In the past decade, 20- and 30-somethings have come to Philadelphia in droves, helping to breathe vitality into a city that had been shrinking. But many of those interested in civic engagement find the world of local politics confusing and decidedly unwelcoming to outsiders. And while the city has made some progress in bringing young people into City Hall, many others are finding it hard to engage with the cloistered world of Philly politics.
“There’s a perception that Philadelphia has a very entrenched political system,” says Claire Robertson-Kraft, board chair of Young Involved Philadelphia. “That you have know somebody to get something done; that you have know your ward leader to be able to be elected committeeperson — and in some cases that is the case.”
Young Involved Philadelphia — or YIP — is a group of civic-minded locals looking to get more young people involved in how the city works.
The first part of that effort is connecting young professionals with information about the political process. “Basic civic engagement,” Robertson-Kraft says.
But the second part is much harder.
“We’re trying to figure out how to get more people deeply engaged,” she says. “If they want to run for office … we want to find ways to inspire and encourage people to engage more deeply in the political process that way.”
Working your way into the system takes time and patience, Robertson-Kraft says. And while the city’s political culture can often throw up high barriers to entry, it is definitely not impossible.
“I do think that there are opportunities to get involved here — and that people just are stuck in the perception that it’s not possible,” Robertson-Kraft says.
So here are two stories of young Philadelphians turning that perception on its head.
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, 31, is an attorney in Philadelphia. After the presidential primary of 2008, he realized that Philadelphia election returns were not publicly available online.
The vote counts were posted, but they were only accessible to a select number of journalists and, as it turned out, well-connected politicians.
That struck Urevick-Ackelsberg, a law student at the time, as wrong. So he took action.
“I wrote a letter to the commissioner’s office, ostensibly based on the open records law, asking for them to remove the password,” recalls Urevick-Ackelsberg. “It just seemed crazy to me that there was this website but that it was password protected.”
The request was denied, and Urevick-Ackelsberg chronicled the drawn out appeals process on his blog. City election officials were then criticized in editorials. After much back and forth, the city did an about face — election results would be made available online, to everyone.
“This didn’t end poverty, this didn’t end the crisis of our public schools,” Urevick-Ackelsberg says. “It was something small, and I recognize that it was something small, but I do think you can make small changes.”
It’s something Urevick-Ackelsberg wishes more young Philadelphians took to heart.
“In my cohort, there is a misunderstanding of the barriers that exist to getting involved,” he says. “If people get involved and really, really push, there is a lot of room to make change.”
“If you’re someone who just wants to try it for a few months, gets discouraged easily, then this isn’t for you,” says Brendan Boyle, a Democratic state representative from Northeast Philadelphia.
He first ran for office when he was 27. He’s 35 now, but he doesn’t look it.
“My desire to run was a mixture of idealism but also frustration with the status quo that exists in Philadelphia — a sort of crusty, stagnant, old political culture that in my view was holding us back,” Boyle says.
The last vestiges of machine politics are still out there, he says, with a handful of people calling the shots and a general wariness of outsiders.
“Literally the first night I was calling local ward leaders to introduce myself and say I was planning to run for the seat, I had one old time ward leader say, ‘OK, kid, so who’s candidate are you?'” Boyle recalls. “And I was thrown back by the question. I said, ‘Well, I’m not really anyone’s candidate.’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, really. Who’s candidate are you?'”
The point was that in local party strucutre, if you didn’t know somebody, you were nobody. Boyle ran three times before winnng his seat. Through sheer persistence, he became somebody on his own.
Boyle, who also teaches at Drexel, wants more young people to volunteer themselves for elective office.
He says Philadelphia needs to do a better job of channeling its best and brightest into the political field.
“The fact that you have a generation that’s tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt — and who are finding it very difficult to find work — that’s something that folks in elective office need to be more sensitive to,” says Boyle. “And I can tell you, serving with them, they’re not.”
For now that means more focus on, say, Medicare benefits, and less on the student debt crisis.
But Boyle is optimistic. And hopeful that young people taking an active role in politics can actually shape change.
“When it comes to politics, so few people actually show up,” Boyle says. “On the one hand, that’s a negative message, right? Because it reflects a level of apathy out there. But on the other hand, it’s also positive, because it means that just a few dedicated people could make a real difference.”