You’re the One We’ve Been Waiting For: Why Young People Should Run for Office

We are in a period of political transition, and the old ways of politics are fading in favor of the new ideas of our youngest generation. As the planet, our country, and our communities are embroiled in crisis, the young people of the world are our eleventh hour and brighter day. Our saviors and the answers to all of our prayers are on the horizon. We see their ship break across that strip of water between sea and sky, but they have not arrived yet. We need merely wait.

As a member of this generation, one surging toward progress, I cannot deny that this optimistic feeling is correct. We’re bringing solutions aimed at some of the biggest issues of our time: the climate crisis, racial injustice, economic inequality, a backsliding democracy, and on and on. But we simply do not have the luxury of time. Our generation is running fast into the business of changing the world because we understand the urgency of the moment we are in. There are many ways to do this, and I’m here to present one that’s often overlooked: young people can—and should—run for political office.

You have probably sat through a number of presentations about the importance of voting, being civically engaged, and holding your elected officials accountable. I do not deny that these are all incredibly important tools at our disposal as we work to remake the world. At the same time, running for office is an option that is not often presented to young people, and as a result, many of them simply do not consider it feasible. I’ll tell you that it is not only feasible, but it is also something you should actively consider.

I just finished managing a campaign for Maddy Ranalli, a current Harvard student who ran for Newton City Council in their recent special election. Maddy is a 20-year-old progressive policy wonk, an identity which embodied the campaign we ran: a fresh, bold, ideas-based campaign that has built a movement in Newton calling for progressive change. Our team found a groundswell of support among other young people who shared Maddy’s urgency and thoughtfulness. Based on my experience managing her race, I’ve found that there are many lessons to be gleaned from Maddy’s campaign. 

First, local offices are within reach for young people. We tend to associate running for office with hundred-person, million-dollar Congressional and Senatorial races, but local offices are far more accessible and just as important. As a candidate, you’d be running in the community you are a part of: you know what your community needs, what it lacks, and where it excels. You know where the potholes are on your block, where the sidewalk has fallen apart, and where the parks are in disrepair. You know the local businesses which have served you well over the years, and you know the vacant storefronts whose owners packed up and moved away. Maybe you do not know the power players of your town or city, but you know the dirt, cement, people, and businesses that make up the DNA of your community, and you know where it needs fixing. Run on your experience.

Second, young people can amass the same amount of support as their older counterparts. Maddy’s campaign was backed by a dozen organizations, over 60 endorsements, and hundreds of volunteers. We had people from Massachusetts and across the country interested in helping elect a young person to local office. This base of enthusiastic supporters is entirely replicable: there are people and organizations out there who want to see young people run for office, and will actively help young candidates as much as they can. You only need to do a little digging to find people who will throw their all behind you. If you do not have any experience with campaigns, they will help you build one. If you have big, bold ideas and need to translate them into concrete policy points, they will help you do so. A particular lesson I’ve learned in my time organizing campaigns is that other young people, especially, will have your back.

Third, do not listen to the people who tell you to “wait your turn.” There will be plenty of people who will demand you go about running for office a certain way: start off by joining a certain organization, then perhaps apply to a commission, and maybe five, 10, or 20 years down the road, you can run. Don’t listen to them. If you have the ideas, the drive, and the organization, you can run whenever you please. There is truly no one-size-fits-all way to go about running, nor an exact prescription for changing the world. Don’t be discouraged by people trying to suppress your energy—your youth is your power.

If you decide to run, one of the most important pieces you’ll need to assemble is confidence in your own ideas and your own candidacy. This looks different for everyone, but I can assure you that if you are standing with the leagues of young people calling for a more just, righteous, and  better world for all, then your ideas are the ones we desperately need. Your candidacy is more timely than ever, and you belong to the group of the “ones we’ve been waiting for.” You’re not a great candidate despite your age; you are a great candidate because of your age. The experiences of being a young person in the world today are so radically different from other age demographics, and governments across the board need more representation for young people.

I would be remiss, however, not to address the privilege inherent in being able to run for office. There are structural barriers in place. It is time-consuming and difficult to run if you have to work full-time or have other responsibilities that fill up your schedule. People of different marginalized identities face different biases among the electorate. That being said, there are groups and individuals working to bring down these structural barriers, and I hope we can see a day when they’re eliminated completely. In the meantime, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons for yourself.

To get to a more just world, we’ll need the forerunners of our generation to open the doors and shatter the barriers that stand between us and the future. There is an optimism burgeoning among many people in the United States today that our generation will be the deliverers and redeemers. That being said, I must also acknowledge the pessimism lurking below the surface that the task ahead of us is too difficult, that our society is not built to withstand the titanic change we need, and that it is instead built precisely to prevent it. 

In his Prison Notebooks, political philosopher Antonio Gramsci articulates this problem perfectly: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” We know that the old way of doing things never worked and needs to be replaced, but the forces built to defend the existing order are preventing new ideas from taking root. The young and the new are contending with a world that is calling for them to take charge but never intended for them to lead.

We need forerunners to break through the inertia that embodies our current system and hold open the door for the rest of our generation. This is why we need as many young people, including college students, running for office as possible. Every storm needs its omens. This movement of young candidates is the drop in temperatures, the gathering winds, and the wisps of dense clouds which are precursors for the rain to come. They are the gusts that will fill the sails of that faraway ship and pull it toward land. The destiny of our generation is written in the sky.

Whether you’ve thought about it in the past or not, I want you to lean in, listen closely, and truly consider running for office. Promise me you’ll at least mull over the thought in your head. Perhaps float the idea to a friend, or write it down in a notebook. This initial step can be how your campaign gets started. And when the time comes, when we’re standing on the shores of a better world, I hope I’ll get the chance to shake your hand and thank you for running when you did.