Standing in the rain outside a polling place today, touting my spouse/candidate for U.S. Congress–Arthur Lieber– I struck up a conversation with a young guy doing the same for two other Democrats–Tracy McCreery and Jill Schupp. His name is Rasheen Aldridge, and he was a ray of sunshine on a wet Election Day.
We talked for more than an hour, only stopping when the occasional voter showed up. It took only a few minutes for me to realize how remarkable this 20-year-old really is. And, if there are a lot more young people like him, a cynical old liberal like me can feel some renewed hope for the future.
We covered a lot of territory in our conversation. I learned that Rasheen has been fascinated by and engaged in politics for a long time. His mother ran—twice—for a seat on the City of St. Louis’ Board of Alderman, but lost. As a young teenager, Rasheen knocked on doors for her and helped out at the polls. I learned that, when he was just 8 or 9 years old, he found himself fascinated with vote counts, public-opinion polls and statistics that revealed political trends. By the time he was a teenager, he was already a political wonk.
More recently, he has helped organize minimum wage protests among fast-food workers. Last year, he lost his job at Jimmy John’s sandwich chain—presumably, he says, because of his political activism. He was fired for being three minutes late to work—an infraction that is not supposed to result in termination, unless you’ve been written up for similar violations three times, he noted. People rallied around him and staged protests to try to get Jimmy John’s to reinstate him, and that’s when he met one of the Democratic candidates for whom he was poll-watching —Tracy McCreery, who stood by him at one of the protests. “That meant a lot to me,” he said
Now, his early obsession with politics is evolving into a course of study: He’s a student at St. Louis Community College, where he’s working toward a major in—naturally—political science. He’s conversant with a lot of political issues: We talked about Claire McCaskill, Todd Akin’s 2012 “legitimate rape” gaffe, the sad prospect of a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate, and the unfair, biased coverage of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“I think some people think Ebola is just another name for Obama,” joked Rasheen.
He gets it. He gets what politics is about, and what voting is about. He gets it in a way that too many younger citizens don’t, and that older activists—as much as we hammer away at it, have trouble getting across—because we’re….old. He’s working the polls, said Rasheen, because “politics has an impact on our lives,” adding that the people we elect make laws that affect everything we do—and too many people just don’t see that.
I love hearing that from a young person.
But what really got me about Rasheen was what he told me about his engagement in local issues—specifically, the situation in Ferguson, MO. He doesn’t live in Ferguson. But he cares, and he’s doing something positive about it. He told me that he has been in Ferguson for almost all of the 80 days since the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson incident, attending peaceful demonstrations and trying to raise awareness of the injustices of the current police and courts system.
He’s president of a group called Young Activists United, which is trying to get African-American students engaged in the political process. Right now, in anticipation of whatever announcement comes out of the St. Louis County grand jury’s investigation of the Darren Wilson case, he’s leading the group’s effort to stage peaceful demonstrations after the announcement. As we spoke, he took several phone calls from people wanting to know where the next meeting was, how to get the word out, and what the next step was going to be. [Yes, I eavesdropped a little. Sorry.]
Spending that hour or so with Rasheen was the best part of my day. I can only hope that there are a lot of other Rasheens out there, doing the political trench-work, not giving up, staying engaged, using their considerable energy, intelligence and talent to effect change, encouraging others to join up, and pushing for a better system. My generation tried, but from the looks of things on Nov. 4, 2014, essentially failed.
Rasheen’s story tells me that the torch has been passed and is in good hands.