Travis Nembhard is the youngest judge in Washington, D.C. and is currently considering a run for the District of Columbia’s City Council. Generation Progress connected with Travis, a seasoned activist on education issues, to talk about what he’s learned from the White House to his local government experience and his ideas for the Millennial generation to build power in the short term and over the next four years.
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.
You’re a lawyer and administrative law judge by day and an advocate for adult literacy and D.C. statehood by night. What’s your advice to young people who, similarly, want to weave the causes they care about into their daily living?
I admit, it gets difficult and I myself am susceptible to losing motivation at times. But this is what I’ve identified works for me.
First seek out causes that you most deeply care about. Focusing on a cause you care about will allow you to do more in your free time, without it necessarily feeling like you’re just doing more work or another tedious task. I personally focus on expanding educational opportunities because I experienced first-hand the difference a good education makes, especially in the lives of the disadvantaged. As a high school student, I attended a school system that had an abundance of resources, motivated teachers and peers, and advanced coursework. Contrastingly, when I was younger I went to a school system that lacked most of those important things. I struggled to do well and had no interest in succeeding in school; often barely passing. Thanks to my parents, I was able to move out to a better school district and began to understand the importance of embracing education, eventually excelling where I once failed. I cannot say for sure that I would have ended up where I am today, the youngest judge in the nation’s capital, had I stayed in that first school system. It’s because of this that I want to help those who were not given the opportunities that I was given—the shoes could’ve just as easily been switched.
Secondly, stay organized as much as possible. I’m not the most organized person in the world, but keeping an up-to-date calendar is one thing that helps me keep some semblance of sanity daily. I make it a point to add any commitments, potential commitments, or reminders to my calendar via my phone. My Google calendar is linked to everything and I can’t tell you how many times my phone has saved me with a notification telling me I have an event I need to attend in 30 min, with a link to Google Maps informing me of the fastest way to get there.
Lastly, don’t bite off more than you can chew. I know it seems like common sense, but be careful not to over-commit yourself to too many obligations. It can often feel overwhelming and may even discourage you from getting more involved. Also know that it’s okay to say “no” sometimes. When holding a job separate from your role as an advocate, you have to be careful not to burn yourself out. Being an advocate can be rewarding, but it can start to feel burdensome if you aren’t intentionally balancing it with time for yourself and your friends and family. Admittedly, there are some days I just feel like hanging with friends or relaxing with my fiancée. Make sure you’re never so busy that you can’t make time for yourself!
You’ve spoken about your interest in turning fellow Millennials into effective lobbyists—can you elaborate on that? What exactly does that look like?
As Millennials we have a unique ability to shape the direction in which our country, communities, and lives are going. For the first time in the history of D.C., there are more Millennials than any other age group in DC; they’ve surpassed the senior citizen population. Millennials played a pivotal role in helping President Obama get to the White House, and have put issues like student debt on the radar of numerous legislators around the country. We have done great things as a unified electorate, but there is more we can do. One idea is to turn Millennials into effective “citizen lobbyists.” Lobbyists by definition are just individuals who are hired to go speak with legislators and strategically vocalize their concerns in a way that will help shape the actions of those legislators. We can get a lot done if we mobilize as a group and regularly sit down with our local, state, and federal representatives to address issues our generation will have to confront.
For example, as a former legislative counsel for a D.C. Council member, I would often draft bills on behalf of the Council member for individuals who came in to speak with us. They didn’t really do much other than come in to speak with me (and sometimes the Council member); lay out their arguments; answer any questions we had; and follow up with us. Given my experiences with the D.C. Council, I recommend young resisters take the following steps in order to become effective “citizen lobbyists”:
- Know who all of YOUR elected representatives are. While many representatives may be sympathetic to your concerns, it will usually be the ones who have you as a constituent that truly work to resolve your issues. Know your U.S. senator, U.S. representative, state senator/assemblyman, governor, and mayor.
- Build a relationship with those representatives BEFORE you necessarily need their assistance. As their constituent, you are entitled to have access to them. It may take a few weeks, but if you’re persistent you will eventually get on their schedule. It is not necessary, but it will be strategically beneficial to introduce yourself to the representative and to hear them out on what issues they care most about. Stay cordial with them and bounce ideas off of them regarding matters you find important. Lastly, let them know you wanted to reach out to get to know them. Hopefully, the conversation will have gone well and (irrespective of their party affiliation) you both walk away feeling positive about the discussion even if there were points of some disagreement. Many times you will be communicating with their staff first; that’s okay because that’s typical due to the representative’s busy schedule. In fact, most of the bills/actions taken by representatives are envisioned, developed, and initiated by the staff; so building a relationship with them is often times just as important, if not even more important.
- Follow the work they do and the issues that matter most to you. I typically use “Google Alerts” to track what my representatives are doing and what issues are arising in my area. If something comes up that the representative does, which you feel is wrong or POSITIVE, reach out. It is important that you don’t just contact them when they do something wrong. If they introduce a bill that you support, encourage their work and let them know you support it. If there are particular provisions, make sure you let them know which ones you like as there may be other interest groups vying to have those provisions removed.
