In the wake of the high school mass shooting last week in Parkland, Fla., students have become the face of the movement for legislative change. With the help of a hashtag, they have inspired students across the country to stage protests and walkouts over the issue of guns and school safety. Their activism showcases the power and drive of a generation that grew up with social media and the internet.
In many of the capitols they visit, they will likely encounter lawmakers who are young people themselves. In fact, Congress and almost half the states -- including Florida -- have a caucus created for and by millennials.
Last week, Virginia became the 22nd state with a bipartisan caucus of young lawmakers meant to focus on the issues most important to millennials. The Virginia Future Caucus, as it’s called, is inspired by the Millennial Action Project, a national bipartisan organization that encourages young people to get involved in politics and to build coalitions once they are elected to work on issues important to millennial voters.
“If government functions effectively [in the future], it’s going to be because young leaders bring that to fruition,” says Steven Olikara, president and co-founder of the Millennial Action Project. “[Millennials] want to get beyond party tribalism. That doesn’t mean we don’t have different values or policy priorities, but we want to listen to each other, and we want to be solutions-oriented.”
The states with symbols indicate the existence of a millennial caucus. (Source: Millennial Action Project)
“Statehouses are where most young leaders are taking their first steps into politics,” Olikara adds. “That’s where so much of the action is right now. And some of the most innovative legislation has been bubbling up at the state level, so that’s really exciting.”
In Virginia, the caucus comes at an opportune time: The 2017 elections brought an influx of young legislators to the state. Fourteen of the 19 new delegates elected last year are under the age of 45. That’s the age cutoff for the Virginia Future Caucus, which currently has about 20 legislators in it. (The average age of the delegation is 52.)
“Over the last couple of election cycles, you’ve seen the delegation get younger and younger, and that is bringing a fresh perspective to the oldest legislative body in the world,” says 28-year-old delegate Jay Jones, who is part of the Virginia Future Caucus.
Jones says his legislative priorities are increasing government transparency and finding new ways for the public sector to use technology.
Like Olikara, Jones believes lawmakers (and voters) in his generation are less concerned with party loyalty and more willing to work across the aisle. The Virginia Democrat's fast friendship with Emily Brewer, a 33-year-old Republican delegate who was also elected last November, is proof of that.
The two are both from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia and share many mutual friends, though they hadn't met prior to their new member orientation. They appear to have struck up a genuine friendship, and they’ve co-sponsored a few of each other’s bills already. Brewer, for example, supports Jones' bill to create an alert system for "critically missing" adults.
“I have had several pieces of legislation already that both Republicans and Democrats have signed onto, and I think that speaks volumes,” says Brewer. “In the Future Caucus, there are a ton of things we can work on that I think of as totally nonpartisan. Stuff like rural broadband access.”
This is precisely the kind of cooperation that Olikara says makes these kinds of caucuses important.
“Millennials are the next generation to be in power," he says. "By virtue of us being in our 20s and 30s, if you can cultivate that [bipartisan] ethos now, you can build a pipeline of leadership."