2018 is the year of young people
© Greg Nash

In 1991 Anita Hill’s hostile treatment by a panel of 14 white, male senators during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings highlighted the extent to which the interests of women, especially women of color, were not being reflected in the country’s political leadership. Women were paying attention: in the wake of the hearings, a record number ran for office and won. The House and Senate reached new highs in the number of women represented, and 1992 was widely dubbed “The Year of the Woman.” While the world certainly didn’t change overnight, it helped the movement to elect women gain critical momentum. 

Some commentators are now calling 2018 another year of women, and with the growing #MeToo movement, women’s marches, and exciting new women candidates, it’s easy to see why. At the same time, I would argue that 2018 will also be defined in another way: as a year of young people.

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Right now, every issue that young people care about is under attack, from guns to immigration to racial justice to health care to climate change. They see a presidential administration steeped in bigotry and lies that they strongly reject. But a surge of diverse young women and men are engaging in the political process with an intensity that is rising to match the strength of these attacks on their interests, rights and lives.

With Trump in the Oval Office, young people are watching as policy proposals entirely disconnected from their own visions and values are taking root. On immigration, Trump has made attacking Dreamers and tormenting immigrant communities a hallmark of his early presidency. Undocumented and unafraid young people have led the way on the campaign to protect Dreamers, and Millennials of all backgrounds overwhelmingly favor a path to citizenship for DACA recipients. On gun violence, Republicans continue to act as NRA sycophants while young activists step up to help lead a national movement demanding policies that protect children rather than guns.

On drug policy, the Trump administration is ramping up a war on pot, led by an attorney general who contends that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Seven in ten Millennials think it should be legal. On LGBTQ rights, Trump has taken away protections for LGBTQ students, issued a ban on trans servicemembers, and pushed anti-gay zealots into lifetime positions as federal judges. Millennials fully support LGBTQ equality. On police abuse, Trump’s Department of Justice has ended important police reform measures and Trump has explicitly condoned police brutality. Young people are at the forefront of the movement for Black lives, pushing for urgently needed reform. On climate change, Trump rushed to withdraw the U.S. from critical global environmental agreements. Young people, who are inheriting environmental crises not of their own making, want to see real action to address climate change. And on and on. 

Young people are paying attention. They are recognizing the need for a sea change. And they are engaging not only as organizers and voters, but also as candidates.

As the leader of a nationwide program to help progressive young people win races for local and state political offices, I have seen an outpouring of diverse young people who are interested in running—often for the first time. These are rising superstars who are leaders in their own communities, even if their names aren’t in the national headlines (not yet, at least). In 2018, they are running for school boards, city councils, and other local positions in a tidal wave that could transform local governments. They are running for state legislatures in elections that could shift party control and have huge implications for redistricting. And in years to come, they may be running for representative, senator, governor or even president.

We saw the beginnings of this in 2017 with the young progressives who won seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and in elections across the country. This included leaders like Melvin Carter, an advocate for children and families who was elected to be the first Black mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota. It included trailblazers like Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to become a state legislator, who won her race against a right-wing incumbent who described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” It included Justin Fairfax, only the second African American to be elected statewide in Virginia, who as lieutenant governor is already taking important stands for racial justice and has a bright future ahead.

People like Melvin, Danica, and Justin aren’t hoping for a new political landscape—they are creating it.

Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African American congresswoman, famously said that “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Young people, especially young women and young people of color, are not seeing their interests represented in our politics. So across the country, they are adding their names to the ballot and bringing their own chairs to the table.

Lizet Ocampo is the political director of People For the American Way.