I found out about the free pizza with Keith on Facebook. Free pizza with my most favorite congressman, like ever? OMG! I quickly signed up.
Full disclosure:I am a rabid, fawning fan of and hopeful volunteer for Ellison and the campaign (provided no restraining order is placed upon me). When I received the event reminder on Facebook, I realized it was an event for TEENS! My friends who shun this networking medium and only use Linked-In, because they’re ADULT are cackling now. Psych! as we said in the 80s…when I was a teen. Sigh….
Outside Congressman Keith Ellison’s office, thunderclouds threatened Monday night, while inside, future voters aged nine to 22 found a place to express a storm of questions and emotions about the state of their world.
“We ordered a mess of pizza for all of you. There’s cheese pizza on this table here,” gestured Ellison, as he stood before a growing crowd of hungry teens. Between bites, he engaged attendees, asking where they were from, what they liked to do, what kind of skills had with a slice of ‘za.
“I have a special talent,” Ellison confessed, “It’s god-given, truly. I can eat a slice this way (traditional), from this way (crust first) and even rolled up. You can’t deny I’ve got skills.” The youth drank it in, laughing, as they settled in for serious chowing down before making a YouTube video (below), and talking with Ellison.
“Fifty-five attendees signed in on Monday, which is great. Some of these names are parents but the vast majority are the high school students who attended,” said Dave Wakely, political director for Ellison for Congress. “Our aim is to have 20,000 new voters in 2008. We will be getting people out to vote and not all will be newly registered. Some of these voters haven’t participated in elections since 2000. We think we will register at least 2,000 [voting age] high school students from the 5th congressional district by the fall,”
While registering voters is a big part of the Ellison for Congress campaign effort, the teens in the room did not seem excited by statistics about voter turn-out or plans to get out the vote. The campaign’s youth organizer, Simi Murumba (age 20, a 2008 Wellstone Fellow) stepped in to change the flow.
“Now’s the time where YOU can talk to Keith.” she reminded the teens. “What issues are important to you? What do you want us to focus on?” One youth raised questions about super-delegates. Ellison said that he is one, but that, “unlike Superman, I cannot fly and CERTAINLY do not wear a cape.”
Amid much giggling and snorts from the crowd, he continued: “I hate the idea of super-delegates picking the Democratic candidate. I believe, you DON’T – TAKE IT – AWAY- FROM THE PEOPLE!” Students applauded his response, and continued with renewed enthusiasm and more questions.
“Our school faces enormous cuts,” said Sameer Adam, class of ’08 and student council member at Robbinsdale Cooper. “And our principal and others are asking that a levy referendum be voted on this fall. Will you back our referendum?” “Absolutely!” responded Ellison. “Sameer has raised an issue that actually MEANS something to all of us. Do you guys know what a referendum is?”
As a woman pushing 40, I was amazed as a show of hands indicated that most students did know.
With Sameer’s help, Ellison explained that Robbinsdale Cooper High faces a $9 million-plus budget deficit and that all of their programs are at risk. Sameer said that their class size is an amazing 40-45 students per class.
“I am in full support of you,” Ellison said. “We must ensure that all K-12 programs get the funding they need. And you can quote me on that.” He encouraged the youth by explaining that their voices were needed. They had to tell people that 40 kids per class is not okay. Robbinsdale Cooper principal Mike Favor, a former classmate of Ellison, was not available for comment at the time of this story’s submission.
“The big picture here is not how things are going to get funded,” Ellison told the youth. “It’s about the politics of a generation. This is our opportunity to make a solid, positive change.”
“Why is it,” a young man asked “that it seems that an education tax is the only tax people can opt out of? It just doesn’t seem fair!”
Ellison explained to the group that some sales taxes are also offered and voted on via referendums. “However, I don’t accept an argument like, ‘why should I have to pay for education? I don’t have kids. It’s not my problem.’ Not your problem? Don’t you want an educated community? Look, we’re all in this together. You may not need this now. But you WILL need this [an educated populace] someday.”
Ellison used analogies that mean something to teens. Well, mostly. While explaining line-item budgeting and how budgets are made he said, “Think of it this way…you plan ahead. Say you want to go to the roller rink on Saturday…do you guys still do that?”
A sheepish grin spread across his 40-something face and he laughed at his own naiveté.
“You want to buy an I-pod, is that better? Okay – you have to save for it, but you make choices so you can buy it.”
Continuing discussion ranged over topics including health care, immigration, guns, the Iraq war, and U.S. support for Israel. Some youth raised questions about specific legislation like S-CHIP & HR676 (Single Payer Health insurance) and the DREAM Act, which would allow children, regardless of their immigrant status, to apply for college and qualify for resident tuition rates in the places where they’ve lived most of their lives.
It wasn’t all sugar. Some kids were there to challenge the congressman. Adrian Eberhardt, an 18-year-old African American youth, raised his hand, saying that capitalism oppresses people and advocating socialism.
“You support Obama,” he said. “I saw you at the Target Center with him where he said that it was the right of everyone in America to an education. It sounds like a form of socialism to me. Do you support that or not?”
“Let me tell you what I support,” rejoined Ellison. “I support health care for everyone. I support education for everybody. Now I call this an ‘-ism – schism’. What is needed is that we find how we can work together to make things better for all.
“How old do you think the people were who helped lead the civil rights movement? They were your age…. There are exciting things to do. We have a chance to empower others. Give them the power, help them to vote.
“This is about generosity and inclusion. And not about the politics of fear and exclusion. We are better off when everyone has a chance to learn and when we ignore people trying to make money by the politics of fear. Let’s cut everybody in!”
Youth from Kwanzaa Community, Anoka/Hennepin, Roosevelt and South High as well as Volunteers of America broke into small groups to discuss and to create action plans – on anything that mattered the most, to youth. The room was busy with great ideas, high ideals while proud adults stood back and smiled. And I was one of them.
Rachel Dykoski, a freelance writer living in Whittier, is a volunteer for many DFL candidates running for election in 2008 and serves as the party’s affirmative action officer in Senate District 61, which is a part of Congressional District 5.