Ashley Gibson is 25 years old, a so-called millennial. Conventional wisdom would suggest that means she cares more about her social network than about the upcoming midterm elections.
But when I met Gibson, she was out campaigning for Proposition G, a San Francisco ballot initiative that aims to slow down real estate speculation with a tax. Gibson is passionate about the issue.
She got involved in campaigning for Prop. G because of a class on local politics she is taking at San Francisco State University. The course has been getting students like her hooked on local politics for nearly two decades.
Like many young people, Gibson first got into politics because of a national election. It was 2008. She was 19 and decided to volunteer for the Obama campaign. At the first event, she was sold.
“From that point on, I knew I had to be in politics, because I felt like I could actually make a difference,” she says.
For many people in their mid-20s, Obama’s first run for president sparked a political awakening, but that interest has since dimmed. In the 2008 election, about half of 18- to 24-year-olds went to the polls to vote. That number fell in 2012, and it is expected to drop again this year.
Over the last six years, Gibson, too, has become disappointed with national politics — the gridlock and lack of change.
“I was a little naive” back in 2008, she says. “I was just very, very enthusiastic and optimistic, and probably a little bit unrealistic.”
But Gibson says she has not given up on politics as a means of change. After 2008, she went on to become a political science major at San Francisco State. Now she says she’s more engaged with local campaigns, where she feels like she can make a bigger impact. That led her to take Calvin Welch’s course on San Francisco politics and history.
Welch, a longtime housing activist in the city, has been teaching the course for 16 years.
“Kids are really hungry for history of redevelopment, of urban renewal,” Welch says. “But no one has ever explained it to them.”
He says many students are like Gibson: excited by Obama, let down by national politics and now interested in local issues — which, he says, young people really get into once they learn about them.
“It grabs their interest because they see the end result of it,” Welch says. “They live it. It is very real.”
Welch’s course is the only one at San Francisco State that focuses on the city’s politics. He says there used to be two others, but they have since been cut. Now professors mostly concentrate on national, international and theoretical issues.
Terri Givens says this is typical of poli sci departments across the country. Givens is a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, and she writes on the discipline for Inside Higher Ed.
“There really isn’t an incentive to focus on local politics, especially if you have ambition to move up in the field or move to another university which might be more prestigious,” Givens says.
Theory, Givens says, is considered rigorous. Professors focus on it to publish papers and get jobs.
But for students like Ben Gershen, it’s local history and policy that help him understand how theory works in the real world. “Theory is very abstract,” Gershen says. “It’s very up in the air.”
Gershen is a poli sci major and a student in Welch’s class. He does not imagine himself becoming an academic or a politician. He is actually an aspiring musician who wants to help young people connect with politics through art. But to do that, he says he needs to learn how policies have shaped the world around him.
“When you don’t know your history, you can’t imagine a future that’s different from the present,” Gershen says.
It is one thing for Calvin Welch’s students to participate in politics to pass a course. But what about after they graduate? Do any of them still care?
Some, like Jane Kim, do.
Kim is one of two current members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (and four board aides) who took Welch’s class. Back then, Kim was in her early 20s and did not know she would go into elected politics. She just wanted to learn local history, something she did not get studying political science at Stanford. Calvin’s course was an eye-opener.
“Calvin was the first one to really explain the balance of land use to me,” Kim says. “I still remember that breakthrough moment. That stays with me today in the policy work I do.”
Welch does not expect all of his students to go on to City Hall careers. But he does expect them to know about the ballot initiatives this year in San Francisco. Those are part of the class’s final project.