Last summer I participated in something extraordinary. I was fortunate enough to attend the National Citizen Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., June 22-25.
The conference was sponsored by American Promise, an organization dedicated to overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United via a constitutional amendment.
How did I know to go? Thanks to Dr. Kathleen Cole, associate professor in Metro State’s social science department, who informed me and a fellow student about this opportunity. She helped us obtain university funding from the Student Activities and Fees Committee (SAFAC).
It was an amazing chance to travel to Washington. and engage with a citizen organization fighting for an issue important to me. I gained a plethora of knowledge and met people doing inspiring work in communities throughout the United States.
However, any meeting in Washington—no matter how righteous the cause—is bound to include some discomfort. My trip was no exception.
I boarded the plane thinking that this would be a great chance to meet college-aged peers eager to get money out of politics.
But when my classmate and I got to the registration table, we found the median age of attendees was 45 to 50. I only met a handful of other people my age through the course of the conference. Where were the millennials like me?
While I learned quite a bit about the Citizens United decision and the proposed 28th amendment solution, I felt a little like a kid at an adult dinner party.
The first three days were filled with guest speakers, breakout sessions and networking events. While the presenters were compelling and interesting, there were too many crammed together.
I sat all day, listening to panel after speech after keynote address. Lunch break was no real break at all, because there was someone speaking while we chowed down on chicken Parm and green beans.
It was just too much. No matter how interested I was in the subject matter, I just could not find the mental energy to pay full attention to the last two or three speakers each day.
Finally, with Monday came real action: Lobby Day.
It was by far the best day. I had experienced this energy once before, at the Minnesota Capitol, as a student in Cole’s political advocacy course (a class I highly recommend).
Our American Promise coordinator, Vicki Barnes, set up meetings with legislative aides to Minnesota’s senators and representatives.
Our five-person delegation told them our concerns about big money in politics. Both Democratic and Republican staff listened intently to our case for a 28th amendment. They all genuinely seemed to care about what we had to say.
Living in this current political climate, divisiveness has become the norm rather than the exception. But it was not part of that day’s conversation. Party affiliation was irrelevant; common ground mattered more.
Everyone was at the table to talk. It was the first time in years I felt this sort of unity between folks who differed so greatly in their political leanings.
But I have not felt this togetherness since. Wouldn’t you like to leave the political trolls behind and get back to working for the public good?
Despite its organizational shortfalls, this conference was my most profound encounter with American democracy.
On Lobby Day, we walked right into the Capitol and connected with our elected representatives. They listened to what was important to us.
My hopeful, heartfelt takeaway from this experience: working across the aisle is possible. Let’s lift ourselves out of the rut of polarity and focus on issues which unite us. Join me.