The Power of Abundance: Engaging Youth in Political Change

Jacquelyn SullivanEmerson, Updates

Above: Jacquelyn Sullivan, 27th Class Emerson Fellow.

There is a moment in every student’s life where the academic meets reality. I began my undergraduate career at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, with an intent to study political science. I sat through countless introductory courses learning about political theory and democratic engagement, but the lessons didn’t quite resonate with me. In need of community engagement hours for a service program I was involved in on campus, I began doing work with a local food distribution site. Each week we would provide meals for community members, many of whom were experiencing homelessness and/or food insecurity. These meals served as a temporary fix to a much larger systemic issue, but it felt unimaginable to break down these structural barriers as a college student with little experience. As I began to grapple with the historical depth of issues such as systemic racism, food apartheid, and class conflict, there was a moment where the political focus of my education and the reality of poverty and hunger in the United States melded into one. Years later I am grateful for the opportunity to explore these connections in a professional setting, and to be promoting youth-led federal policies.

The Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellowship provided me with the foundation to understand policy as a means to foster communities of abundance rather than scarcity. During my field site placement at Project Bread, I helped create a tool called the “Action Academy” with the purpose of engaging stakeholders in Massachusetts interested in creating a hunger-free state. Through this experience, I gained research, data analysis, and writing skills that challenged me to identify the root causes of issues like hunger and poverty. These skills enhanced my work at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), which was my policy placement. CLASP is a national anti-poverty nonprofit that focuses on “reducing poverty, promoting economic security, and advancing racial equity.” They work to advance policy solutions that will reduce poverty and promote economic opportunities for low-income individuals, particularly low-income people of color. This is done through six Issue areas: Children, Youth, & Families; Education, Labor, and Worker Justice; Federal Spending Priorities; Health & Mental Health; Income & Work Supports; and Racial Equity. Over the course of my policy placement, I worked on CLASP’s Youth Policy Team which seeks to create youth-inspired and youth-led policies and community strategies that promote the sustained security and well-being of youth and young adults.

The Youth Policy Team works directly with around 40 young people from across the country inspired to create systemic changes with their best interests in mind. These “changemakers,” ages 15 to 32, comprise “A New Deal for Youth,” a youth-led effort that reimagines life for young people in the U.S. The bulk of my work on the team was with our legislative scorecards, an idea from a changemaker to score federal legislation based on youth policy priorities and provide feedback for future legislation that better connects and engages young people. The scores were based on questions including: Does the policy shift power, decision-making, and/or resources to youth and young adults?​ Does it dismantle institutions and systems that have become complacent? ​Does it support young people’s liberation? In order to actively engage young people in policy, it is important to acknowledge the ways our current political system excludes youth and to respect the expertise of their lived experience. The youth-led initiatives, supported by the Youth Policy Team, prioritize the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of young people. Through these legislative scorecards, I was able to participate in the long-term creation of policies that comprehensively support the lives of young people. Promoting youth-led and youth-centered legislation will not only create larger youth political participation, but will also create better conditions for their success, whether it be through mental health resources, community safety, or food security.

CLASP introduced me to a new form of anti-hunger work that allowed me to build connections between the multi-faceted scope of CLASP’s issue areas and my steadfast interest in food justice and food sovereignty. Given the strong food policy foundation I gained at Project Bread, my work at CLASP challenged me and expanded my prior knowledge and skill set. This notably manifested itself through my first blog post at CLASP which focused on the release and social reintegration of individuals with past felony drug convictions and the policies that make this process extremely difficult. I was able to go beyond a traditional understanding of the impact of the criminal justice system and write about the increased rates of food insecurity among formerly incarcerated individuals and the need for legislative solutions.

I am grateful for the knowledge I gained and the invaluable connections I built during my time at CLASP. Their Youth Policy Team provides young people, including myself, with the resources, decision-making power, and support to create concrete policy changes that operate in the best interest of our lives. Many organizations state their intentions to center those with lived experience but struggle with the implementation of this intent. Throughout my time at CLASP, I learned how to meaningfully engage those directly impacted by the policy solutions and systems change efforts that we work to lead and support. CLASP showed me that this should not only be a stated priority but is crucial in anti-poverty and anti-hunger work and is extremely attainable. Rather than uplifting marginalized voices, we shift power to them. There are enough resources, talent, and will to end hunger and poverty in America. When we use this understanding of abundance to collectively shift power, we can reimagine systems that promote economic justice and food security for all.

About the Authors

Sullivan headshot

Jacquelyn Sullivan

Emerson Fellow

Jacquelyn Sullivan (she/her) is a North Carolina resident and a recent graduate of Guilford College where she studied Political Science and Community Studies. She has spent the past few years learning and growing in her passion for food justice, and has worked particularly with communities experiencing food insecurity and homelessness in Greensboro, N.C. During her time at Guilford, she has gained the skills to be critical and reflective about our food system, an understanding that was transformative in her further work locally and with the National Farm to School Network. She is driven by the need for a comprehensive and anti-oppressive food system that is focused on anti-poverty and anti-hunger, and centers the voices and needs of communities farthest removed from achieving autonomy over their food system.

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