“And this is where the problem lies. It’s called disrespect.”
Looking down from the podium, my congressman told me I had disrespected him by seeking answers from him.
At a recent town hall in the Utah suburb of Eagle Mountain, I sat in the front row, patiently waiting for Rep. Burgess Owens to answer my questions about what I found to be the unethical reporting of his finances to the public he had sworn an oath to serve. I’d shown up with four other college students to distribute literature encouraging constituents to do their own research into Owens’s financial history. When he called on me, I asked a simple question: Is he still involved with Second Chance 4 Youth (SC4Y), a charity he founded to help support formerly incarcerated youth? According to a 2020 Salt Lake Tribune investigation, none of the charity’s donations were used directly for that purpose in 2019.
The details about SC4Y sounded like B.S. to me, but it was Owens’s response to my question that really caught me off guard. The congressman claimed he does not receive money from the organization but still consults with it. Then he chose to take aim at something else: youth voices.
“It’s called disrespect,” Owens told me. “You respect your elders.”
Well, I think our members of Congress should learn to respect their constituents because when people in power engage in unethical actions, it’s our job to speak up. I’m glad I belong to a generation that doesn’t stay silent when confronted by the truth. We demand that our members of Congress earn our respect through the content of their character and good works.
Young people and especially young Black and brown organizers have always been central to movements for positive change. Gen Z is carrying on that proud tradition. All across the country (and the world!), from the 2018 March for Our Lives protests against gun violence, to the Youth Climate Strikes of 2019, and last summer’s protests against police brutality and systemic racism, young folks are knocking at the doors of our leaders, demanding justice and accountability.
The fact that my congressman looked uncomfortable when I asked him a question didn’t just tell me he was nervous about what I was asking, it told me I was speaking truth to power.
Daud Mumin is a friend of mine, a March for Our Lives board member, and a student activist in Salt Lake City politics who’s no stranger to holding a flashlight to the injustice perpetrated by GOP officials in deep-red Utah. “When fighting the fight against injustice and holding elected officials accountable, I’ve known that speaking truth to power is often met with nervous and shifty attacks on my age,” he told me. “It’s an easy target to point to a young person as inexperienced and therefore unqualified, but we’re anything but. We’re young and bright-eyed enough to see the problems we need to fix. And as young people, we’ve got no interest in playing games that will continue disenfranchising people by delaying the future that all of our communities deserve.”
Before attending the town hall, I’d reached out to Zohaib Qadri, a 31-year-old activist from Austin, Texas, who has a long history of working on campaigns. “Politics speaks to what the condition of people ought to be and then pursues it,” he told me when I asked for his advice. “Individuals rebuke those in power because they expect more from their elected officials, and they are rebuking not for personal gain but for the betterment of society.”
So there I was, seeking answers from one of the 535 most powerful people in the country, just like Zohaib told me to. Owens’s response? To scold my generation.
Congressman: What is disrespectful about seeking transparency? What is disrespectful about holding our leaders accountable? Or embracing our right as constituents to question our elected officials?
Nothing about what I said was disrespectful. The Tribune reported that SCY4 paid Owens a $70,000 salary when he served as CEO in 2019, the same year that “zero” funds were reportedly distributed to the formerly incarcerated youth that he [AND THE ORGANIZATION?} claimed to be helping. I see this as not only dishonest but also immoral. Rather than answering my question and moving forward with transparency, the congressman hid behind remarks about my age. (Teen Vogue reached out to Owens’s office for comment).
To my congressman, all I have to say is good luck with that. The youth of your district will keep showing up. We’ll keep demanding transparency and ethical representation from you. And if you try to dismiss us, we’ll take our fight to the ballot box next November.
To all the youth out there who are fed up with your so-called leaders’ demands for silence and unearned respect, don’t let up. If you are seeking change from your leaders and being told to sit down and shut up because of your age and inexperience, our courage to act is our power. Your fight is just as important as any other, and your age is of no importance in that fight.
I hope that you take your fight to the voting booth and as far up the chain as your energy and your community can carry you. Doing so is not disrespectful to your elders. It’s in service of our community and our nation’s future. And when those in power try to shame and intimidate you, that’s when you know you’re on the right track.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue