How did a 29-year-old capture the curiosity of a nation? A freshman congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, appeared on the covers of Time Magazine and Vanity Fair in her first semester in office. What is in us — and what is in her — to bubble into such controversies that catch our collective attention? She, the communication virtuoso (Bloomberg Businessweek) of/for the millennium generation, is telling her elders something. We might want to listen.
Here’s one Baby Boomer’s perspective on what AOC is about.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2007 competed in the high school Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and placed as one of four second-place winners in the microbiology category. (Her research was on the effect of antioxidants on roundworms.) Close to 1,500 students from 46 countries competed. This academic excellence gave her a path to Boston University. At first, she majored in Microbiology and then, intrigued by larger biosystems and ecosystems, she skipped to economics, earning a degree in economics. While in college, she interned at Ted Kennedy’s office. In 2015-16 she worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
The Democratic presidential defeat of 2016 deflated many young spirits. AOC and a few friends decided it was time for a road trip. They headed west, stopping at Flint, Michigan, and ending at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. In both places, she listened to folks who were experiencing injustices, which were tangled in environmental concerns of clean water. The experience at Standing Rock, where Native Americans and phalanxes of environmentalists pushed back to protect lands from oil pipes, stirred a sense of moral justice in AOC. She came home to New York, feeling she must do something.
Meanwhile, a group called Justice Democrats had put out a call for young progressives to nominate people they hoped might get involved in a political path to right injustices: economic, environmental and social. The request was that the nominees have a track record of putting the common good first. Social workers, nurses, doctors, community organizers. In sum, people lacking political connections but full of moral ideals. Alexandria’s brother Gabriel nominated her.
AOC went to the interviews and was accepted. Justice Democrats offered the nominees training in how to run a campaign on key injustice issues and on fundraising via small donations, bypassing the corporate PAC sponsorship trap. Justice Democrats had strategically identified primaries where moderate Democrats were at risk. The work was to increase the number of folks voting, not to convert voters for the incumbent. Door-to-door work. She wore out her shoes walking and talking in her district. She posted a photo of them on her Instagram account.
AOC has been interviewed tens of times, her comments revealing her deep affection for: Lincoln, FDR,and MLK Jr. What surprised me in the hours I spent viewing her interviews on YouTube was her working knowledge of history. She stands on the shoulders of Lincoln, FDR, MLK and Teddy Kennedy, and acknowledges them often. She aims for a moral society where dignity and “pursuit of happiness” abide; all mainstream in the American progressive political thread.
She is unswervingly dedicated to speaking up for the American working class and the poor. “Start the Green New Deal with fully funding the pensions and health care for the coal miners. Start something,” she says. “An entire generation [hers], came of age and never saw [middle class] American prosperity,” she says. “I have never seen that, or experienced that in my adult lifetime.”
AOC sees through a Millennial’s lens the 2008 financial crash, soaring student debt, flat wages for middle and lower classes, and political priority differences – which she claims are not ideological but generational. Her generation feels an urgency to save the planet (Green New Deal) and an urgency to restore dignity for all Americans (Medicare for All and Economic Justice).
This young congresswoman’s articulation of governing priorities addressing social, economic, environmental, and medical injustices may be just the history lesson we Boomers need to hear.
Mary Ellen Flaherty-Ludwig, a Norwalk native and resident, taught science at Ponus Middle School in Norwalk and Middlesex Middle School in Darien. Currently she mentors science teachers in the public K-12 Special Music School in NYC.