The State of the Union Depends on Young Americans

Opinion: A newly established action fund is working to help more millennials who represent changing America — women, people of color, people from lower-income families, people who are disabled — run for office.

At the State of the Union, President Obama told us, "Too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise." If you looked at the audience, you would have seen the president's speech fell on the ears of a Congress that largely does not represent the country, particularly our young Americans.

Gigi Traore, 34, is campaiging to join the Ohio House. (Courtesy photo)Millennials — people born between 1982 and 2002 — are now America's largest generation. Ten thousand millennials turn 21 every day, and our generation is now 95 million strong.

And even though we vote (49 percent of citizens under 30 voted in 2012), lawmakers continue to ignore us.

By 2015, millennials will make up a majority of the American workforce. But unemployment rates for workers 18 to 34 have topped double-digits for nearly six years in a row. Rates for young people of color are even worse. The Senate responded by killing a benefits extension. More young adults are living on the street as the result of this recession. Hardest hit are young people of color: 32 percent of homeless youth are black. That's more than double the proportion of young, black Americans in the whole country.

Saatvik Ahluwalia, 24, is running for selectman in Lexington, Mass. (Courtesy photo)To be sure, Obama has certainly focused on young people's concerns. His candidacy was launched on the backs of millions of young volunteers, and many of his policies, from health care reform to student-loan changes, have done great things for millennials.

But a big part of the problem is the people listening to the president speak last night: Members of Congress are older, richer, and whiter than the electorates they represent. It's time to support a new generation of leaders who look like America and will stand for America's future.

Stephanie Chang, 30, wants to represent Detroit in the Michgan House.

LaunchProgress, an organization I cofounded, is trying to do that. We encourage young progressives — America's most diverse, tech-savvy, solution-oriented demographic — to run for office and change the conversation from talking about problems to solving them.

A key part of that goal is finding people who can represent our changing America — women, people of color, people from lower-income families, people who are disabled. Millennials make up 30 percent of the LGBT population. Forty percent are people of color. These voices are diverse, abundant, and educated, but they are not being represented in politics.

Many lack the funds necessary to mount a big campaign. They don't have connections to the big donors or power brokers needed to win elected office. That's why LaunchProgress is encouraging young people to run for state and local office. There, a few thousand dollars can win a race. Savvy social-media strategy can turn out young people in every district. And little by little, these young progressives can build a new generation of leaders to run for higher office.

We know investing in young candidates works. More than half the members of Congress were elected before the age of 35, but the median age has actually risen steadily since 1981, and our current Congress is one of the oldest in U.S. history. Our political infrastructure is risk averse, and it continues to reward politicians who maintain the status quo.

Fortunately, some young people of color are already running. For example:

  • Saatvik Ahluwalia, the 24-year-old former campaign manager for Cambridge City Councillor Leland Cheung, is now running for selectman in Lexington, Mass.
  • Gigi Traore, the 34-year-old lifelong resident of Cleveland and founder of a collegiate service-learning nonprofit, seeks a spot in the state House.
  • Stephanie Chang, 30, is a community organizer, dual-degree graduate student at the University of Michigan, and cofounder and immediate past president of APIAVote-Michigan who is ready to serve Detroit as a state representative.

But change must also come from the inside, on a national level. Last month, we created an online petition to the leaders of the DNC and RNC, calling on them to champion young, progressive candidates, regardless of party identification.

At LaunchProgress, we believe government can work if the right people are working in government. If we want a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we need politicians who can represent this changing nation. Young Americans, the most diverse, tolerant, and self-empowered generation yet, are the answer.

Poy Winichakul, 24, is a 2011 graduate of Oberlin College, where she majored in politics, law, and society. She served as special assistant to the president of the Brennan Center for Justice for two years and in October started LaunchProgress with Luke Squire, 25, a Senate research manager.

The Next America welcomes op-ed pieces that explore the political, economic and social impacts of the profound racial and cultural changes facing our nation. Email us.