The face of politics is getting a makeover, and it looks something like Kelsye Adams. The 28-year-old finance director and community activist joins the slew of millennials who are shaking the demographics of politics. In 2018, millennials only composed 6% of state legislatures across the country. That number is set to take a sharp increase in the coming years as more and more young people are opting to run for office on local, state, and federal levels. Local pioneers like Janeese Lewis George and Markus Batchelor are hoping to become disrupters in a movement of leaders that Batchelor describes as wanting to “be more radically honest about where we’re at in society.”
Batchelor, D.C. State Board of Education member, announced his candidacy for the independent at-large seat for 2020 in September to implement “big, bold societal change.. for people who had been failed by the system over and over.” Batchelor’s spirit of activism and civic engagement began in high school and followed him throughout his career across the mayor’s office and into his current campaign. Both Lewis George and Batchelor are gearing up for campaigns rooted in unapologetic honesty and urgency, and allow us, as Batchelor reflects, to “witness, firsthand, young people changing the face of leadership in this country.”
Leadership, however, takes many forms; it is often the people behind the scenes that move the pieces that propel change. Behind the campaign, there is a team of leaders that support the mission of the candidates. Kelsye Adams serves many roles, most notably as Director of Finance for Ralph Northam and Executive Director of Long Live Gogo, an organization aimed at protecting D.C. culture and creating nationally-recognized movements like Moechella the Million Moe March.
As a self-proclaimed “professional fundraiser,” Adams has worked her way up the political ladder, working behind the scenes to generate campaign funding through grassroots organizing. While still a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Adams took on a finance internship with the Democratic Party of Virginia before becoming a field organizer for a gubernatorial race the following year. In her first stride as a field organizer, Adams and her colleagues not only assisted the, then, lieutenant governor in a successful campaign, they also flipped several seats in Congress. Before she knew it, she was canvassing around the Virginias in hopes to flip the House and Senate chambers.
As time passed, Adams took a break from fundraising and canvassing and assumed other roles. In 2017, she took her fundraising expertise to the Ralph Northam Political Action Committee, where she quickly went from a Finance Associate to the Director of Finance. Though working for the governor’s PAC came with its share of backlash, particularly following the resurfacing of a racist photograph of Northam in blackface in a school yearbook. The finance director reflects that this situation actually “gave an opportunity for the PAC to do its job.” Following the scandal, Northam responded by allocating funds into several programs targeted to minorities. Adams admits that “she wasn’t too upset about what happened because it worked out in her favor” as it has “opened up a passion for me to work more with African Americans.”
Despite the dissent the governor received, Adams utilized the power of his mistakes to uplift her community and use the tools she gained in her political positions to support people of color who are running for public office. She serves as a financial and strategic consultant to a number of delegates, including several African Americans running for local office. As a millennial, Adams sees the value of putting new people in power to add fresh perspectives to policy and politics.
If millennials are to prosper in the political arena, they must use the influence of both media and money. As Jeanne Wardford of W.K. Kellogg Foundation stated, “The revolution not only needs to be televised, but it also has to be financed.” The stark reality, Adams sites, is that “you don’t have that much money, and your community doesn’t have that much money,” but we only fail each other by not supporting one another’s campaigns.
This new brand of politics also looks like movements like Long Live Gogo, where young people are charging their cities to retain culture and keep the spirit of the community alive.
Young people have the power to influence both public opinion and public policy when we decide to collectively support something. Within one week of Popeye’s release of its long-awaited chicken sandwich, the fast-food company incurred nearly $25 million in free marketing, largely fueled by Black Twitter. On the other hand, between January and July, young people ages 18 to 34 contributed a little over $5 million to Democratic presidential candidates, only 10 percent of total contributions among all age groups.
It’s no surprise that young people have the power to move markets and trends. Research suggests that young people’s untapped potential as campaign donors is largely due to a lack of capacity, rather than a lack of interest. Civic participation in this new age of politics looks like #DontMuteDC, Long Live Gogo, and Million Moe March, movements that Kelsye Adams has played key roles in. Millennial leadership has become increasingly grassroots and is moving away from conservative, traditional ways.
Knowing the power of money has allowed Adams to navigate behind the scenes to help campaigns raise the money they need to compete with incumbents and money-backed competitors. The Professional Fundraiser recommends that millennials “put up the money for the other millennials that they see running,” even if it’s only $2. “People fail to realize that a little bit goes a long way, and I want millennials to really realize that they can put their money where their mouth is.” Furthermore, she adds that “The whole atmosphere of fundraising is just unseen in millennials. People don’t even know about it, especially in the African American community.”
So whether it is rallying in the streets of Moechella or donating to the campaigns of our peers, young people are charged with the responsibility to increase civic engagement and finance the political revolution that we so often tweet about. Changing the face is politics may not be as simple as changing a lewk, but it does require similar tools: a good foundation, a strong team, and perhaps, most importantly, money.