by Robert Emmons, Jr.
My job as a social innovator requires me to be curious about everything. In social innovation, the question, “why” or “how” become tools rather than barriers. Those questions allow the observer to begin to truly build an understanding. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in the design process is to allow guesses to guide decisions. That is why before deciding to run for US Congress in Illinois’ First district, I decided to spend three month asking questions and building trust with my community.
Last weekend, while collecting petitions in Woodlawn, I met a group of young people who were hesitant to provide their signatures. Most of those who decline to sign our petitions might be in a rush or simply not interested giving me their support. In most cases, trust doesn’t play a major factor in their decision.
When this group of individuals declined to sign my petitions, that wasn’t the case. They weren’t telling me they didn’t have the time or didn’t care for politics. In fact, it was the opposite. What they wanted was an explanation as to why I should be trusted. Simply telling them who I was, and what I hoped to achieve while in office, wasn’t going to cut it.
What followed was an extemporaneous town hall.
From healthcare (how to pay for it) to the Climate Crisis, I answered their questions and addressed their concerns, each of them as valid as the last. By the end of it, I found that I was able to alleviate much of the concerns they had about politicians. One of them had recommended a book to me on the interconnectedness of major issues in our communities. Another young woman happened to be the niece of one of our board members; she went went so far as to sign up to volunteer. Another offered to have me speak to his group at COAL. And the last individual wouldn’t sign the petition at all, but I believe she went home and donated $20.20 after listening in and perhaps googling my campaign issues page.
This event reminded me of my own behavior not so long ago. I saw the same level of distrust that I had myself for so many years. But at the same time, I saw hope in the absence of trust. While each of the individuals I spoke with was skeptical of politicians, they still believed that our political system could solve big problems.
Our youth aren’t lazy or apathetic towards politics, they’re skeptical of an unjust system.
It is upon us, those who seek the support of our youth, to regain that trust. Whether or not we are incumbents or challengers, we must acknowledge that this is a new time, a new moment in our country’s political trajectory. Saying that our youth — those who comprise the very future of our nation — are uninterested in politics is not only false, but disrespects legitimate grievances towards a system that has been built over generations.
In an uncharted political landscape, we now have the chance to renew that trust in our youth. We can show them that the vision we have for a better community is no different than their own. I’m proud of those who do not just sign our petition. They do not indicate a generation that is losing interest, but one that values accountability.
Prior to running for Office, I also worked in Civic Engagement with the Obama Foundation as a Community Leader (consultant). The key to the lessons that I taught was an orientation to civics that I had learned from my grandmother. She taught me that civic engagement wasn’t just about voting, it was about holding our elected officials accountable each and everyday; it’s about working to make our community stronger and more resilient.
I love earning the trust of my future constituents. That constant curiosity keeps me honest and authentic. So when I tell folks that I am a Gun Violence Prevention Advocate, Social Innovator and nonprofit leader who is running for congress to make this the last generation to be faced with everyday gun violence, I pray that I continue to hear the question “why.” And I will continue to be honored to answer that call.