Ezra Temko, Delaware’s youngest City Council member, spoke on the “Running for Office” panel Friday afternoon in front of the nation’s future progressive policy-makers at The Roosevelt Institution’s National Student Expo in Washington, DC, on July 11.
The 22-year-old Temko got his start in politics through the Roosevelt Institution, the nation’s first student think tank. Before starting an RI chapter on his campus, Temko hadn’t thought much about local policy; now he helps make it. “I think that Roosevelt is tremendously beneficial in helping you talk about issues and helping you to become vision-oriented to really answer questions,” Temko said.
Temko is part of a group of more than 8,000 reform-minded students on seventy-five campuses who have funneled their political vigor into policy papers, lobbying efforts, and pragmatic dialogue with community leaders–activism that eschews bullhorns and raucous marches and instead seeks to work through a system that is often disconnected and at odds with the needs, interests, hopes and dreams of today’s youth.
The Roosevelt Institution’s third annual National Student Expo showcased the organization’s most innovative policy proposals of the year. “For students in college, it’s the make it or break it time for political involvement,” said Orriel Richardson, a law student at George Washington University who is starting a Roosevelt Institution chapter on her campus. “You have the kids who protest the war and see that war persists and then they’re disenfranchised from the system, as opposed to a student policy think tank that lets you learn that, yeah, you can protest the war, but it’s one of a bundle of elements that need to be addressed to effect change.”
Many of the RI students’ brightest suggestions are detailed in 25 Ideas, an annual publication that brings together twenty-five succinct policy suggestions developed and written by students around the nation. The proposals run the gamut in suggesting ways to tackle the social ills of today–from community-run rooftop gardens to improving flexible tax structures to promote low-income business, to suggesting radical national electoral reform.
As the introduction to 25 Ideas says, “While we hope that you will enjoy reading these ideas, they are not meant to stay on your coffee table. Some ideas have ramifications for those who work at the federal policy level; others, at the state or municipal level. Still other focus primarily on what universities can do. So no matter what level of government you focus on–or even if you are still a student–there is an idea in these pages that you should consider acting on.” Ideas aside, the publication’s value is heightened by the clear, simple language used throughout allowing the book to function as an informed guide for students, activists, politicians and community members to take action on local and national issues.
Tim Krueger, a recent Cornell grad who coordinated policy for the criminal justice publication, said some of the ideas presented in the publications are really locality-specific, increasing the likelihood that regional leaders will heed the proposed policy suggestions. “We’re trying to build relationships with state legislators, especially in districts from which we’re sending a lot of the ideas,” Krueger said. “In Ithaca we already have a relationship with some of the local legislators, so we’ll give them our publication, sit down with them and immediately start discussing the issues.”
This year’s break out sessions included “Step Right Up: Policy 101;” “Hit Your Mark: Legislative Outreach” and “Enter the Blogosphere,” featuring panelists from the AFL-CIO, ACORN, and Campus Progress. “We’re now faced with unprecedented challenges that not just you as a young person might not have it sorted out, nobody does,” Policy Director and Expo organizer Caitlin Howarth said. “We say, look, we’re not gonna wait until we’re 30 until we really take it seriously, we’re gonna start now. Let’s leverage our resources and be a movement. But a movement that’s about substantive change. Do our homework and have our shit together. Nobody is gonna tell us that we don’t know what the hell we’re talking about because we’re gonna know better than they do.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t kidding when he said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” The students at the Roosevelt Institution’s expo exemplified the motivation, courage and intelligence necessary to be the future leaders Roosevelt was envisioning.