At twenty-seven, I am the youngest member of the Pennsylvania State House. My age is frequently a topic of conversation among my colleagues and peers but I know I belong here. There are important lessons I’ve learned from my journey that need to be shared with young people and their allies. The lesson that resonates strongest with me is that we, youth leaders in our community, do not have to sit and wait for change. We have the ability to implement change. We must use all the tools at our disposal. And one of the most important resources is the use of the press and generating media to communicate our vision and be conduits of change. My story is an example of how essential it is for young people to be part of the political process—and the role of youth media to amplify leadership and voice.
Many have called my journey to elected office an anomaly, a freak occurrence; I, on the other hand, prefer the term democracy. In early 2005 I was working as a housing counselor and was becoming increasingly frustrated with the state of my community, the Frankford section of Philadelphia. On one hand, I was living the American dream: I had a good job, I owned my own home, and I was pursuing my college degree.
However, as my dreams were coming to fruition, the dreams of so many of my neighbors were wilting. Crime was reaching epidemic proportions, business after business was shutting down, and the schools in my community were becoming increasingly unsafe and unable to meet the basic educational needs of the children.
Every day I would get off the train, walk to my house, and see how that sense of community that I felt growing up was gone. I asked myself, “How did we let things get so bad?” Then I paused and thought, “Who let things get so bad? Where were the leaders in my community? Who were the leaders in my community?” That day, at the age of 24, I decided to become involved in the local political establishment.
I decided to take a stand and run for elected office, and within a year, I entered the race for state representative. I was told I had no chance. How could a 25-year-old kid take on the powerful political machine? I was essentially told to sit back, relax, and let the veterans handle everything. Assuming that someone from my generation would be apathetic to the critical issues of Frankford, these seasoned politicians basically told me that politics was not a young man’s game. This unfortunate response reflects a long-standing stereotype of young people, one which is hopefully in the process of fading.
The more I was told of the impossibility of my goal, the harder I worked. I was fighting against an establishment that had long ago forgotten to stand for the people, for a principle, for a vision of success for everyone, not just those who obtained power. My campaign was a campaign of new ideas, of a renewed vision for my community. This vision had many facets: quality education for all children, a dramatic reduction in gun violence, affordable healthcare for everyone, and economic development that wouldn’t drive out the fabric of the community.
I demanded to be heard. I engaged everyone who would listen to me. I knocked on thousands of doors and held press conferences. It was a struggle to get the media to pay attention to my candidacy, but I pressed on and forced the media to cover an idealistic “kid” from the neighborhood who had no chance to win. I would eventually be heard, by the people, the media, and the establishment. By passionately spreading my vision of what I wanted Frankford to look like, people realized that they agreed with me, and they ultimately responded in my favor. I went on to win a very close race in the primary election.
Of course, I didn’t get through to the people, media, and establishment all by myself. Many other “kids” participated in my campaign, which was essentially a youth-led organization. Friends of mine from the neighborhood, college students who were interested in politics and people who discovered our campaign from new media, were all key players in my campaign. These advocates for change were as frustrated with the lack of leadership in our community as I was, and they helped me in countless ways, such as writing and designing the literature distributed on my behalf, knocking on doors, and organizing press conferences. New media, such as Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace were also utilized to the best of our ability and were vital to drawing members of the younger generation to our mission.
Advocates for change take many forms. For example, adult allies and mentors are vital resources for us as we take the reins of leadership. Allies, such as youth media educators, have an important role: to inform us how to be critical viewers, because having an opinion develops an articulate worldview and perspective. Linking with technology, we can make our own media to voice the issues we see in our communities.
One of the most important steps in that education is following current events throughout the media. Knowledge of current events is essential to the character of democracy.Young people will play a key role in who will lead this nation for the next four years as commander-in-chief; it is our voices and work that will shape the future of our great country. We must get involved in politics because the decisions made by politicians at federal, state and local levels affect our lives, whether it’s Congress reducing the amount of the Pell grant or other college loans, starting a new war in Iran, or providing tax incentives for community organizations that get young people involved in their local regions. Those decisions have a direct impact on young people, just as current and new trade agreements will affect the job market for our generation.
Now more than ever, it is easier to not only follow the political process, but to become part of the process. A 15-year-old teenager from Sioux City, South Dakota can passionately articulate his feeling on the war that has sent his brother thousands of miles away. A 21-year-old college student can go onto YouTube and tell the world how proud she is, as an African American, of the nomination of Barack Obama. Young people are using tools to share their opinions on the political climate, creating their own media to emphasize and amplify their voice.
Technology has provided every young American the opportunity to follow and become involved in media. Educators that work with technology, such as youth media practitioners, need to link self-expression, leadership and civic engagement with decision making and change in the political realm. In your curriculum, add reviews of politics and how young people—some who do not yet have voting power—can make a major difference. Having youth voice and leadership in the variety of media messaging at our finger tips will not only affect the upcoming election, but the long term changes for the country as a whole.
Before Representative Tony Payton was elected to the PA House of Representatives, he educated low-income families at United Communities in South Philadelphia on how to achieve homeownership. He was also a 2005-06 fellow of the Center for Progressive Leadership, and continues to be a big brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters of southeastern Pennsylvania. In 2007, the Philadelphia Tribune honored him with a leadership award for being one of the most influential African Americans in Philadelphia. Among other things, he is currently promoting his REACH legislation that would provide scholarship money to all PA students with at least a 3.0 GPA and a 90% attendance record.