Mississippi resident Curtis Hill is a 2014 recipient of a Marguerite Casey Foundation Sargent Shriver Youth Warrior Against Poverty Leadership Award. In this essay, he shares what he learned as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C.
I thought my morning commute during my first month this summer as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. was simple: Catch the Metro subway near Catholic University of America (CUA), get off at Union Station, ride the Navy Yard bus to the Supreme Court and then walk to the Rayburn House Office Building, which is part of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Anyone who has ever worked on Capitol Hill knows this is not an efficient way to travel to work. My commute mirrored my intern experience: I had the ability to perform tasks, but I lacked efficiency at first. I had worked for more than six years at the Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Holmes County, Mississippi, co-leading community outreach programs aiming to improve academic standards and abolish corporal punishment. But Capitol Hill presented a learning curve.
It took a while to get accustomed to life in D.C., home of the Supreme Court and White House. I’m from Lexington, Mississippi, a rural town in the Mississippi Delta. Lexington might be small, but I was instructed by extraordinary community members and had experiences that went beyond anything my high school offered. Still, my summer internship experience was quite new to me – everything from Ubering, working in Congress and finding a work-life balance.
I worked for Congressman Bennie G. Thompson, who represents Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District (which includes Jackson, Greenville and Lexington). He kicked off my cohort’s intern experience with words that will stay with me forever. The congressman told us we were bright students, but that was not the sole reason he selected us. He selected my cohort because he wanted to give Black youth the opportunity to experience and serve on Capitol Hill. “Take the most out of this experience,” he told us. “You all, and the rest of Mississippi’s youth, are special.”
As an intern, I helped ensure the day-to-day operations of the office moved as smoothly as a swinging pendulum. This entailed reading legislation and briefing the congressman, responding in a timely manner to constituents and carrying out tasks deemed time sensitive by the chief of staff. It took me three weeks to become accustomed to working in a congressional office. Like my work, my morning commute eventually became more efficient: Catch the Metro subway at Brookland-CUA, transfer at Metro Center and travel to the Capitol South station, which is closer to the Rayburn House Office Building.
Working in Congress helped me realize young people are in a special position to bring together generations because of our collaborative approach to organizing and leading. Instead of using policy to create political barriers for families and communities, we should collaborate on multigenerational effects caused by these barriers. This would result not only in breaking these barriers, but also in creating a universally inclusive space. As young leaders, we should inspire other youth to make a difference and be a powerful force in the formation and implementation of public policy that supports people. For example, the young people organizing for gun control in Parkland, Florida, used media outlets and protests to not only get their message out but to also inspire action.
However, as illustrated with the Black Lives Matter movement, it is not enough to just include the voices of the young – we must create a space for multigenerational collaboration. The Black Lives Matters movement consisted of young people and their elders organizing to raise awareness of the violence imposed on Black communities by law enforcement and governmental powers.
Sometimes both the younger and older generations don’t understand why things are the way they are. We often know something is wrong, but we do not know how it came to be – and we do not know how to fix the problem. It is important for young leaders to gain greater understanding so we can share it across generational lines and create effective strategies for making change.
Understanding history is a key element in generational understanding. I believe the role of millennials is to develop creative solutions within communities and work with existing organizations to build new ones to lift up widespread understanding. The late activist Marcus Garvey once stated, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
History shows that sustainable change is accomplished only when oppressed communities are organized in a unified way to use their residual power to overcome a dominant culture. Young people need to build a strong enough coalition to ensure that progress continues even after the loss of a key leader.
As a community organizer, I’ve worked at the grassroots level. I’ve stood alongside community members, demanding positive change from public officials. Most importantly, I’ve learned the virtues of community organizing: investigation, critical analysis, education, negotiation and – if needed – demonstration.
I realize there are hurdles to overcome when implementing good public policy to alleviate poverty and support families. It seems to me that the path to solving issues faced by communities leads to a common place – the office of elected and public officials. This has fueled my career aspirations of attending law school, becoming a civil rights attorney and continuing to participate in public life.
Working for Congressman Thompson afforded me the opportunity not only to be able to read and interpret the law and legislation but to also have a dialogue with community members about what a particular law or legislation might mean and how it will affect them. For that, I am grateful. I learned again that change is often made where power lies and when people listen.
As I return to my classes at the University of Mississippi this fall, the Metro subway in Washington, D.C. will cease to be how I measure efficiency. Instead, it will be replaced by my community work with families in Mississippi.