Richmond mayor and Miller Center director deliver talks on youth engagement

The event was hosted by Student Council and sponsored by the Miller Center of Public Affairs

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Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney began his lecture at the Miller Center by discussing his entrance to political engagement.

Jake Gold | Cavalier Daily

Student Council held a forum Friday afternoon entitled "How to Fix American Democracy," part of the 2018 Tom Tom Founders Festival. The two-part event — hosted by the Student Council and sponsored by the Miller Center of Public Affairs — centered around youth civic engagement and ways to increase voter participation in the U.S., especially among students. 

The event began with faculty and community member-led Lawn room discussions. The discussions were followed by keynote speeches from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Miller Center CEO and Director Bill Antholis at the Miller Center building.

Stoney focused primarily on engaging students and young people in his address.

“For young people, I would request that you not shy away from engagement … speaking your mind, speaking truth to power as well,” Stoney said. “I think what we lack … is the ability, the willingness, for people to stand up and move the needle.” 

In 2016, Stoney, then 35, became Richmond’s youngest-ever mayor. As Secretary of the Commonwealth and advisor to former Gov. Terry Mcauliffe (D), Stoney also played a key role in the governor’s 2016 executive order to restore voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons in the state of Virginia. 

Stoney also encouraged young people to take a stand against issues they experience in their own communities on a daily basis, not just during election years. 

“Elections should not be the only time we actually hear from students or from young people. You have to be involved 24/7. From what’s happening outside your front door … to what building might be erected in your neighborhood, we have to hear from you,” Stoney said. “And that’s why I think it’s … very, very powerful to see young people involved at the local level.”

Antholis’s speech was geared towards institutions and the ways in which social aspects such as new technology and the media can be used to strengthen American democracy. 

“There is a lack of faith,” Antholis said during his remarks. “If the institution’s not working, it’s because we’ve lost faith in that institution’s ability to govern us. So, rather than complain about that institution, take responsibility for fixing it.”

Antholis, a University alumnus, formerly served as the managing director of The Brookings Institution — a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on international relations, economics and other areas of public policy — from 2004 to 2014. From 1995 to 1999, Antholis held various posts in the Clinton administration. 

This was followed by an hour-long panel session featuring Listen First Project founder Pearce Godwin and founders of the Modern American Party  — a third party seeking “contemporary” solutions through technology and social media — Wyatt Melzer and Jane Brady Knight. Both groups are aimed at promoting dialogue between political factions and inspiring young people to take a more active role in politics. 

The panelists discussed their views on the current political environment and the most important issues facing American democracy, as well as ways to mend partisan divides in the U.S. and inspire students and others to speak out and to make changes in their communities. The discussion was moderated by Liam Wolf, a fourth-year Engineering student and former Student Council chief of cabinet, and the panelists each took questions from the audience. 

The forum itself was originally inspired by an article published in The Washington Post in October 2017 titled “Fix This Democracy—Now: 38 Ideas for Repairing Our Badly Broken Civic Life.”

“After reading that article, we thought, ‘Why don’t we bring that conversation to the University of Virginia?’” Wolf said in an interview with the Cavalier Daily. “I think this is something that students should have a voice in, thinking about these issues … This should be the beginning of the conversation.” 

Student Council then reached out to Antholis, along with the Tom Tom Founders Festival and the University’s Center for Politics, who were supportive of the event, especially as it meshed with the College’s Democracy Initiative, an interdisciplinary research project seeking to better understand democratic systems.

“We had been thinking about these themes and ideas for some time,” Antholis said. “We’re very interested in working closely … with the College’s Democracy Initiative, so when we saw that students were bringing this up on their own, we got pretty excited.” 

Wolf said he was hopeful that students who attended the event would be to able to expand on the topics brought up during the discussion in their daily lives. 

“I really hope that the topics we talked about today … led to action items that we can take and share with other students at the University, allowing these action items to then be the beginning of conversations on how we can make an impact on democracy,” Wolf said. “I hope for these conversations to be the beginning of action by our students.” 

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