to defend herself and her family, and enlist other families in the effort, to research an issue and understand it well, to take that research and that analysis to a place where she thought her work would be welcomed and appreciated. I did all of this with just my faith, a positive spirit,  and courage. Millions more are willing to fight, with desire in their veins, but lack the training and skills to do so effectively. Many of these leaders just happen to be young people, who really don’t know where to sign up or how to start. Give us the opportunity and provide us with the proper resources and skills and then watch positive change happen. The path to politics isn’t easy but once some new blood get in there, it’s definitely worth it!

 

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About the Author

Dorthea Thomas – who has written posts on GenYNot.


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