By Grace Rogers, Rowan County Senior High School and Morehead State University Environmental Eagles
Tuesday morning, I found myself nervously gulping coffee and jittering my way down I-64 from Owingsville to Frankfort. I, a 17 year old from rural Kentucky, had been invited to a roundtable discussion with Senator Bernie Sanders and DNC Committee Chair Tom Perez. I was only going to be able to ask one question and I was unsure what it should be. The night before, I spoke with fellow roundtable participants Dana Beasley Brown and Jessica Hays Lucas, both of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, about what issues were most important to target. The task of narrowing our concerns to one simple inquiry was daunting. How were we to condense the entirety of our lived-experiences and the challenges our neighbors face into one question?
As I made my way through Lexington to pick up my friend Jon Johnson, a fellow KSEC member and eastern Kentuckian who I planned to bring along for moral support, I mulled over ways that I could pose a question to address the heart of the many issues that affect Kentuckians. Talking on the phone with KSEC Organizer Cara Cooper, I decided it was imperative to voice my concern about the lack of young progressive candidates in our state. In Kentucky, it is a rare occurrence for a person under the age of 40 to run for office, and when they do, it seems they gain little support from the establishment. If the Kentucky Democratic party and the DNC expect millennials to show up to the polls they need to support young progressives who want to run for office, whether that be for the local school board or for congress. Young people are not apathetic, there are simply very few candidates who appeal to our values, and very few establishment politicians who bother to listen to our ideas or struggles. This is what I chose to express to Senator Sanders and Perez because it addresses the base of Kentucky issues. If people continue to show up in low numbers to vote for moderate Democrats, radical Republicans will continue to win. If the Democratic party supports progressive candidates, more young people will feel motivated to show up to the polls. They will feel that they are supporting their values by voting.
When Jon and I arrived at the Kentucky Coffeetree Cafe, where the roundtable was to take place, we were welcomed by employees of Mic, the national media company hosting the discussion. The room was buzzing with aspiring politicians, journalists, DNC employees, and roundtable participants. We introduced ourselves to each other while we waited for the cameras to be set up. I was reeling with anxiety, but once the roundtable began, my nerves began to dissipate. Sitting around a table with Senator Sanders and Perez was initially intimidating, but as my fellow Kentuckians began to ask questions, I realized that these two politicians, although given much weight by the media and the government, were no more powerful than any of us others at the table. It was empowering to hear the words of KFTC members Dana Beasley Brown, Tanya Torp, and Gary Bentley and to realize that their intellect and ability to frame their stories absolutely measured up to that of Senator Sanders and Tom Perez. Their compassion was obvious and immense in the face of celebrity politicians. This opportunity to directly compare the tactics of big time politicians to that of grassroots advocates created an intense juxtaposition which allowed me to see why People Power is so important. Justice is most likely to be achieved when decisions are being made by those who are directly affected by the issues at hand.
I’m grateful to have left that room knowing that the voices of real, involved, working-class Kentuckians had been heard. It was wonderful to hear our voices uplifted and to know that politicians were listening to our struggles. Hearing Senator Sanders respond to questions about a Just Transition from coal to renewable energy in a way that was inclusive to the interests of coal mining families was refreshing and brought me hope. Asking Tom Perez to address the Democratic Party’s lack of support for radically progressive candidates felt powerful. Hearing Dana Beasley Brown’s story retold by Perez later that night during the rally in Louisville allowed me to feel as if Kentucky’s most dedicated advocates were finally being acknowledged.
Despite all of the positivity and empowerment this experience gave me, I felt let down the next morning when I read a photo caption from Tom Perez’s Facebook page which sorely misrepresented my identity and values. It reads, “Grace is from a coal mining family in Morehead, KY. She spoke with us about her ideas for getting more millennials and fellow high schoolers involved in the Democratic party, and how money can often be a barrier for young people trying to run for office.” This information is not factual. I am not from a coal mining family. My maternal grandparents have been distantly involved in the coal related industry, one working for a factory which produces coal conveyer belts, and the other being a biological surveyor of potential mine sites to ensure that they are environmentally suitable for mining. I am also not from Morehead. I live in Bath County Kentucky. I never once said that I would like young people and high schoolers to get involved in the Democratic Party. I have no opposition to this, but I would never limit my desire for young people’s involvement in democracy to one party. It is my hope that all young people develop the analytical skills to think outside of party lines. I understand that these are minor misrepresentations, but this oversight made me feel like an exaggerated story published to push the Democratic agenda. There is no need to tailor my story to their needs because there are real 17 year-olds with coal mining families who are trying to decide whether to stay in Kentucky or leave. If that’s the story that Tom Perez feels should be told, he can go to one of Kentucky’s many coal communities and ask a high schooler with a coal mining family about her concerns.
Although this minor misstep was disheartening, I have profound gratitude for my fellow Kentuckians who spoke at the roundtable on Tuesday. They reminded me why it’s important to continue fighting this battle and that so many people are advocating for change across this state. The experiences that they brought to the table and the solutions that they offered through their questions gave me the energy to continue fighting for justice in my state as long as I’m here. I’m so glad that Senator Sanders and Tom Perez were willing to speak to us. Their notoriety and political acumen elevated our concerns more so than the media generally does. I feel as if I’ve finally been heard.