This article originally appeared here and was written by Denise Ryan.
Young Vancouver activists got some inspiration Sunday from one of America’s rising political stars.
Symone Sanders, who at 24 became press secretary to Bernie Sanders in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, was in the city to coach young people involved in the Fresh Voices Forum, a conference that connects young B.C. activists with legislators and stakeholders.
That Symone Sanders found a moment in her schedule for Fresh Voices was something of a coup. Sanders — no relation to Bernie — is so busy that she recently had to turn down an invitation to the White House Christmas party.
Sanders, who hails from Omaha, Neb. in America’s heartland, says she gets her political streak from her mother and grew up tagging along to community meetings and protests. A stint as a college communications intern at the office of the Omaha mayor was a baptism by fire. The young intern had to navigate a mayoral recall campaign. Sanders became engaged in communications at all levels of government, from municipal to statewide before she set her sights on Washington.
Sanders says she wanted to be “in the fray of politics.”
What spurred her to throw herself into national politics then is even more resonate now, after Donald Trump’s electoral win. “I feel like the messages that are delivered do not click with communities that look like me, whether it’s young people, women, people of colour. That is because people that look like me are not helping craft the message.”
In 2014 Sanders hit Washington with her resume, and landed 27 job interviews. Not one of the people that interviewed her look like her — young, black and female — and not one of them hired her. She began to question her own vision. Was there really a place at the table for her? Then Bernie Sanders’ office called.
She told Sanders exactly what she wanted to do with the campaign. “I said I want to be national press secretary, I want to do television, radio and do on the record interviews and have a hand in crafting the strategy.”
She got the job. Sanders helped craft Bernie Sanders’ racial justice platform and bridge the gap between activists and policy-makers.
“I joined the campaign in July 2015, and from July to September every place we went to there were young people, Black Lives Matters members, justice advocates. He sat down and he met with them. We had listening sessions after the rallies. No press. He would ask them what we needed in our racial justice platform. It was informed conversations with young people and grassroots organizations.”
The Fresh Voices initiative, sponsored by the Vancouver Foundation, offers young Canadians a similar opportunity to listen, and to be heard.
Diego Cardona Ospina a University of B.C. political science student originally from Medellin Colombia, attended the conference.
Ospina became involved in Fresh Voices after some soul-searching, and trying to understand the feeling he had as a refugee child navigating Canada’s public school system.”I felt challenges with integration, and isolation, and I felt that I wasn’t being treated in a fair way, and I wasn’t being assessed the same way others were.”
The challenges are systemic, says Ospina. “There was a reason we refugees were not able to graduate, there was a reason we didn’t want to go to school. It wasn’t just us being lazy.”
Ospina is lobbying for change around “English Language Learners,” or ELL students who have to take English language courses in high school, but don’t get credit for them.
ELL learners take longer to reach graduation because although they already speak a second language at home, their English language classes don’t count as electives or second language credits. ELL students effectively have to earn more credits than English speaking students to graduate.
Sanders has concrete advice for Ospina and the other young activists. “Strategize,” says Sanders. “A protest is a statement. A strategy is something that sustains a movement.”
Strategy means coming out of meetings with a plan, and connecting with the people who organize and legislate, says Sanders.
“If you want to be effective, you have to be at the table,” says Sanders. “You need to identify what are your immediate issues and what you are going to do. You have to have policy prescriptions.”
Although she hasn’t given up on politics, Sanders says she has drawn a hard line in the sand when it comes to the incoming Trump administration. “People say to me, if he calls you, you need to come. I say no I don’t, and I won’t.”