A growing cynicism among young people surrounding our electoral system reflects a growing awareness and rising concerns about the influence of money in politics. They increasingly are seeing how a lack of progress on important issues — from the climate crisis to the cost of higher education — affects their daily lives as well as their futures.
Jeffrey Clemmons is a senior at Huston-Tillotson college in Austin, Texas, studying political science. Jeffrey is also the president of his campus’ NAACP chapter where he organizes around voting rights, food insecurity, and student rights. As a young community organizer aligned with the goals of the proposed 28th Amendment, Jeffrey is passionate about building a future that works for people as opposed to big corporations.
In this recent interview, American Promise Communications Director Gregory Joseph chats with Jeffrey about his views on money in politics and how it affects the issues he and his fellow students are passionate about.
Gregory: Jeffrey, you do a lot. Not just a full-time student, you are active in a lot of on-campus causes and activities. Can you give us a little bit of a rundown of some of the areas of which your work and advocacy touches down on?
Jeffrey: Yes, I first came to Austin because it’s the capital of Texas and I wanted to be in the center of things. I’m the president of our NAACP Chapter 69AA, which is part of the NAACP Youth & College conference here in the state of Texas. Additionally, I serve as our campus’ Chief Justice, where I work on student justice issues. If students have a grievance or a complaint, I’m the person that they would come to to get that adjudicated, working with administration to do that as well.
Off campus, I serve as the Chair of the Austin College Student Commission. We represent about 100,000 students here in the city of Austin, working on important issues like food insecurity or housing. In fact, just recently, the Austin City Council passed an amendment to their budget that was based on a recommendation that we passed earlier this year to create a food insecurity grant program to combat food insecurity on campus.
Gregory: Food insecurity didn’t seem like something I thought would be an issue on a college campus, but you’re saying that the pandemic has caused a lot of students to miss out on meals? Is that because the universities are closed or is it because of a lack of food products?
Jeffrey: In a city like Austin, while there are a lot of resources, they are scattered. We do have an equity issue in the city of Austin. Before the pandemic, one in four college students were getting their food from a food pantry at least once a month. And many college students reported being food insecure. Some students live in food deserts where their nearest supermarket or food pantry are far away.
Food insecurity was an important issue for us to address because I have personally experienced food insecurity in my life during my freshman year of college. When I was going to The University of Texas at Arlington, food plans were tied to rent, and when I couldn’t make rent for one month, I was almost evicted and cut off from my meal plan. Even after catching up on rent, my meal plan was terminated for the rest of the semester.
Poverty, especially on college campuses, feels like a shameful struggle to endure so I stayed quiet about it. I know personally what it feels like for a college student to feel hungry and not feel like they have anyone to turn to. This grant program created by Austin City Council will provide $50,000 to combat food insecurity among college students.
Gregory: That’s all a lot for freshmen to put on their plate, so to speak. I’m very impressed that you were able to overcome that challenge and be able to thrive. You mentioned that you are involved with your campus NAACP Chapter. Outside of the justice issues that you were talking about, what are some of the areas that the organization has been advocating in the last calendar year?
Jeffrey: For the last year, we’ve just been dealing with the pandemic. We have been helping our campus community any way we can. When the winter storm hit, we raised money to get people a meal by sending them money through CashApp. Last summer, our organization organized a number of protests around policing issues. We’re always working on voting rights issues and getting people out to vote because, in a state like Texas, voter suppression is the norm rather than an anomaly.
Gregory: Can you give us more of an idea of how the environment is for voting rights in Texas?
Jeffrey: The environment in Texas for voting rights is hostile. Yesterday, we just started our second special session because our Governor Greg Abbott decided that he’s going to call a special session until he gets his way. There’s been an “election integrity bill” that’s making its way through the legislature. During the regular session, it was SB7, during the first special session, it was SB3, and now it’s SB1, and so it’s going up in priority because they know how important this is.
Despite hearing eight hours of testimony from people, they still passed it on a party-line vote out of committee over the objections of many different civil rights organizations, and minority rights organizations like the NAACP or MALDEF. They are not listening to citizens, to the concerns of many different organizations, or from their colleagues about what this bill is going to do to our voting rights. This bill will restrict the amount of time you have to vote, and put new ID requirements in place. It’s an incredibly hostile environment that will need young people involved in its reshaping.
Gregory: Voting rights is clearly an issue that particularly young Americans of color are organizing behind. What other issues would you say that young people of color are actively involved in?
Jeffrey: One of the most important issues is student debt. We have trillions of dollars of student debt in this country and disproportionately affects people of color from being able to advance in their careers. Young people of color are graduating with substantially more debt than their white counterparts.
Another issue that is incredibly important for young people is affordable housing. I speak oftentimes from personal experience, as I’ve been housing insecure many times in my life through my family. The median market rate in Austin for an apartment is upwards of a thousand dollars a month. You’d have to make a lot more than what most young people make at this point in their lives to be able to even get an apartment by yourself.
Gregory: Absolutely. The lack of affordable housing has been something that this country has been trying to deal with for years, along with student debt. Various corporations remain primary influences in government, making student debt a difficult issue to overcome. This is where the money in politics comes into play. You often speak about the need for young people of color to put the issue of money in politics onto their radar. How did you get involved in the issue?
Jeffrey: As a young person, something I hear from other young people is how many of us believe that politics is a rigged game. The influence of money shows us why issues like affordable housing, student debt, and climate change fail to get addressed. It’s frustrating and demoralizing to know that companies like Exxon Mobil are directly funding the opposition to legislation that will help us fight climate change. As a result, young people are becoming increasingly cynical about electorialism due to the influence money has in our democracy.
For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz has taken around $12 million from corporations and has not spoken about student debt or affordable housing. Ted Cruz has called the For the People Act the “Corrupt Politicians Act” because we want money out of politics. Politicians should represent the people and not do the bidding of big corporations.
Gregory: Big money dominates the political process and diminishes the voice we have as people. That’s what the 28th Amendment is trying to rectify to restore the voice of the people.
Are other young people you’re interacting with in college picking up on the influence of money in politics as an obstacle to addressing issues meaningful to them?
Jeffrey: Absolutely. For example, Nancy Pelosi recently came out as being against student debt cancellation despite being for it in the past. This comes right after a billionaire donor she is good friends with talked her out of it. When my friends saw that news come out, they were frustrated. We may not have the same money backing us but we do have people power. There are millions of young people in this country that can organize around the 28th Amendment and affect real change.
Gregory: Why should the hundreds of thousands of college students be concerned about money in politics, and how can they get involved? What would you say to your generation to make this another one of the great causes that people need to take up?
Jeffrey: Throughout our entire lives, we have been told that we are the future and the future is now. We have an opportunity right now to start working on these issues. Even if you doubt your own knowledge, as long as you’re willing to put in the work then you will learn how to make change.
Money in politics is an issue that can be changed by a generation of people refusing to play the big money game; that we will organize support for the 28th Amendment and will not elect politicians who are going to turn their backs on us.