Jaylen Body has participated in the Michigan Youth in Government program for several years. The high school senior said he’s excited to see Kamala Harris become vice president of the United States. (Courtesy photo)

Vice President Kamala Harris brings many “firsts” with her on Inauguration Day. She’s the first woman, the first Black and Indian person, and the first graduate of a Historically Black College and University to become vice president of the United States.

And according to her speech last fall, she won’t be the last.

That’s welcome news to some Detroit youth who, even though they weren’t eligible to vote in the presidential election, say they are watching and have great expectations for the new administration. Teenagers across Detroit said they expect a new direction in political leadership and discourse in Washington. They described the insurrection at the Capitol as “hard to watch,” heartbreaking,” “a nuisance,” and “embarrassing,” as they looked forward to new world leaders. But decorum and decency aren’t their only expectations for the next four years. Detroit teens said they have numerous policy interests they’d like to see the Biden-Harris administration (and their local elected officials) tackle.  

Detroit teens said they have numerous policy interests they’d like to see the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, shown in Detroit this fall with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, address. (Shutterstock)

Of their many policy interests, Detroit youth told BridgeDetroit they were most interested in public policy regarding:

  • Police reform
  • Racial justice 
  • Environmental justice
  • Funding for education
  • Minimum wage
  • Health/ coronavirus support

For Jaylen Body, a senior involved in the Michigan Youth and Government program, seeing Harris become vice president was exciting. He believes having a Black and Indian American woman, with a long history of political prowess, will force Americans to acknowledge the differences in each other. Body said he believes her role will result in positive outcomes for America.

“What I really thought was like, this is America’s chance to become a more unified country,” Body said. “We’ll be able to use our differences to learn.”

Zahria Liggins is a senior at Cass Technical High School. She is involved in Detroit’s Teen Hype Program. (Courtesy photo)

Zahria Liggins, a senior at Cass Technical High School, is the president of Teen Hype, a local organization that supports and empowers Detroit youth to succeed. She said to achieve the change that’s needed among education, racial justice, and police reform will require “difficult conversations.”

While she celebrates Harris and the new administration, Liggins thinks bringing so many firsts to the role will also require sacrifices from Harris who will have to continue “making people uncomfortable” to achieve anything while in office.

“I enjoy seeing somebody who looks similar to me in a position of power like that and who’s willing to take on that role,” Liggins said. “Because everyone’s not going to like her, knowing that it’s going to be difficult for her for being a woman of color. For her to have that intersectionality and still take on that job is a lot.”

At Renaissance High School, the school Senate Class had much to say about Harris and the new administration. Joshua Lopez, the elective course instructor, said the class is made up of ninth- through 12th-grade students who typically keep up with current events and bring lively discussions to the classroom.

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“I really just allow the students to lead the discussion,” he said. “I might start off the dialogue, but they take it from there. The students at Renaissance High School are excellent students who do their homework on key current events. Our discussions are usually very passionate.”

Last week BridgeDetroit joined the Renaissance class. The students went into a fury of policy topics, questioning how and why politics skewed the progress they expected to see on issues like preventing the spread of coronavirus, protecting the environment, and financial support for working people. They said the last four years have increased their interest in policy and made them want to get involved.

“When it comes to government and politics it’s possible to get involved, like even though this class and programs like Michigan Youth and Government to learn about state and local issues first,” said Tanya Brown, a sophomore. “I’ve done some phone-banking and I can amplify my voice to encourage people and spread that power. We need to educate people about local and state issues, too.”

Ja’Nya Bargaineer said she wants to amplify her voice and does so through social media since she isn’t old enough to vote. She said social media has created a pathway for many people of color to have their voices heard when Black and Brown people have suffered from a history of intimidation.

The students said their belief in their power has come from people like Harris, who is showing them that there can be new pathways to change.

“Seeing someone who looks similar to you or your parents, I didn’t realize that would be a big deal to me,” said Nabila Chowdhury.

Chowdhury said she immediately noticed the bangles Harris wears on her wrist during public engagements that are also worn in her own culture.

“There are so many Black and Brown people who are not represented for the work that they do,” Chowdhury said. “It’s hard to see someone who looks like us but kids today growing up that’s going to be their normal and it says a lot for the future and a lot of the past.”

Other students said they were surprised to see another Black person, let alone a woman, follow President Obama so quickly.

“I thought it would have been 20 years but four says we are moving and improving,” said Morgann Porter. “From ‘Me Too’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the LGBTQ movements it just shows what can happen when [our community] votes.”

Another student, Abby, recognized Detroit’s involvement in electing Biden and Harris. She said former barriers are now being broken.

“It’s revolutionary in all the right ways for my community,” she said. “Every person had to go out and vote and we had a huge turnout.”

While joyous for change, their expectations remain high.

“I expect them to take advantage of the trifecta in the House and Senate,” Dorain Lofton said. Lofton, who said he was not impressed with Biden’s lack of commitment to end all fracking. However, Lofton, an 11th-grader who also works part time, said he sees a greater likelihood to raise the minimum wage, support Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and increase  fair distribution of coronavirus vaccines to states given Democrats’ newfound power.

“We need to end the stigma of HBCUs not preparing you for the real world,” he said. “That excuse is no longer valid.”

Learn more about how Detroit youth are navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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