“I don’t believe everybody needs to be a progressive,” Sanders told an estimated 325 people at the annual Culver Lecture. “I think we need conservatives. I think we need some not-so-progressive progressive people. I think we need people from all over the ideological spectrum in order to do the necessary work before us.”
“We need young people who are committed and engaged in doing that work,” she added. “We need young people to stand up in this moment and be radical revolutionaries on all sides of the ideological spectrum.”
Sanders could have talked about the president, the culture in Washington, D.C., the news of the day or any of the other issues she regularly weighs in on as a CNN commentator.
Instead, she chose to direct her attention to a group she considers the most important and powerful in the country: The young people in the audience.
“We need young people willing to stand up and demand we do things differently,” she said.
At 28, Sanders represented the youngest person of the eight who have been invited to deliver the Culver Lecture. She referred to her own background to show what can happen when a person of any age is willing to make a difference.
“I don’t need someone else to give me permission to act,” she said.
A native of Omaha, Sanders decided as a youngster that the three most powerful jobs she could hold were a judge, a politician or a chef, although she soon concluded a career in the kitchen wasn’t for her.
When she was in elementary school, two judges served as her mentors. Once a month, she would go to the courthouse, sit through cases and jury selection, and have lunch with a judge.
In high school, she served on groups working for juvenile justice reform, and that’s when she had an epiphany.
“It blew my mind that nobody thought to ask a system-involved young person” for their thoughts. “Nobody thought to pull somebody in who was directly involved and had first-hand knowledge.”
Sanders served on a federal advisory committee on juvenile justice. At age 16, she also introduced former President Bill Clinton at an event in Omaha to 5,000 people.
Her experiences led her to a new conclusion: “I thought the most powerful thing in the world I could be was a young person that helped craft the message for the people.”
And that’s what she is doing now, as a CNN commentator, Democratic political strategist and communications consultant.
First, however, were the 27 phone calls she made to find a job in Washington, D.C., eventually hearing back from an official in Bernie Sen. Sanders’ presidential campaign. Symone Sanders hit it off with Bernie Sanders, and she was hired to be his national press secretary, thought to be the youngest person to ever hold such a post.
Today’s young people, she said, need to bridge the gaps between opposing viewpoints.
“We need to force ourselves to have constructive, uncomfortable conversations,” she said.
And then what?
“Whatever the issue is, what would happen if young people across ideological spectrums decided to come to the table where their predecessors failed to come together? We absolutely have the power.”
John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, was a young man when he joined the protest, she noted. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a young pastor who became the face of that movement. The Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program because young people demand it.
“While our country is going through a lot, so are our campuses,” Sanders said. “So are our communities. And I think at this particular moment we need young people, at campuses just like these, to stand in the gap and build bridges to where we are going.”
Students in the audience said Sanders’ talk motivated them.
“The fact that she is so influential in the U.S. right now is just so inspiring, said Maggie Nielsen, a first-year Culver Fellow from Hastings, Neb. “She’s also from Nebraska, and there aren’t a lot of us making a name for ourselves.”
Levi Lefebure, a junior from Cedar Rapids, is another Culver Fellow who praised the speech.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “I thought she was very passionate and had a good message. She’s an example of a young person getting involved and deciding to go make a change in something she believes in. It’s something we can do right here.”