In Washington, D.C., eight students currently have positions in Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
In the unique city of Washington, D.C., the only community in America with no representation in Congress, eight Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) are particularly unique: They’re university students.
ANCs are elected officials representing Single Member Districts in the city, neighborhood-sized constituencies of about 2,000 people. Despite young Americans finding new avenues for political activity, few actually run for office. These eight students are trying to change that, in hopes that other students will also be active in their local governments.
American University student Joe Wisniewski and George Washington University student Patrick Kennedy are two of the eight students who won elections in D.C. Both emphasized the importance of student involvement in local public affairs and how crucial it is for long-time residents and students to work together.
Wisniewski and Kennedy both had experience in local government prior to running for office. Wisniewski was a high school intern in city government in his hometown of Valparaiso, Ind. Kennedy interned at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and in Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s office.
Before deciding to run for office, the students attended ANC meetings. Kennedy’s first meeting explored plans for a new campus building, one that raised concerns among the neighborhood’s long-time residents.
“I sympathized with the community because it would have torn down some older townhouses,” said Kennedy, who also became more active in the neighborhood association and met many active residents. “I got to know the people involved and the community perspective.”
Wisniewski said as he learned more about ANCs, he came across residents who didn’t even know the position existed.
“The one thing I noticed is people didn’t know what the ANC was,” he said. “One voter asked me, if the ANC had been around for 40 years, why he hadn’t heard of it. I was seeing residents who were not well represented.”
That was why he decided to run.
Although most other cities do not have ANCs, students can still get involved in local government by running for local legislatures or school board, volunteering, joining neighborhood associations and speaking at meetings or even interning in local government. Kennedy noted that although not all departments have paid internship programs, many do hire unpaid interns, which is a great way for students to get involved and have an impact.
“Students have time to give and can use their time to give back or get involved in the community,” he said.
Students who run for office have to appeal to a broader range of constituents, not just students. Both commissioners had to reach out to long-time residents since most students in D.C. keep their voter registration in their home states. Wisniewski noted that his district was created out of an area no one wanted to represent. It includes several large apartment buildings where seniors and other long-time residents live alongside university students. Wisniewski had to prove himself and earn their votes.
“ANCs are about neighborhood character and it made more sense to unite together. I wanted to bring all of these perspectives together,” he said.
Kennedy emphasized the importance of not just focusing on the needs of the university, but also the needs of the whole community.
“Students have a lot of responsibility to get involved by contributing to non-student issues,” he said.
Wisniewski and Kennedy said it’s possible for local government to be what the Peace Corps was to the Baby Boomers and Teach for America was to Generation X. Wisniewski talked about 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the recession and other experiences that forced students to pay attention to the direct impact of government. Both commissioners are working to build an infrastructure for students nationwide who are seeking public office.
Michael Staude, a lawyer at the University of Wisconsin, was an alderman in Madison, Wis., from 1997 to 2001 while he attended college. He had this advice for students: “I encourage students, to look into serving in government or public service,” he said. “It can be a great opportunity to learn what is involved beyond the headlines and actually make an impact on issues important in our community.”
“On a day-to-day basis, state and local government has a greater impact on your lives,” Kennedy said. “You have more freedom to set the agenda and pursue a personal issue. You’re only as strong as your nexus, your local community, your family.”
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