Last month, Kent Meridian High School Senior Blessing Mhlanga joined hundreds of students from communities across Washington for African American Legislative Day at the Washington State Capitol. The event brought a diverse set of voices and perspectives to Olympia to encourage young people to think about how they can improve their communities as future leaders. It was hosted by the Washington Christian Leaders Coalition and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute.
The event’s message resonated with Blessing, who will be attending Northwest University in Kirkland the fall and dreams of a career in politics and public service, “I want to be a public defense attorney because I feel strongly about advocating for those who can’t afford quality representation and I hope to one day become Governor for the State of Washington.” Blessing attended the event as a representative of the Men on the Move program based in Kent that mentors, empowers, and equips young men of color with the tools they need to succeed.
Washington’s current Governor, Jay Inslee, encouraged Blessing and every youth in Olympia that day to follow such dreams, “You are the future generation of leaders for this state.”
The keynote speaker, Danny Glover--the famous American actor, director, and political activist—echoed Inslee’s declaration with a message not to allow age or position in society to stop you from being part of changing communities and the world around you.
Glover urged young people in the audience to consider Dr. King’s book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? and how they envision themselves changing the world around them. He encouraged the audience to think about civic duty in a broad way: “We should all understand our responsibilities as not only citizens of this country, but also of our respective communities.”
Activist/Actor Danny Glover with Governor Jay Inslee
He was speaking from experience. When Glover was a young adult, around the age of many of the young people in the audience, the Civil Rights Movement was taking place. He said that “many young people were involved throughout the Civil Rights Movement because they also wanted to be a part of challenging the policies that affected the communities they lived in and that their children’s children would live in.” He remembers being inspired by Congressman John Lewis, when he was arrested for the first time after an organized sit in. Lewis was then also a young man and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Glover concluded by emphasizing, “In order to understand how to move forward in the present you have to understand the past and learn from those that have come before you.”
These were similar words from Federal Way Council Member Jesse E. Johnson, who last November became one of the state’s youngest city council members at age 28. “I observed a lot and learned a lot from elders. Don’t just take school as is. Go above and beyond. Keep educating yourself.” He said this was part of his blueprint for success.
Johnson centered his campaign around changing the narrative of what youth can do, “In Federal Way 64% of students of color don’t go onto 4-year colleges.” Johnson emphasized that young people of color running for office is a key part of changing those outcomes, “It’s an honor to be a part of making communities better and we need a lot more ME’s running for office and I am here to tell you that you can do it”.
Representative Eric Pettigrew, among the few black legislators in the Washington State legislature, rounded out the panel of speakers for the day. He highlighted how every young person can overcome difficult circumstances if they find something to believe in—starting with believing in themselves. He stressed that “a belief in yourself is an investment in the young people that are trailing behind you.” Rep. Pettigrew said such a belief helped him move from his youth in South Central Los Angeles during the infamous Watts riots--a period when tensions between the police and the citizens of South Central Los Angeles were at an all-time high—to a position where he is influencing policy that affects his South Seattle community and Washington State.
For young men like Blessing, who aspire to one day be in a position of power and influence to help underserved communities, hearing from local, state and national leaders that he can also be part of changing the narrative really allowed him to see first-hand that anything is possible, “Black lives need to be lifted and society needs to view black lives as equal to other races. Days like this allow ordinary students like myself to know that nothing is out of reach.”