Norristown Millennials Jump Into The Political Fray

May 16, 2017

Shae Ashe (left) and Jim Lewis are part of the youth movement for civic engagement in Norristown, Pa. (Annette John-Hall/WHYY)

About 25 people recently gathered inside the lobby of the Centre Theater in Norristown for a political fundraiser. The event is being held for 27-year-old Shae Ashe. He’s running for Norristown school board in the May 16 primary election.

“I decided to run for school board because Norristown has a lot of challenges,” Ashe said. “It could use somebody innovative to figure out how we can navigate our school district in Harrisburg as well as D.C.”

For some millennials, the 2016 presidential election has been a catalyst to get more politically and civically involved, and in Norristown, more of them are jumping into local politics.

Ashe is following in the footsteps of his mother, Denise Ashe, who previously served on the school board. But he said it was President Donald Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education that also made him want to run.

“Her plan for more school vouchers and less funding for public schools hurts a school district like Norristown where there is a budget problem every year,” Ashe said. “With the lack of property taxes to fund our schools, as well as a lot of children going to charter schools, we’re sending a lot of money out of the district.”

Until now, Ashe has directed the Norristown Project, a nonprofit he founded to help beautify his hometown. But since the 2016 election, he’s also spent some time convincing friends like Rebecca Smith to run for local office.

Not that Smith, a Bernie Sanders supporter, needed a lot of convincing.

“We elected someone with no political experience to the highest office in the land,” Smith said, referring to President Trump. “I have more political experience than the president and I’m 22 years old.”

Now Smith is running for the Municipal Council in Norristown. After watching her hometown decline over the years, Smith says getting into politics is a way she can do something about it, instead of just complaining.

“When we start to get involved as young people, we can start to see the types of forward movement that we all want to see,” she said. “If we’re just sitting around hoping for the past, we’re never going to see the change we want.”

For years, Norristown has been on the brink of revitalization or despair. As the poorest city in Montgomery County, it sits in one the state’s richest counties. Still, Smith is optimistic. She offers her millennial perspective on how residents — not just politicians — can help support Norristown.

“I hope we can support the small businesses in Norristown because that’s where Norristown can grow and flourish,” Smith said.  “We do have several cute restaurants in Norristown  — but they all close at 3 p.m. If we can support those businesses so they can financially stay open later, we might see those cute little restaurants open on Friday nights. They already exist, they just have to stay open.”

Over the past several years, Norristown has started to show early signs of a comeback. Crime has decreased almost 30 percent. New restaurants have popped up in the business district. New infrastructure projects are in the works, including a SEPTA spur line that connects Norristown to Lower Merion. Plus, a new Norristown interchange on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is planned.

Councilman Hakim Jones said such progress makes Norristown appealing.

“The municipality has already met with different developers,” Jones said. “When they see infrastructure being addressed, they feel a lot more confident coming into the community. I think we are still a great place that can compete with a Conshohocken, a Plymouth Meeting, or a King of Prussia.”

Jones is 34. He grew up in Norristown, and has been active in the local community. He was part of an effort to re-open and restore the George Washington Carver Community Youth Center, and is currently the acting executive director.

Jones said the fact that he ran unopposed last year illustrates the need for more people to get involved in the community.

“If you don’t take advantage of the leadership positions that are here, other people will come in here and capitalize,” he said. “There are local people who spent their entire lives here who need to step up into some of those roles.”

And maybe more millennials such as Jones, Smith, and Ashe will be stepping up in the future.

At a recent meeting of the Democratic Progressive Committee in Philadelphia for example, more than 400 people showed up, of which two-thirds of the group were millennials. And millennial researchers such as Jason Dorsey of the Center for Generational Kinetics in Texas, say anecdotal evidence is showing young people have started to become more politically and civically engaged.

“Lots of millennials engage in the election digitally, but those same millennials frequently don’t vote,” Dorsey said. “I think for the first time, they realized you can’t just talk about something; you have to take concrete steps to get there. That’s a big wakeup call.”

The idea of being civically engaged resonates with 23-year-old Jim Lewis of Norristown. He’s been involved with service projects in his hometown and has been vocal about the need for residents to get involved.

“Norristown’s future belongs in the hands of the people of Norristown,” Lewis said. “Nobody’s going to swoop in and save the town for us. I think it needs to come from us.”