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How the Millennial Action Project empowers young leaders to engage in civil debate

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How the Millennial Action Project empowers young leaders to engage in civil debate

This new crop of young elected officials gives hope to the idea of a more united U.S. on the horizon.

How young politicians learn

Layla Zaidane of the Millennial Action Project describes the 9/11 attacks as a formative moment when she realized just how possible it was to empathize between two seemingly different sides. 

On the cusp of entering high school, she remembers both the unity and the outrage of the aftermath. But for her, a Moroccan and an American, she carried the additional weight of balancing her identities: "I was feeling like at this moment, I'm not supposed to hold both." 

Though she didn't realize it at the time, this would inform her work as president of Millennial Action Project, which helps young politicians build productive, working relationships with one another so that political polarization is not an obstacle to solving big problems.

The Millennial Action Project works to encourage conversation and collaboration between young politicians from across the political spectrum. So much of what Zaidane and other young people like her have been taught has come from politicians who fuel division rather than principled deliberation. Young people want to approach things differently, Zaidane says. 

"What if we were able to build something that welcomed all young elected officials, just as they were stepping into public service, to connect them along generational identity so that they might build a better future?" Zaidane asks. "It just triggered so much within me of erasing false binaries working within our institutions to create solutions."

Through workshops and their Future Caucus, the Millennial Action Project is doing just that. Along the way, it's not just giving legislators the tools to be more empathetic; it's helping them be more effective, too.

Millennial Action Project encourages young politicians to listen to different viewpoints

The rhetoric of powerful, divisive lawmakers has exacerbated America's toxic polarization. National leaders increasingly voice an "all-or-nothing" approach when it comes to discussing their viewpoints. They have more and more Americans convinced that we have less in common than we actually do. While Americans perceive over half of Republicans and Democrats to hold extreme, unmalleable views, in reality, the proportion is closer to just 30%.

Elected officials have the power to help mend this polarization by showing their constituents that they can engage in open and measured discussions. Millennial Action Project creates space for young elected officials to approach opposing viewpoints with curiosity and listen across differences. Zaidane describes it as "creating a permission structure."

The organization hosts training sessions and workshops for young politicians to have open, honest, and productive conversations. During these sessions, participants highlight role models working to bridge partisan divides and learn to improve their emotional intelligence, decision-making, and conflict management skills. 

This doesn't just result in better politicians. It also results in better individuals who carry  these skills into their communities. 

"The leadership that it takes to do that, whether they stay in politics or not, makes them really well-equipped to be positive role models and to be effective leaders in whatever industry they end up in," Zaidane says.

The Future Caucus: where young elected officials test their abilities

Millennial Action Project's conversations result in tangible, mutual benefit for policymakers and their constituents by allowing for more informed, nuanced legislation. 

The Future Caucus is a congressional caucus that any lawmaker — Democratic or Republican — aged 45 or younger can join. These young policymakers take all of the communication and collaboration skills they've learned and apply them to designing legislation around the most urgent and important issues of the future, including emerging technologies, educational reform, and national security. Participants debate and ultimately work toward agreements on a chosen few topics, which leads to them being better equipped to pass informed legislation. Members of both the general caucus and its network of state chapters signed a code of conduct for the 117th Congress promising to uphold its goal of enacting post-partisan action. 

Members of the Millennial Action Project passed 3,945 bills in 2022. This means that one out of every three post-partisan bills passed in state and federal government last year was sponsored by young leaders (that is, leaders under 45), who comprise 20% of elected officials across the country. 

"People who participate in this kind of policy -making, this kind of trust building, this kind of bridge building, I think become better leaders," Zaidane says. "They become more effective at getting things done, at building coalitions and getting buy-in to advance ideas and solutions that they have. And it also enables them to bring more diverse perspectives into the work that they're doing." 

Millennial Action Project: a new future for legislation

Zaidane says her ability to communicate and compromise has greatly improved — both in politics and in life — after working with the Millennial Action Project.

 "I'm definitely a more curious and patient friend," she says. "When I disagree with someone now, it doesn't instinctively cause me to feel attacked or that the other person is 100% wrong. It causes me to be curious about what they're seeing that I'm not seeing."

Thus far, 1,600 young elected officials are members of the Millennial Action Project, which accounts for 68% of all young lawmakers in state and federal government. 

With a new generation of leaders behind it, the organization is currently developing the Innovation Lab, which aims to become a hub for members of the Future Caucus to connect with other politicians, explore educational materials, and study expert opinions.

As the Millennial Action Project continues to grow, it hopes to change the future of legislation.  

"It's a little counterculture today to try to build bridges in politics," Zaidane says. "I think what the young lawmakers in the Future Caucus are doing is counterculture, but they are growing in numbers. There are more and more of them every year, and (eventually) there will be so many of them that they will be the culture." 

That stands to benefit us all.

"There's a lot of upside for the individual," she concludes. "There's even more upside for our country, and our democratic institutions."

The Millennial Action Project is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems.

Learn more about Stand Together's free speech and peace efforts, and explore ways you can partner with us.

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