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Twenty years ago, as a member of the Harvard Class of 1994, I left Massachusetts and returned to my native Kentucky to start my next great adventure. In a few weeks, after finishing up my stint as director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, I will once again leave Massachusetts and return to my Kentucky to start my next great adventure—this time, as president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
When I left campus in 1994, I didn’t have a plan to run for office, but I definitely had a plan to get involved as a political and community volunteer to make Kentucky a better place to live and work. The only certainty was that I would obtain a joint JD/MBA degree from the University of Kentucky and then take it from there.
No one who knew me from my involvement with the IOP during my college days was surprised when I ran for Kentucky Secretary of State in 2003. For it was the spark from my time at the IOP—and its dozens of forums, fellow-led study groups, and other events that I attended over those four years—that convinced me that political participation was truly a noble calling. It was also at the IOP—with its bipartisan approach to politics—that I developed a style of working across party lines for a common goal that continues to serve me well.
Unfortunately, for most members of the millennial generation, which includes almost all of those receiving diplomas today from the College, politics is not viewed so favorably. According to the IOP’s most recent survey of 18- to 29-year-old Americans, while 70 percent say community service is an honorable thing to do, only 32 percent say the same about running for office. This is not a surprise when 62 percent of those surveyed say that elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons and 58 percent say elected officials don’t share their priorities.
Clearly we have a lot of work to do, and for the past three-and-a-half years, as the IOP director, I have worked hard to encourage more students to consider careers in politics and public service—the IOP’s primary mission.
This mission is more important than ever before, given the broken state of our politics and the challenges that our country and world face. Fortunately, for those who find this a challenge worth tackling, there are plenty of opportunities for young people to volunteer and make a difference or even run for office at a young age.
Right now for example, former IOP student leaders are running for governor in both Massachusetts (Juliette N. Kayyem ’91) and Maryland (Anthony G. Brown ’84), running for congress in New York (Elise M. Stefanik ’06), and running for the state senate in Massachusetts (Eric Lesser ’07).
I can personally testify to this. I worked my way up—first as a volunteer, then taking on leadership positions—always putting in the necessary sweat equity to help my candidates win. This put me in the position to start my campaign for secretary of state at age 30, the youngest in the country at the time of my election. I am proud of what I accomplished in that office and am proud of my time here at Harvard.
I want to encourage this year’s graduates to consider stepping up and entering the arena like Juliette, Anthony, Elise, Eric, or me. Or if being the candidate isn’t for you, find someone who you can support with your time and your money. Campaigns are staffed and managed by young people, and are often best fueled by young volunteers.
Perhaps it is fitting as the director of a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy ’40 to conclude with Kennedy’s 1963 remarks to an audience at Vanderbilt University: “The educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. He may be a precinct worker or a president. He may give his talents at the courthouse, the state house, the White House. He may be a civil servant or a senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser. But he must be a participant and not a spectator.”
It’s time for all of us to be participants and not spectators. The stakes are too high.
Trey Grayson ’94, former Kentucky Secretary of State, is the director of Harvard's Institute of Politics. In July, he will begin service as president of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
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