by Nick Santangelo
Politics tend to move slowly. Real change often takes years or even decades to come about. For a Gen Z or millennial College of Liberal Arts (CLA) student, that can be off-putting. Just as you’re learning more about the country and the world and are prepping to make your mark, the political process glacial pace can slow even the best-laid plans to a crawl.
To help students see past that issue and understand how they can make an impact, CLA’s Master of Public Policy program, in partnership with NExT Philadelphia, welcomed Congressman Dwight Evans to Temple University’s Center City campus last week. Rep. Evans is a U.S. congressman for parts of Philadelphia, including part of Temple’s main campus.
He opened by reflecting on how “it’s ironic that in 2019, in a lot of ways, we are still in the same place” as the country was during the Jimmy Carter administration in the late 1970s. Black voters in particular were dealing with issues of inequality back then as they are now. The problem of needing suitable transportation systems for getting underserved people of color from where they live to where the best jobs are still exists all these decades later.
Some things have certainly changed, though. Today’s college students have more immediate and far-reaching communications tools with phones and social media than Evans did when he first entered public office in 1981.
“All of those tools, in my view, are organizing tools,” said Rep. Evans. “The tools that I had at the time was the good old telephone, canvassing, coffee klatches and you made up flyers.”
Students wanted to know specifics, though. Even armed with all these tools, how could they make big policy ideas like freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal a reality? Evans, who described himself as “results-driven” and a “governing Democrat,” challenged students to take action. The political process, he said, can only be driven by the party in power, which must be pushed by citizens who petition their elected officials to adopt an agenda that reflects their needs. “It just doesn’t happen through osmosis,” quipped the congressman.
Getting more serious, Rep. Evans noted that the country was originally built for and by white men and that Americans wouldn’t have things like the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act if Dr. Martin Luther King hadn’t been “an agitator” for President Lyndon Johnson. And more recently, the nation wouldn’t have gotten its first black president had his supporters not become politically active.
“Barack Obama would not have been president of the United States if it weren’t for minorities and young people,” said Rep. Evans. “There is no way he would have been president.”
Continuing, he noted that “those who have power don’t want to give it to those who don’t” but cautioned against what he called “self-destructive behavior.” When a student asked for an example, the congressman pointed to the recent partial government shutdown that made federal employees go without pay. While Rep. Evans claimed voters knew it wasn’t the Democratic Party that started the shutdown, the only thing workers ultimately cared about was if and when they’d get paid. That meant those voters didn’t look favorably at either Republicans or Democrats.
So while the congressman told students that it’s OK for Americans to have differences of opinion that lead to healthy debates, he stressed the need to make it all work somehow. While he admitted that “there’s no quick answer” for how to do so, he’s hopeful CLA students can contribute to some constructive changes.
“We have a lot of unfinished business,” concluded Rep. Evans. “It’s a reason why we need you, whether you be appointed or elected or just an ordinary citizen. This democracy is our democracy. It’s not the Democrats, it’s not the Republicans, it’s not Donald Trump. It’s all of us in this room.”