As 2022 draws to a close, The Fulcrum has invited leaders of democracy reform organizations to share their hopes and plans for the coming year. This is the ninth in the series.
Zaidane is the president and CEO of the Millennial Action Project.
Empathy and humility are underrated attributes of great political leaders. In this era of historic polarization, different political tribes reward leaders for different reasons. What traits do we celebrate? Who are we spotlighting? How does this recognition influence the society we’re creating?
As a nation, our social contract has frayed. Trust is broken. We need a path to civic renewal. That path requires empathy for people not like us, and it will be charted by leaders, both in and out of office, who have the humility to understand they need their opponents to heal the divide. This is the type of leadership worth celebrating.
I have good news: there are people, even elected officials, who are working all throughout the country on mending divisions. Gen Z’ers and millennials in particular are dissatisfied with the divisive politics of our parents’ generation. They understand trust and relationships power good governance. Through my work with young state lawmakers, I see firsthand how the most productive and effective leaders are the ones willing to get to know their political opponents. They invest time in establishing trust with the other side so that they can work together to pass policies with real impact. And it works.
At the Millennial Action Project, we created the Rising Star Awards to celebrate incredible young state lawmakers who are bridging divides in their legislatures. Our fifth annual ceremony, held just last week, put a spotlight on remarkable leaders who can serve as the model for creating relationships and restoring trust in the political arena.
Aaron Pilkington was elected to the Arkansas House at 27 years old. He quickly rose in the leadership of his party, eventually chairing the committee charged with electing more Republicans to the Legislature. Even as a partisan whose job it was to score electoral victories for his own party, Pilkington forged creative policy alliances across the aisle. He met Democratic Rep. Jamie Scott through the Arkansas Future Caucus, and together they wrote legislation that would provide health screenings and prohibit solitary confinement for those who are pregnant while incarcerated. The effort passed with bipartisan support. This momentum created a runway for their next collaboration — legislation funding food pantries to tackle food scarcity on Arkansas campuses. Pilkington is an excellent example of how someone can stay true to their political beliefs while still working with the other side to get results.
Last week, the Millennial Action Project named Pilkington a 2022 Rising Star Award recipient for his work to transcend polarization. In his acceptance speech, he talked about his fellow young policymakers and how important it is to put resources toward civic renewal: “We’re better than where we were 50 years ago, and we’re going to be in a better place 50 years from today because of the young people in this room.The future depends on the success of these efforts that support leaders who may differ in ideology but work hard to find common ground to solve the issues that impact us all.”
Now entering his sixth year in the legislature, Rep. Aaron Pilkington remains committed to working with newly elected young legislators from both sides of the aisle. He’s training a new generation of leaders who govern better than their predecessors.
Rep. Jeremy Gray also received the 2022 Rising Star Award for his bipartisan leadership. In Alabama, a supermajority state controlled by Republicans, the Democratic Gray has to work with the other side to get anything done. But there’s a deeper motivation to his crosspartisan efforts as well. As an advocate for mental health and wellness, Gray is looking to make sustainable changes to the way his state supports these vital aspects of his constituents’ overall health.
In order to pass legislation that survives the long haul, he knows he needs buy-in from the other side. That requires building deep relationships with his colleagues in the state House to understand who shares his commitment to these goals and whom he can work alongside to move legislation past the finish line. Gray partners with his young Republican counterparts to help pass impactful policy, including legislation that lifted the 28-year ban on yoga in Alabama’s K-12 schools. He was recently nominated by Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, to serve on the Alabama Statewide Health Coordinating Council and Innovate Alabama, where he can work on health and wellness issues at a systemic level.
He is a model for how young leaders refuse to succumb to the temptation of political gridlock that characterized a previous generation of politicians.
The Rising Star awardees are just two examples of a trend we see throughout the country. Each of these crosspartisan wins build on top of one another. It makes the next win that much more possible. We’re creating a healthy civic flywheel between young people and the young elected leaders working on their behalf. As we show more cases of young elected leaders achieving tangible results for the next generation, we can inspire more young people to participate in the civic ecosystem. This leads to diversifying the electorate, strengthening the incentives for legislators to pursue good governance and reinforcing the bonds between the next generation of civic participants.
Celebrating stories of collaborative governance matters. And the trust and relationships being forged throughout the political system — both within legislatures and between elected officials and their constituents — is the groundwork we need for civic renewal. Change isn’t just coming, it’s here. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that change and the empathy and humility that makes change possible. And let’s share the good news with others, so we can continue making that civic flywheel spin.