The Kids Are All Right

Pack up and leave or resign yourself to disappointment.

That’s the implicit advice offered for young South Dakota Democrats by Aberdeen area blogger David Newquist in a recent blog post titled, “Where are all the young Democrats?” Thought provoking and intimate, Newquist’s post questions what impact Democrats of ambition and accomplishment can make in a state “mired down by prejudicial, bigoted attitudes,” a “resentful sense of inferiority,” and a “political environment seething with provincial malice.”

South Dakota Democrats are fortunate to have critical thinkers like David Newquist and many other bloggers on our side, and Newquist’s post (and reader reactions at Cory Heidelberger’s Madville Times) is worth reading in full. But today, I have a different message for South Dakota’s young people – regardless of party:

Believe in your capacity to make South Dakota a better place right now. Because I see people like you doing it everyday.

After years with a separate feathering ceremony and honor song for Native American high school graduates, Chamberlain high schoolers asked the local school board to include the honor song for all students at their official graduation ceremony. They circulated petitions of support with hundreds of signatures from students and community members, and the local media covered their efforts to forge more inclusiveness, unity, and reconciliation in a growingly diverse community on the border of two reservations.

In the end, the Chamberlain School Board rebuffed the students efforts in a 6-1 vote. School board member Steve Fox cast the lone vote in support of an honor song. “I could think of so many reasons to do this for our kids,” Fox said. “Why not give three or five minutes to teach our kids to honor another culture?” Fox isn’t alone. The actions of the Chamberlain School Board sparked a ceremony outside the Chamberlain High School graduation with an honor song “for all [the high school graduates]”, and the managing editor of the state’s largest newspaper supported the reconciliatory effort with television stations covering every minute of it.

One thing is for sure – Chamberlain high school graduate Chris Rodriguez, who organized the petition drive, isn’t giving up on the honor song: “My sister is coming to this school and by the time she graduates I’m going to try to get it there.”

Just a few weeks before the school board vote, University of Sioux Falls student Dannika Nash crowded into the Elmen Center at Augustana College in Sioux Falls to hear Seattle’s rap duo Macklemore & Ryan, whose hit song “Same Love” in support of marriage equality inspired thousands of concert goers to sing along with “their hands up and their eyes closed” – just like in Church.

It’s easy to get lost in the conservative bubble of South Dakota, Dannika says in “An Open Letter to the Church from My Generation”, and our generation feels the keen tension between our state’s Christian tradition and our country’s growing progress on issues like marriage equality. But the crowd’s “positive, thankful reaction” to “Same Love”  gave Dannika reason to worry less about our generation and more about the institutions attacking the values our generation protects:

“So, my advice to you, the Church: if you’re looking for some intelligent biblical liberal opinions on the subject, have a little coffee chat with your local Methodist or Episcopal pastor. Christians can be all about gay people, it’s possible. People do it every day with a clear biblical conscience. Find out if you think there’s truth in that view before you sweep us under the rug. You CAN have a conservative view on gay marriage, or gay ordination. You can. But I want you to have some serious conversations with God, your friends that disagree with you, and maybe even some gay people, Christians or not, before you decide that this one view is worth marginalizing my generation. Weigh those politics against what you’re giving up: us. We want to stay in your churches, we want to hear about your Jesus, but it’s hard to hear about love from a God who doesn’t love our gay friends (and we all have gay friends). Help us find love in the church before we look for it outside.”

Dannika’s plea for the Church to bring people together must have struck a chord; it went viral online with thousands of comments on her blog, hundreds of people sharing her post on Facebook and Twitter, and dozens of stories written about her post in newspaper publications and other blog posts across the country.

At the exact same time Dannika was attending the concert, 30 high school students from across South Dakota convened at the state capitol for the first annual Young Elected Legislative Leaders (YELL) mock legislative session hosted by the South Dakota Democratic Party. No bill came out of committee to the floor with more thorough debate than a sales tax exemption for food. A matter of serious concern for the Young Elected Legislative Leaders, a food sales tax exemption would lower the tax burden on the most low income South Dakotans but create a $90 million annual hole in our state budget. Where would that money come from? Would higher taxes elsewhere to close the budget gap burden the same people we helped by lifting the food sales tax?

