STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4

C3 (D2): Civ.2, Civ.6

NCSS: Civic ideals and practices


Teens in Office

You have to be at least 35 to run for president, but even teens can get involved in local politics. Meet four young people who started changing their governments—all before turning 20! 

BRANDON PAULIN

Mayor

Indian Head, Maryland

Elected at 19

Daniel Hertzberg

The joke among the residents of Indian Head, Maryland, is that Brandon Paulin never really left town hall.

Last spring, at just 19, he was elected mayor of the town of 4,000—making him the youngest person ever to hold that office in Maryland’s history. Still Brandon first got involved in local government at age 11. “Back then, Indian Head had no signs at crosswalks telling drivers to stop for pedestrians,” he recalls. “So I started going to town meetings and addressing the council members—and within a month, we had new signs.” 

He credits his teachers with encouraging his early interest in politics. “I had great mentors, starting with my first-grade teacher, who emphasized the importance of community,” says Brandon, who’s also a political science major at the College of Southern Maryland. 

When Brandon ran for office last year, he was up against the incumbent, who had served as mayor on and off since before Brandon was born, as well as another former mayor. However, Brandon—whose campaign slogan was “New vision, new way”—believes his age helped him. 

“I think people were excited to see a young person taking a step up,” he says. “They saw the energy that I bring to the table.” On Election Day, Brandon won more than twice as many votes as the incumbent. 

"If you want to build a future that you want to live in … start now."

Now, he earns an annual mayoral salary of $6,000 and juggles classes with council meetings. His Twitter feed includes legislative updates as well as posts about his fantasy football team. He’s gotten used to some friendly teasing (a common wisecrack: “We’d better wrap up the meeting. It’s the mayor’s bedtime.”). 

Meanwhile, Brandon has important goals for his four-year term. One of his biggest challenges: attracting new businesses to the area. To help accomplish this, Brandon recently oversaw the demolition of three abandoned properties. “They were an eyesore and had been empty for more than two decades,” he says. “Hopefully, new buildings will go up in their place.” Under his leadership, the town has also restored a park and converted what were once railroad tracks into a 13-mile-long hiking and biking trail. 

Brandon’s advice to people who covet the mayor’s office, or those just eager to be more active in their communities: It’s never too early to engage. “If you want to build a future that you want to live in,” he says, “you have to start now.” 

SUSAN WU

Community Board Member

New York, New York

Appointed at 17

Daniel Hertzberg

Susan Wu was a high school junior when, last year, she learned that New York State had passed a bill allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to join their local community boards. 

Intrigued, Susan, who lives in New York City, did some online research and learned that board members act as advocates for their neighborhoods. They advise on issues ranging from how land should be used to how the city’s funds should be allocated.

“I realized that this is a way for people who are passionate about their community to come together—and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Susan, now 17 and a senior. She applied for a spot and was one of 19 teens selected from across the city. She’ll serve a one-year unpaid term.

The issue she cares about most? Making sure her neighborhood—whose population has tripled since 2000, to an estimated 65,000 residents—doesn’t lose its unique character. 

The area is rapidly gentrifying, meaning that it’s seeing a lot of rebuilding—and property prices are rising—as more, and wealthier, people move there. While such growth can be good, it can also have a downside: Longtime residents and businesses may have a hard time affording higher rents. For example, Susan says, a local retail complex recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, and luxury shops replaced some of its more affordable stores. 

“I want the community to be heard and not drowned out by businesses,” says Susan.

Though she doesn’t plan on a political career (more likely: finance or engineering), Susan says the skills she’s learning on the board—teamwork, leadership, communication—are ones she’ll undoubtedly need in any field. The experience has already taught her a valuable lesson: “Whatever you have an interest in, jump for the opportunity to learn more about it.”

KATIE COX

Council Member

Morenci, Michigan

Appointed at 19

Daniel Hertzberg

Sometimes, taking a chance leads you somewhere unexpected. As a high school sophomore, Katie Cox couldn’t find an elective that interested her. Then a guidance counselor told her about an internship at the local district court. 

