Over a week ago, the nation’s Black political, social, religious, and media leaders descended on Washington, D.C. for the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) or as it is affectionately referred to by regular attendees, Black prom. Beyond the fact that it was the first time in nearly a decade that the conference was not buoyed by the presence of the Obamas, something else was remarkably different this year. In the midst of a hostile political climate that threatens all the progress that has been made over the last three generations, a new generation of Black leadership, anchored by millennials, is emerging to confront the biggest challenges facing our communities.
One thing was abundantly clear during this ALC: there is a new guard prepared for leadership, and these young Black leaders represented to demonstrate that we are indeed ready for the challenge. Rep. Cedrick Richmond (D-LA), 44, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, presided over his first ALC. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) took center stage as promising future presidential hopefuls. Thousands of millennial elected officials, young professionals, and activists attended ALC to demonstrate that millennials are not content with being the change we wish to see in the future, determined to manifest that change today.
The political impact that millennials have had, and will continue to have, on American politics cannot be overstated. We are the most diverse generation in the nation, 49 percent of millennials are non-white, and generally lead with identity politics. Millennials are also the single largest voting bloc in America, representing 69 million eligible voters, enough to determine the outcome of any national election. The emergence of millennials into electoral politics propelled former President Barack Obama to victory in 2008 as 62 percent of new voters were under the age of 30. And millennial discontent denied the presidency to Hillary Clinton in 2016 when nine percent of voters under the age of 30 splintered from the Democratic Party and voted for third-party candidates. Harnessing the political power of this generation is not just critical, it is essential to the fate of progressive politics in America.
In pursuit of this objective, three millennials and I founded the Purple Aisle, an organization dedicated to incubating young leadership and bi-partisan solutions to our community’s biggest problems. On the last official day of ALC, the Purple Aisle convened millennial leaders, hosted by elected officials all under the age of 35 representing the most important battleground states in the nation:
• Dr. Wes Bellamy, Vice Mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia
• Shannon Hardin, City Councilman from Columbus, Ohio
• Jewel Jones, Michigan State Representative
• Shevrin Jones, Florida State Representative
• Jaiza Page, City Councilmember from Columbus, Ohio
• Jermaine Reed, City Councilman from Kansas City, Missouri
• Emelia Sykes, Ohio State Representative
The convening focused on ways to support and enhance young leadership, develop resources for local impact, explore scalable policy and programing solutions, and determine the best practices for organizing and engaging millennials. Dr. Wes Bellamy, vice mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, described how critical it was to employ unconventional and innovative mobilization tools to organize and protect young demonstrators as White supremacists and Nazis descended on his city in one of the most hostile eruptions of racial tension observed anywhere in the nation this year. This is the unfortunate reality that young leaders have stepped forward to confront head on.
As transformative as the Purple Aisle convening proved to be, it was one of over 100 such meetings that occurred during this year’s CBC-ALC. Beyond the usual pomp and circumstance and substantive discourse and strategy sessions, millennial leaders engaged this year’s conference with an urgency and appetite for progress that I have not experienced in over a decade of attending Black prom.
Needless to say, engaging the body politic every day in D.C. can be rather dejecting in this political climate. Being surrounded by dynamic, ambitious, selfless, servant leaders during this year’s CBC-ALC restored my faith in the process, and in my generation. We have a lot to learn, but we also possess a new approach to leadership that we want to teach. To channel the prolific millennial philosopher Kendrick Lamar … long as we got us then we gonna be alright!
–Terrance Woodbury is a social scientist. He works as a senior analyst at Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies where he conducts market research, including focus groups and public polling, that help candidates and companies target and communicate with diverse audiences.