With all the YELLs seated listening to debate in the state senate chamber, Redfield High Schooler Cully Williams shot up from his chair to offer an amendment. “Madame President, I have a hoghouse amendment to the bill.” Cully continued, “I move an amendment to substitute all the language and title of the bill and replace it with a comprehensive tax reform measure that reduces the tax burden on working South Dakotans and raises revenue for the state.” Whispers cascaded through the room as he passed out the new language of the amendment. How much revenue is it going to generate, fellow YELLs asked. Who is it going to impact? How does it affect different sources of income? What about the impact on jobs? What would it take to implement?  For each question, this Young Elected Legislative Leader had already prepared a thorough response with research to share for other interested YELLs. With a motion to proceed to a vote, the YELLs gave Cully’s amendment near unanimous approval, and the Senate chamber erupted in applause.

After session, a volunteer leader approached the young legislator to congratulate him on the unexpected maneuver. A hoghouse amendment? Who saw that coming? Cully responded, “Yeah, that was really fun. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll be back in this chamber to do it again in real life.”

I have hope for South Dakota because young people like Chris are not waiting to improve their communities. I have hope for South Dakota because young people like Dannika are still willing to speak out and challenge our conventions in a way that brings us together rather than tears us apart. I have hope for South Dakota because young people like Cully are coming together to debate the issues, develop solutions, and dedicate themselves to public service in South Dakota. I have hope for South Dakota because the vast majority of people in this state stand with the Chris Rodriguezs, the Dannika Nashs, and the future public servants, and they will never let our better angels succomb to our darker demons.

To be sure, fostering a culture in South Dakota that values “productive and contributory lives” takes a lot of work – and much of our work now will be towards making “changes that make such lives possible” as Newquist acknowledges. There will be setbacks. Chris didn’t get the school board to include the honor song this year. And Dannika lost her job at a Christian summer camp she loves – and still loves! – as a result of her views.

But let the stories of Chris, Dannika, Cully, and many others be proof that our generation is defined by people who are not “resigned” to this challenge but who relish it. We take to heart President Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign call: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” We are not going to give up on South Dakota, the state we love and call home. And if you don’t believe me, just go back and read Chris Rodriguez’s response to the school board’s setback.

So join us. Sign that petition a student like Chris starts. Share your thoughts with your friends on that courageous post by a young critical thinker like Dannika. (And share your thoughts with HER so she knows you’re out there fighting with her!) Invest in programs like YELL that bring young Democrats together and develop leaders for the future of South Dakota. And above all relish this great challenge before us knowing you are not alone, your voice matters, and as long as there’s a South Dakota Democratic Party, we’ll stand with you and tens of thousands of South Dakotans like you who are bringing people together to make South Dakota a better place for everyone.

Zach Crago
Deputy Executive Director
South Dakota Democratic Party

YELL students are sworn in by Governor Harvey Wollman


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  • pamelamerchant

    Thank you so much for this wonderful message, Zach. Positive use of one’s energy is always the best way. And, when we become weary, we must rest, and then regroup. I appreciate so VERY MUCH the opportunities you have helped create for young people through the YELL program. Please, calling on all Democrats: help financially support this program. And, let’s work to form Voter Registration Drives through our County Parties and High School Democrat groups THIS fall… not wait to start next year during an election. If hundreds of us go out there and talk about our values, we cant get the edge we need to elect more progressive Democrats. We certainly want to make sure the YELL students are elected in a few short years. As an advocate for eliminating our sales tax on food, it was very uplifting to have watched these students rationally discuss and vote to change our tax system to a less regressive form. They made it look so easy; and I believe someday we will achieve this. In 2009 while trying to persuade others to vote for my bill, SB199, I said over and over again that eliminating the sales tax on food was a matter of time; why not vote for it now? Enlightening others is a daunting task and takes a lot of nuance; let’s make sure we continue to help prepare our Young Democrats and new candidates for the future. Yours, Pamela Merchant, Brookings

  • marvmiller

    Zach, this is a great piece. As I read somewhere recently referencing, I believe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington movie, that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. Small acts of brilliance and kindness can and do make a difference in the long run, despite the apparent evidence of constant gridlock, partisan politics, corruption in the politics and more that appear in news daily.

  • karlkroger

    Thank you for your encouraging, challenging, and hopeful post–as well as your commitment to helping make South Dakota a better and more just place.