As the primaries wind down and each party chooses its nominee, I can’t help but lament the Obamas’ departure from the White House because President Barack Obama inspired a generation of young leaders to get engaged in the electoral process.
For me, the Obama presidency meant that I could be president. Obama, like me, came from an immigrant father and has an African last name. He had humble beginnings like I did, and parents who instilled important values.
Of course, Obama’s presidency is much more than his blackness. He’s relatable to young people. He has reminded me of my parents and other older mentors, especially when he sang Al Green’s famous line, “I’m so in love with you,” at Apollo Theater for a fundraiser. He’s also in tune with some of the culture I love. He invited Kendrick Lamar to the White House, and he can authentically name his favorite song on last year’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly” – it’s “How Much A Dollar Cost,” good song, and mine is “Institutionalized.”
Obama’s presidency has also changed policy conversations over the past eight years, many for the better. No other president has come down so strongly against the gun violence epidemic we have in the United States. He made access to health care for all Americans a priority, and more recently he granted clemency to seven incarcerated men and women for nonviolent drug charges.
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And his presidency might have led to higher levels of engagement of black people in our country.
In Wake County, Jessica Holmes is the youngest Wake County commissioner, and Corey Branch represents District C of the Raleigh City Council.
“President Obama has inspired me to run for office,” Holmes said. “He let us see that we can run on our values and care about the people in our community.”
Branch said: “I grew up in Southeast Raleigh, and I know it has so much potential. That’s why I decided to run. President Obama gave us a sense that change is possible when people who care become leaders.”
To continue this energy, we have to create a pipeline for young black leaders to participate, because people like Obama don’t get to the presidency alone. He had mentors taking notice of his leadership and the support of the Chicago political community, which ultimately invited him to run for Illinois state Senate. Getting involved with politics is more than just ambition and gumption; it takes networks and support systems.
One way of creating that pipeline is keeping young black people, especially college age, engaged in local politics.
That’s why it was troubling to me that only a handful of black students attended a College Democrats meeting a few weeks ago. Without networks from organizations like the College Democrats, black students may not find the pipeline for running for office or for just getting onto a campaign staff.
Mentoring is key
Some may say black students were not there because they are not interested in established politics. I don’t believe that because young black leaders are leading direct action in our state and across the country, including the protests against the UNC Board of Governors for its neglect of student needs.
Mentoring is key. Without mentoring, I wouldn’t be the activist I am now.
According to an Inclusv report, black leaders are not being hired on campaign staffs. While the report analyzed the presidential race, one could do a similar study for North Carolina and find similar results.
Young progressives are missing an opportunity to mentor and usher students to run for College Democrats elections, take leadership in electoral politics and meet local elected officials.
Elected officials and community organizers should visit college campuses and give students the resources they need to remain engaged, whether it’s running a workshop on what it means to run for office to offering pizza money for meetings and outreach events. Students and young people need the support of those working in civic engagement to maintain relationships on campus and to get connected to candidates and civic engagement organizations to volunteer and learn the skills needed to run for office or work on a campaign.
It takes intentionality. For young people, you cannot build an organization and expect people to show up. Sometimes, we have to go get them. More civic engagement organizations intentionally targeting young blacks may just lead to next black presidency.
Emma Akpan is a community activist in Raleigh.