Katie decided to try it. During the internship, she was inspired by how her colleagues made a difference in the lives of those around them. “I worked for the secretary of one of the judges, and she was so selfless,” recalls Katie. “She showed me that if you hear people out and then you follow through with helping them, it can be a really wonderful thing.” 

Katie began looking for her own way to help people in her community. When she learned last spring that a member of the city council in her hometown of Morenci, Michigan, had resigned before her term was up, Katie, then 19 and a college sophomore, applied for the spot. She was selected—and won a full four-year term in an election this past November. 

"We’re the ones who need to take responsibility for what will happen to our future."

As one of six council members for the city of 2,200, Katie attends twice-monthly meetings and votes on critical town issues. Her proudest moment so far? Voting “yes” on a law that expanded the city’s police coverage to 24 hours a day. “I think it’s important that we have a local police force that can be dispatched anytime it’s needed,” she explains. 

Looking ahead, Katie, a social work major at Eastern Michigan University, is considering law school. She plans to stay politically active. “We’re the next generation,” she notes, “and we’re the ones who need to take responsibility for what will happen to our future.”

I lost the election—but made an impact!

Daniel Hertzberg

It was a tragic turn of events that prompted Caleb Owens to run for mayor of Elkhart, Indiana, before he even graduated from high school. “My friend was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2013,” says Caleb. “I want to put an end to youth violence and keep my community strong.” 

So last spring, at age 17, Caleb ran in the mayoral primaries (the first election a candidate has to win to be selected by voters to run in the final November election). “Critics said I was too young to have any real experience,” he recalls. “But in order to become something great, you have to start somewhere.” 

He went door-to-door to meet voters and even posted his contact information publicly so residents could reach out to him with concerns. (He also made time to attend his senior prom!) His slogan: “Young but ready.”

In the end, Caleb nabbed 38 percent of the vote—not enough to move on to the general election. But he wasn’t discouraged: “I was able to inspire many young people to register to vote and to get excited about politics.” 

Caleb is now in Texas, training to be an Army medic, but says he one day hopes to run for city council or even mayor again. “People always think that kids are home on their PlayStation,” he says. “But we can be, and need to be, noticed for doing good things.”

CORE QUESTION: Think of an elected office in your town and imagine that you’re running for it. Write a speech explaining your goals.

Dive Into the Political Process!

  • TAKE IT TO TOWN HALL

Have an idea for improving your neighborhood? Reach out to your local council member (you can find his or her name and contact info on your town’s website) and share your thoughts. You can also attend a council meeting and speak up there, as Brandon did. “Tell them your ideas, and change will happen.”

  • VOLUNTEER FOR A CAMPAIGN

You may not be old enough to vote, but you can still affect the outcome of an election. Choose a local or national candidate you believe in and volunteer at his or her local campaign office. Your duties may include calling prospective voters, registering new voters, or going door-to-door to spread the word about your candidate.

  • SIT IN ON THE COUNCIL

Some towns allow students to be junior council members. You don’t get to vote, but you do get an up-close view of how government works. Corryn Kronnagel, a council member in Morrisville Borough, Pennsylvania, created that role for teens in her town. She suggests attending council meetings to see if the process interests you—and then contacting a council member to ask about serving.

I lost the election—but made an impact!

Daniel Hertzberg

It was a tragic turn of events that prompted Caleb Owens to run for mayor of Elkhart, Indiana, before he even graduated from high school. “My friend was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2013,” says Caleb. “I want to put an end to youth violence and keep my community strong.” 

So last spring, at age 17, Caleb ran in the mayoral primaries (the first election a candidate has to win to be selected by voters to run in the final November election). “Critics said I was too young to have any real experience,” he recalls. “But in order to become something great, you have to start somewhere.” 

He went door-to-door to meet voters and even posted his contact information publicly so residents could reach out to him with concerns. (He also made time to attend his senior prom!) His slogan: “Young but ready.”

In the end, Caleb nabbed 38 percent of the vote—not enough to move on to the general election. But he wasn’t discouraged: “I was able to inspire many young people to register to vote and to get excited about politics.” 

Caleb is now in Texas, training to be an Army medic, but says he one day hopes to run for city council or even mayor again. “People always think that kids are home on their PlayStation,” he says. “But we can be, and need to be, noticed for doing good things.”

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