- When that day comes (for many of us, that day is now) where you want your legislator to take a stand on something controversial or difficult, setup time to meet with them. There is strength in the appearance of large numbers, so bring 5-10 people that agree with you, and meet with the representative. If you bring too many your representative may be intimidated, and ultimately annoyed; bring too few and you may be seen as simply an outlier or singular voice.
- Follow-up with them to check the status of the bill or request. It will keep the issue on their radar and ensure they make your request as close to a priority as possible.
We know that the fight against the regressive policies that this administration will inevitably roll out is going to be a long-term battle. What are some of the concrete ideas you have for resisting the Trump agenda in the coming months and years? How do you plan on acting on those ideas?
We have to combat the Trump agenda by offering counter policies from the ground up, by lobbying Congress in new, effective, and innovative ways. On my end, I am strongly considering a bid for elected office in D.C. I believe that some of our local representatives aren’t doing enough to protect DC from the invasive actions of Congress. Since DC is not a state, Congress has the final say over any legislation passed by the District. It is not enough for us to pass legislation and hope for Congress to just leave it alone. D.C. is one of the most liberal cities in the country, and with DC under the purview of an anti-progressive President and Congress, it will be a tough battle ahead in protecting our residents’ rights.
Ultimately, there are only two ways in which we can protect the laws we cherish (other than reliance on the Supreme Court); either we change it ourselves (as elected officials) or we get our elected officials to do what we feel needs to be done through political pressure. So to my Millennials out there, either serve as a “citizen lobbyist” or consider running for office in order to assist in resisting the Trump agenda in the coming months and years.
- Serve as “citizen lobbyists” for policies that will protect and insulate as much of your State and fellow residents from the harmful effects of the Trump agenda;
- Like myself, consider running for office! If you disagree with how some of your representatives are handling things, you should strongly consider putting yourself into the decision-maker’s seat. It is too often we are told as Millennials that we are too young and that we need to wait our turn to have a seat at the table; but if you have ideas that resonate with the public and the law allows for you to run, by all means you should run. Let’s prove to the country that energy is not wasted on the youth.
Our generation writ large faces the unique trio problem of low incomes, high debt, and worse job prospects. How do you think we get our issues the attention they deserve by legislators? You’ve said before the best way to lobby for change is to present legislators with solutions to our issues—what are some workable solutions you see in this space that people can advocate for at the state level?
I couldn’t agree more that the trio problem of low incomes, high debt, and worse job prospects are a huge dilemma facing our generation. I think we do need to present solutions to legislators if we hope to have them address our concerns in the way we would like to see it addressed. While solutions vary based on the region, the state, and the locality, there are some general solutions that people can advocate for at the state and local level:
- Push for an increase in minimum wage laws if your state hasn’t done so already;
- Create or increase state funding towards educational opportunities for individuals who are willing to obtain training for jobs where there is a need (e.g., technology-based jobs like programming);
- Work with universities to lower college costs; especially state universities and community colleges. There should also be stronger oversight over how state universities are spending their money, in order to limit the university costs being passed on to students;
- It is to the benefit of state governments to retain their populace’s talents. Convince the state to offer full scholarships to students that agree to working for their state’s various agencies for a certain number of years. This encourages talent retention especially in areas that suffer from “brain drain” when they lose many of their graduating youth; and
- Provide educational seminars or mandatory high school offerings which cover the loan process, so that students can be educated on common pitfalls of taking out debt, opening credit cards, and looking at the terms of what they are signing up for. Many students are unaware of federal grants and scholarships, as well as the benefits to taking out public loans as opposed to private ones.
As a seasoned advocate for progressive policies and someone who has worked in and around politics for some time, what role do you see our generation playing not only in the resistance but also in the larger movement for progressives to win more races in 2018?
I think our generation is the youngest informed generation in the history of this nation given our accessibility to technology and information. As a result, we have our youthful energy in combination with our ability to receive, comprehend, and retain important issues facing our country. Like I said, energy is no longer necessarily wasted on the youth! I know that if we mobilize together we will be able to effectively shape our country’s future. Our generation continues to move the needle in the right direction. Because of us, politicians are continuing to discuss; criminal justice reform; equal rights for LGBTQ people, women, and minorities alike; debt reduction; along with green energy and much more. We now know that political wars are won from the ground-up; not necessarily from the top-down. We have to keep the fire burning in the hearts of our generation. We cannot allow our current motivation to recede or get snuffed out with time. If we can keep the intensity of the current climate going, into the 2018 election, we will undoubtedly win more races and even the majority. Our generation is a group connected by technology in ways no other generation has been connected before, and we need to take advantage of that fact.
Follow Travis’ work on Twitter at @Travis_Nembhard.