Williamsburg may have one of the strongest claims as America’s earliest, sleepy college town. The city was founded in 1632 as Middle Plantation and served as a high ground settlement between the James and York Rivers. For nearly a century, it was the colonial capital of Virginia and later served as the Commonwealth’s capital in the early years after the American Revolution.
Youth and vitality are not the first words that come to mind when people think of our town, but the city’s fortunes have been intertwined for centuries with the students who pass through the gates of William & Mary. In earlier years, our young alumni graduated into the great American experiment in self-governance. Along the way, so many of them contributed to the civic fabric of our country, the university earned a reputation as the Alma Mater of the Nation. Today we strive to continue that rich history of creating graduates who think critically, look beyond boundaries, and solve problems creatively. Those who do follow in the intellectual footsteps of fellow alums Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Whether here or in the wider world, our students are challenged to balance the rigorous academic demands of the classroom and the ever-present opportunities to learn lessons about life and leadership through their engagement with extracurricular and co-curricular activities.
Today, the town is a little less sleepy than it was during America’s earliest days. Williamsburg’s population was estimated to be around 14,691 people in 2014. Most years, William & Mary students comprise roughly half of the city’s residents. And while students graduate and often move across the country and the world to live, serve, and lead, some choose to remain close to home, making their mark on our historic city. Their engagement is both vital and necessary and follows in a long tradition of servant leadership.
I recently sat down with William & Mary graduate, Benny Zhang, a former student of mine who now sits on the Williamsburg City Council and studies at our law school. Zhang is the second recent alum to be elected to the city council, and I wanted to get his perspective on what he’s learning as a millennial representing the interests of both university students and residents in this forward-thinking historical city.
Benny shared two major lessons. The first is his embrace of the concept of being a “citizen-legislator.”
Holding an elected office is a noble calling, but it’s mostly a part-time venture, Benny explains. In Virginia, the thinking stems from Thomas Jefferson’s concept of the citizen-legislator, part-time public servants who prioritize one’s role as a citizen before that of their elected office. This is especially true when it comes to local government, which is the closest form of government to the people. Whether it be the duty of filling potholes, or the challenges of economic development to a locality, a citizen’s quality of life is immediately impacted by its city council or board of supervisors. Perhaps that is why there is growing scholarship that democracy will ultimately shift from Washington, D.C. to mayors and city officials.
In the City of Williamsburg, our city council is nonpartisan by nature. Sure, members espouse some sort of political ideology, but when it comes to getting the best results for our citizens, we are called, Benny says, to collaborate unencumbered by the type of entrenched partisan interests that George Washington warned of in his Farewell Address. Washington’s desire for non-political parties was largely realized in some of our local governments.
At his age, Benny’s service as a member of city council is a rarity, although this may soon change for people in the generation commonly known as millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). But Benny also admits that it can be challenging for young adults to run for elected office. While acknowledging young professionals must contend with a perceived lack of work or life experiences generally and electorally, Benny believes younger generations have important perspectives to offer.
But even if young candidates can overcome perceptions of inexperience or being underqualified, other barriers exist. Benny shared his perspective on the economic and social realities facing young people who seek elected office.
“It is rare that a young professional can afford to take away time from their full-time job while trying to learn the profession and begin to make a positive impact,” he says. “Entering the public arena can be both exciting but also overwhelming.”
Younger candidates may deem that social capital needed to both feel comfortable and be perceived as capable is not within their grasp. Benny shared that often the profile of his colleagues tends toward middle- and upperclass, well-established middle-aged to older men who enjoy a defined career path. Benny believes this reflects evidence of privilege in being able to run for elected office. He explained that his ability to run for elected office is predicated in part on having the financial support from his family, who immigrated to the United States before he was born and are now financially secure. Benny reported, “that their financial support is enough for me to attend William & Mary Law School while participating full-on with my city council duties. This is a reality of my financial privilege.”
Benny has recognized the benefits to having part-time public officials while also learning and growing from the challenges of being a young elected official. “As a millennial in a highly-educated college/retiree town, I admit I do not possess nearly as many experiences as some of my older neighbors do. That has fueled my experience in active listening and earnestly respecting my neighbor’s ideas. It has compelled me to do my due diligence in researching every draft ordinance that comes before a vote on council. It also means respecting and sharing one’s views and beliefs. In the age of digital media, I find that there is a lot of “I’m right; you’re wrong.” I simply cannot afford to do that. As a representative of my neighbors, I cast votes on the budget, adopt policies that affect everyone, and make hiring decisions. That is a lot for a 21-year old, but it can be done.”
Benny concluded, “I know my actions, to a certain extent, will be scrutinized to a larger degree. It is quite interesting to observe how other elected officials choose to navigate through this space. Some are hyper-protectionist of themselves; others, a bit reckless.” In sharing this insight, Benny is articulating the challenge of residing in a place that has a complicated history. “It requires me to be genuine, and as I am continually growing, to become more confident in my abilities to do my best. Where do I stand in this space?”
And Benny realizes his public service ultimately is about something bigger than his own ambitions
“My time on council will be short in the grand lineage of my city, but what endures is how I set up for the next generation. To that end, I have found my time on council to be about setting up a framework for future council members, who may share my ideals and vision for the city becoming a place for young professionals to succeed. It is a hard thing to do – to contemplate an end to things. But, I have reasoned that is even more fulfilling to be able to achieve things in the short-run, and also have successive students, young professionals, or whoever continue the spirit of a vision.”