Meet The Women Taking Youth Issues To The Candidates

Photo: Courtesy of FUSION.
The 2016 election cycle is already exhausting, but for every debate we watch, we find ourselves waiting for candidates to delve into the issues that really matter to us. Tax plans are important, sure, but what about the interest rate on our student loan bills?

It's time to mark your DVRs. On Monday, the Democratic presidential candidates — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley — will be meeting in Iowa for the Brown and Black Forum to discuss issues that matter to the millennial generation, from student debt to Black Lives Matter.

The forum will focus heavily on issues important to minority and youth voters, including immigration, education, the economy, health care, and criminal justice. Moderated by Jorge Ramos, Alicia Menendez, Akilah Hughes, and Rembert Browne, the forum will be broadcasted by Fusion on traditional television, as well as YouTube and Facebook.

We spoke to moderators Alicia Menendez and Akilah Hughes about the goals of the forum and why talking about issues in a diverse environment is so crucial.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you hoping to get out of the forum?
Alicia Menendez: “The idea is to get the candidates talking about the issues that matter to an increasingly diverse America. The thing I hear no matter the debate, no matter whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, is that [young voters] don’t feel like the issues that matter in their day-to-day life are getting enough attention. Our job is to put the spotlight on those issues.”

Akilah Hughes: “I agree with that. I think the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum definitely represents a specific group of voices that have been pretty much ignored thus far...in America. We’re really just focusing on issues specific to those demographics.

"A lot of [the candidates] have these canned responses where they sort of dance around the issues or go for the least controversial response, but I think this is a group and a set of moderators that isn’t going to let up until the response is an actual answer.”

AM: “Part of it is also in approach. It’s one thing to talk about student debt; it’s another thing when your moderators actually have student debt. It’s one thing to talk about homeownership; it’s another thing when your moderators are young and wondering whether they will ever be homeowners. So I think a lot of the questions come in the spirit of our being where our audience is, and that being different from moderators who are completely detached from the themes that they’re discussing.”

Race issues have, like women’s issues, been portrayed as “niche.” What do you think the candidates need to do to incorporate race more thoroughly into their platforms?
AH: "I think that it’s super-important for all of the candidates to talk about what being white looks like in America.

"It’s always going to be a 'niche issue' discussing race in terms of politics, if we’re using them as the ‘other’ and we don’t have Black candidates on the Democratic side. They’re not going to be [niche] at the forum. It’s important to be discussing the privileges, the world [candidates] grow up in and how they come to the issues, because it’s always going to seem condescending if they’re talking about people that they aren’t."

AM: "There’s sort of a dual reality going on in America right now, where for the longest time Black and brown issues were considered 'minority issues.' But in a country that will soon be majority-‘minority,’ all of a sudden many of these issues become baseline American issues. At the same time, sort of in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, we know that there are topics of conversation that very often are ignored, under-reported, under-explored, and need even more attention in an election year."
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How do you feel about taking on the challenge to represent the issues of race, and particularly those important to minority youth, that have otherwise been sidelined?
AH: "Personally, I like to say that I’m never going to be speaking for every person, every Black person. (laughs) But I'll be asking the questions that have been raised in these communities that haven’t been talked about in these debates thus far. I think that it’s a great honor to be able to ask these questions, because otherwise I don’t know that they would be asked."

AM: "One of the things that both Akilah and I have been really mindful of is looking for intersections. What does it mean to be a woman of color in America? What does that mean for your basic safety, for your economic prosperity? Looking at the intersections of race and gender, of class and gender, of class and race. All of those things come together in a way that I think is going to be really exciting.

"I also think that we have a responsibility — and this is a thing that we've been working through as we’ve been getting ready for this — which is, this needs to be serious, it needs to be earnest, but it also needs to be fun, and it needs to feel like a conversation that you would actually have amongst your peers."
How do you hope to draw the candidates into those more interactive dialogues?
AH: "The way that we’ve set up the format, people will see that there are rounds of serious questions, [and] there are rounds of less serious questions. Because it’s not just going to be me asking the candidate, it’s not just one moderator, I think that different kinds of questions really will come through. They’ll have to be more present.

"In a debate you have a lot of time to listen to other people’s answers, and they’re speaking to one specific issue at a time for maybe 10 to 15 minutes. And so you can be very rehearsed, whereas this is not going to be like that at all."

AM:
"I also think that the fact that these issues are connected to our own experience will play a role in making the dialogue and discourse more personal. We also wanted to have a dance-off, but that got nixed."
The chairwoman of the DNC recently made comments saying that young women are complacent about reproductive rights. What do you think this says about how the DNC views young women and women of color?
AH: "I think — it’s complicated, right? When I read those comments, I was taken aback. I don’t know that young women are complacent! I mean, it trends on Twitter when these things happen. I think that people are talking about it. I think that it’s very much an issue. I guess I just wonder exactly why she feels that way."
What’s the most important thing for these (white) politicians to remember about representing minority citizens?
AH: "I can’t give them advice — I’m obviously not running for president — but I would definitely say that, in general, people of color are tired of being spoken for when they’re not being spoken to.

"It’s important that the candidates can address the fact that their life experience is not everyone’s. But they [also] need to feel the responsibility to be speaking in intersectional and broader terms. When you talk about the American dream, who’s achieving that dream? When you’re talking about economic justice for women, are you talking about women who are white, or are you talking about women who happen to be people of color, or LGBTQ? It has to be more intersectional.

"In a broad sense, they need to be thinking a little bit more multicultural, a little bit more inclusively when they do choose to speak. But I do think they should feel called [on] to speak out for these underrepresented communities. If they don't, I don’t know why they would run for president in 2016."

The Iowa Brown and Black Forum will air on Fusion at 8 p.m. ET (7 p.m. CT), and will be re-broadcast in Spanish on UniMás at 11 p.m. ET.
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