This Group Is Trying To Give You A Voice In Washington

Photographed by Kylie Thompson.
Ben Brown knows that when most people hear the word "lobbyist," they immediately picture “old guys in suits having steak dinners.”

The 27 year old wants to change that — and, in the process, give the largest generation in American history a bigger voice in Washington.

“Lobbying really means talking to your official and educating them on what you need,” Brown told Refinery29. “Everyone has that right, and even that obligation, but the way it works now, young people can’t get on a plane to talk to their [representatives] every day.”

So, Brown decided to do something about it. He set up a new political lobby group for millennials, the Association of Young Americans. He wants to give an estimated 80 million Americans aged between 18 and 35 a seat at the table in D.C.

He's got some competition: there were more than 11,500 registered lobbyists working to influence laws and regulations as of 2014, according to data cited by AYA. Total spending on lobbying that year exceeded $3.25 billion — the majority coming from big corporations.

For $20 a year, Brown is promising to tackle issues like student debt, rising college costs, and campaign contributions from billionaires with your Washington representative.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find young people who think these things don’t need to be fixed,” said Brown, who plans to send regular surveys to members to keep tabs on their priority issues.

The 27-year-old wants members to "be part of the conversation" and hopes to someday livestream meetings with members of Congress via the association’s app.

Change, however, does not just happen, it needs to be fought for every day.

Ben Brown, Association of Young Americans
The idea for AYA was born when he read a Washington Post op-ed in 2012 about how young people in America were getting shafted, but didn't fully form until September, when he hurled himself into the political sphere and now single-handedly runs the group while working part-time with a management consulting company.

Just 21% of eligible 18-to-29 year olds voted in the 2014 midterms — and that's down to feeling powerless and disheartened by the political process, according to Brown. But AYA already has a few hundred members and more than 1,700 Facebook likes coming into a high-stakes presidential race. Like AARP, it offers members non-political perks that could boost membership, such as discounts on services and products.

Kim Ammons joined the group early on, because she’d taken a class with Brown at Middlebury College. "Politicians and the media alike often dismiss my age group, even though we're proving ourselves to be extremely politically [and] socially active on top of dealing with all of the economic and environmental problems that the previous generation has left us with," she said.

Official registration as a lobby group is the next step, in the coming months the group will submit an application for 501(c)(4) status (the social welfare organization status needed to lobby) in addition to operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity.

Amy Showalter, a veteran lobbyist for clients like Monsanto and Merck, told Refinery29 that Brown will need serious determination to make it work. "So, the challenge is to understand the importance of grit and to learn how to develop that by wearing out one's legislative opponents. It's no coincidence that the AARP has been consistently persuasive," she says. "They have the numbers, but they also have grit. This will be the test for the AYA.”

Brown's aim now is to make lawmakers "think about how AYA will react when considering a vote in the same way they think about AARP or the chamber of commerce."

“Young people are inheriting a system that is built around maintaining the status quo and encountering institutions that have been focused on protecting their self-interests for decades. The difference now is that we finally have the platform, the technology, the numbers, and the desire to organize and systematically change it," he says, adding, "change, however, does not just happen, it needs to be fought for every day."

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