By Niyat Mulugheta, a junior at Harvard studying Government and Economics. She serves as the Vice-President of the IOP's Student Advisory Committee.
"Congress is officially less popular than syphilis."
This is one of many punch lines that have been used to describe the American electorate's disillusionment with today's ever-gridlocked Congress. In the Institute of Politics' fall 2014 Harvard Political Opinion Project poll of Millennials, 60 percent of respondents disapproved of Congressional Democrats, and 72 percent disapproved of Congressional Republicans. To most people, these negative sentiments among young voters are not surprising. Looking back over the last couple of years, with the shutdown of our government and lack of respect, let alone compromise, across the aisle, the disillusionment completely makes sense. However, one thing we tend to forget as we continually bash politicians, is that we elect those who serve us -- they don't just magically appear in the halls of Congress. Ultimately, the real power to change Washington is in our hands.
That being said, I have reason to believe the future of politics is less bleak than our present situation would suggest. As a young person and an African-American woman, my optimism for a more inclusive, tolerant, and representative system of government is supported by the rapidly changing face of our country, and consequently, our politics. Even though Congress is still 80 percent white and 80 percent male, the 114th Congress is the most diverse in history. We are slowly moving in the right direction, and it is the job of our generation to continually push for a government that reflects the diversity of the American people. However, as the government begins to better represent our differing opinions, theories of change, and backgrounds, we need to find ways to effectively communicate with each other. We should try to learn from the faults of our current government and pursue progress through compromise, rather than letting our differences divide us.
Here at Harvard University's Institute of Politics (IOP) -- a living memorial to President Kennedy aiming to inspire students, particularly undergraduates, to enter careers in politics and public service -- this inspiring vision for the future of politics has motivated new programming centered on facilitating dialogue and action around these issues to ensure that we are creating positive change. One of our two newest programs is the Politics of Race and Ethnicity committee, which is focused on creating a sustained, nuanced, welcoming, and informed discussion on the intersection of race, ethnicity and politics. The second of the two new programs, the Campaigns and Advocacy Program, introduces students to the function and structure of political campaigns. Both of these programs provide a space for young people to grapple with and address the issues that continue to plague our nation. Having participated in the Politics of Race and Ethnicity program and a few of the other skills-based IOP programs, such as the Women's Initiative in Leadership, which focuses on developing strong, effective women leaders, I feel empowered with the skills and vocabulary to participate in transforming the way we think about politics in our country.
Even with all of these amazing opportunities, it is the hundreds of other students also involved in these programs that I have learned the most from. The students who spend countless hours writing policy proposals on issues they care about. The students who tutor Harvard employees who are taking their citizenship tests. The students who teach civics classes to elementary school students. These students, along with others who engage in countless other activities that emphasize the importance of politics and public service have shown me that no matter how different we are, when we come together and work toward a common mission, we can make a difference.
By surrounding myself with all of these passionate and motivated individuals, I have faith that my generation will move our country in the right direction through action and ingenuity. Young people have always been at the center of major change, and it's time we take our place in history.
As we begin this journey, I hope we keep in mind President Obama's words during his 2008 campaign, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."