Though caught in the sway of his rushed entrance, Ted Louis-Jacques’ bright lanyard, foiled by the neutral tones of his formal wear, sticks out at a glance to any bystander. In jest and justification for his tardiness, he jokes “Teddy’s at the Forbes Under 30 speaking about education, representing the community, representing Malden, representing the youth.”
“The only thing I’m doing is ‘Hi, I’m Ted, I’m from Malden, I currently serve as the president of Malden Rising Leaders, and we have a Vote 16 initiative,” an introduction he deems fitting for someone who is “just on the waitlist.”
“And, four, we need money.”
His sponsors’ investments finance scholarships, like the Malden Public Service Leadership Scholarship awarded in 2018 to graduate Isabelly Barros and in 2017 to graduate Nathaniel A. Ilebode, and sustain the basic functions of the non-profit organization.
Community service scaffolds MRL, which strives to provide academic resources, mentorship, and financial support to budding leaders shortchanged by “unequal distribution of opportunity,” a hurdle the organization hopes to neutralize in Malden beginning with its summer fellowship.
This past summer, fellows attended financial literacy, social equity and career development workshops orchestrated by MRL while concurrently investigating the status of Vote 16 initiatives around the country and kick-starting their own, which successfully passed in the school committee in an 8-3 vote and is currently awaiting approval in the Rules and Ordinances Committee.
Similar Vote 16 ordinances have been proposed in other parts of the nation, mainly down the east coast, including some cities in Massachusetts, but has been struck down in their respective state senates. But Louis-Jacques has high hopes for Malden’s iteration of the Vote 16 bill, and recognizes that it is as much his responsibility to supervise the legislative process as it is “the next generation of kids’” to lead the process.
In his summer fellowship, Louis-Jacques assumes a “hands-off approach” and allows the teen fellows to steer the ship. Fellows were introduced through Mayor Gary Christenson’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which is available to students 16 and older. Among them were Senior Shataeya Smith and Junior Sean Lightbody, both of whom have continued to work with MRL post-employment.
“Maybe [fellows] would do research for an hour or two, [they] would make phone calls to different cities, [they] would call different representatives from other cities,” says Lightbody, adding that “[they] learned that, in each different city where the voting age was lowered, they all had their own sort of system. It was up to them how they wanted to do it.”
But across districts, the premise has been the same-- to lower the voting age to 16 in municipal elections-- and the takeaway for students involved has also been the same. Smith notes how the summer fellowship has equipped her with greater civic awareness, saying “I’m now taking American Law, I’m now taking Examining Criminal Justice, I’m now taking AP Government.”
Smith is optimistic about the trajectory of the Vote 16 ordinance and believes MRL has presented “a compelling and persuasive argument” in previous forums before the City of Malden but remains pragmatic about the opposition they might encounter.
Treasurer Karl Denis describes that most of the opposition MRL has faced originates from anecdotal objections. “It’s the ‘I know my son, I know my daughter, and they can’t have an intelligent conversation right now’,” he recalls from previous interactions with legislators.
“I challenge that by saying ‘well, I don’t know your son, and I don’t know your daughter, but I’m willing to say to you that, if I asked them about the issues, they’d have something to say to me’,” Denis says. The assurance that 16-year-olds are mature enough and are capable of “complex executive reasoning” informs Denis’ future plans for MRL.
MRL plans to boost the number and frequency of their events, extend their summer fellowship into a full year program and offer six scholarships, rather than one. But before they instate this new stage, MRL needs to see Vote 16 through state legislature.
Before arriving on Beacon Hill, the Home Rule Petition needs to be approved in the Rules and Ordinances Committee, pass through a final round of City Council scrutiny and face mayoral discretion. On the State House floor, Vote 16 will then face a vote in both chambers of Congress.
The trek to committee is laborious, though, and requires groundroots activism and investment on a local level, a truth acknowledged by Louis-Jacques and corroborated by Scott Warren, Chief Executive Officer and founder of Generation Citizen, another non-profit organization that strives to empower students through “action civics education.”
Warren comments that, although his project model is different from Louis-Jacques’, “at the core, [they both] believe that young people can guide us to a better future politically.”
Local momentum could be critical in the upcoming open forum on November 15th, where MRL will address the city with its revisited design of the Vote 16 initiative. “[MRL] wants to pack [the senior center] filled with energized students,” says Louis-Jacques, a demonstration he hopes will serve as an unequivocal pronouncement of community support.
“[Politicians] keep saying ‘the next generation of kids,’ ‘the next generation of kids.’ Okay, well, the next generation of kids is here, [it wants its] voice to be heard. And that’s it.”