This interview is part of an ongoing series profiling young resisters taking actions in their communities and sharing their ideas for countering “protest fatigue” with sustainable ways to keep resisting the Trump agenda for the long-haul.
Zachary Ackerman is currently a City Council member in Ann Arbor, Michigan and is running for re-election in Ann Arbor’s 2017 election. Only two years ago, Zachary was a student at the University of Michigan when he first decided to take the plunge in running for office. Here, we talk with Zachary on his experience local to foster big change, armed with only city budgets and the desire to make progressive voices heard.
Generation Progress: You’re a 23-year-old elected official who beat out a fourth-term incumbent City Council member and are now running for re-election. What has being a young person in city politics been like?
Zachary Ackerman: Like with all things in life, being a young person in city politics comes with both benefits and downsides. Because I like to end on high notes, I’ll start with the downsides. While folks of older generations love to see young faces involved in the political process, the leap from voter to candidate can be met with a lot of skepticism. You will be questioned on your experience, your abilities, your judgement, and even your motives. You will be seen as malleable and short-sided. You will be asked how you can possibly relate to a family of four with a mortgage. But luckily, you have answers to all of those questions. Anyone who takes this leap has a story and passion that will speak to voters, you just have to put yourself in front of them. And that’s where the benefits of being young start to work to your advantage. You have the time, freedom, and energy to fully commit yourself to your interest in policy and your passion for community. At the local level, electoral wins go to the candidate who knocks on the most doors and makes the most phone calls. That’s because a message delivered in person is strongest. You may not have two kids and a mortgage today, but the decisions your local government makes now will impact the fiscal, economic, and environmental future of your community when that time does come.
But more than that, you have a different and important perspective. In the Ann Arbor Metro Area since 1979, households in the 90th percentile of income have experienced a 19 percent gain while wages have decreased by 14 percent for those in the 10th percentile. When communities discuss equity, the most direct impact their local governments can make is around housing affordability. And young people have the lived experience to speak as experts on that subject. While 55 percent of Ann Arbor residents rent their housing, until my election in 2015, there was not a single renter on City Council for well over a decade. While housing may not be the issue in your community, there are many critical issues that need your perspective.
You credit several current and former elected officials in your town for having taken you in and fostered your “nerdy” interest in politics. At what point in these conversations did you realize you had what it took to help make decisions on behalf of 25,000 constituents? What are some of the mistakes you made in your first run for office?
I was lucky to grow up in Ann Arbor. It’s the home of the University of Michigan, the birthplace of the Peace Corps and Great Society, and built upon dozens of unique neighborhoods. That inspires very engaged residents, but also attracts elected officials who very much want to engage those residents — even if they’re too young to vote. At 15, I started bugging elected officials, looking for opportunities to learn and work. I went from studying City Council agendas in high school to serving as special assistant to now Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (MI-12) in college. But there was never a single point in these experiences that it all clicked. I respected, but disagreed with the man who represented me and no one else was going to challenge him. So, I did.
My biggest mistake of the 2015 campaign was reading the comments section of our online newspaper (for the record, I do not live in my parents’ basement).
In college, you were a part of a youth advocacy group called STAND, which you credit with having been one of the most empowering leadership trainings for you as a young person. How has your student advocacy translated into the work you’re doing now as an elected?
For those who don’t know, STAND is a national student advocacy organization that pushes for U.S. foreign policy on mass atrocity prevention and civilian protection in war zone. STAND’s first generation of alumni quickly realized that sustained advocacy needed students educated on the nuance of security policy, equipped with the skills of lobbyists, and empowered to be community organizers. That’s because one of the greatest challenges for anyone is translating passion into policy knowledge and policy knowledge into meaningful change. These STAND alumni had become security policy wonks and Obama For America staffers, and they taught us everything they knew. They taught us so well that we, along with our partners, were able to secure an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 that increased transparency in the rare mineral trade coming out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a mineral trade that still fuels one of the deadliest wars in human history.
Student advocacy empowered me to be the content expert, pushed me to engage my community, and taught me how to tell my story.
We talked a little bit about how Trump’s budget blueprint will affect a city like Ann Arbor, Michigan. In very real terms what could this budget potentially mean for your constituents and what are you doing to protect communities hit hardest by these cuts?
There has been a lot of fear and apprehension about what a Trump administration would mean. If the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the first and second travel bans were not an indication of what these four years would hold, the Trump administration’s proposed budget definitely gives us a glimpse into what the next four years of our country’s infrastructure and human services could look like. These are unprecedentedly irresponsible budget cuts that states and local communities cannot shoulder.
But the $54 billion of proposed cuts are hard to think of on a human scale, so let’s just talk about the $6 billion cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In my home county, we are looking at over $5 million worth of cuts. These slashes hit programs that help kids after school, feed the elderly, build sidewalks in working-class neighborhoods, and house veterans. There is not a community in the nation that will not be impacted in some way by these cuts.
How to respond to these cuts is complicated and will vary town to town. Here in Ann Arbor, we will have to make some tough decisions. Do we sell public land to support and expand our affordable housing system (federal programs affected: Public Housing Capital Fund Program, Public Housing Operating Funds, VASH vouchers)? Do we cut our own programs to increase human services spending (federal programs affected: HOME funds, CDBG)? Do we sacrifice more potholes to make sure bridges are stable (federal programs affected: TIGER grants)?
It’s no secret that local elected office doesn’t come with your average national politician’s salary. Alongside working part-time in your role as City Council Member, you are also holding down a full-time job. Day to day, what does this balancing act look like in your daily life?
By day, I do also work for a management consulting firm. Fortunately, my company not only gives me the flexibility to meet with constituents and staff, but is proud of my work for the city. But it’s also no secret that you will give up evenings and some late nights to the job. Your time is not your own, and that’s an adjustment. But never feel bad turning your phone off on a Sunday.
Ann Arbor is my hometown and working towards its future is the most satisfying job in the world.
Rumor has it that when you’re not reading budget docs or committee reports you’ve usually got a quirky book or hobby in rotation. What are you currently reading?
I’m slowly (I mean really slowly) making my way through Doris Kearns Godwin’s Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Lyndon B. Johnson was a weird, weird man.
If you could be in an auditorium full of thousands of young people that were angry about the Trump agenda and fired up to take meaningful action, what would you say?
This will pass. But while it does, millions of Americans could be hurt.
Arm yourself with knowledge, but specifically knowledge on the local level. Start asking your locally elected officials how a Trump budget could affect your hometown, even your neighborhood. Armed with that knowledge tell your congressional representative what is actually at stake — your neighbor’s meals, your cousin’s after school program, the train you take to work, the bridge you cross to get home. These dollars can be measured in people and those stories needs to be told and told again.
Never forget that all politics are local.
Follow Zachary on Twitter at @A2Ackerman.