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Opinion: OU alum advocates for millennial generation to participate in public service

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Daniel Pae

Former Student Government Association president Daniel Pae speaks at the class of 2020 convocation, Aug. 18, 2016.

“I believe in my generation and the future.”

This was the topic I spoke on for the 2012 Lions Club High School Speech Contest. My speech centered around my leadership experiences in student council and National Honor Society. I emphasized how young and old Americans alike know that the next generation will need decisive leaders. We can and will fulfill that need if we stay creative and innovative in a life full of volunteering and service.

Five years later — after having graduated from Lawton High School and the University of Oklahoma — I’m even more confident in my generation and the future. My conviction and passion for pursuing a career in public service has motivated me to run for elected office.

Ultimately, this campaign is about the journey, not the destination. I’ve just started the first quarter, and as we all know, the most interesting developments happen during the fourth quarter.

I’ve now knocked on nearly 1,000 doors in Lawton. This is the heart and soul of campaigning. You can’t win based solely on financial contributions, name recognition or social media — you have to connect with voters on a personal level and demonstrate that you genuinely care about their concerns, dreams and ideas.

I’ve also discovered the three absolutely essential items to carry when knocking doors: campaign pamphlets, bottled water and bug spray.

Let me be clear: some days are far more challenging than others. It’s tough to persevere after interacting with individuals who are rude, patronizing and confrontational. However, perhaps the most satisfying conversation thus far has been with one individual in front of his yard. We spoke for nearly an hour about topics ranging from taxes to education to medical marijuana. I also found out that his wife works in Lawton’s city government with me. Indeed, there have been several instances when I’ve encountered family friends, high school teachers and community members who I haven’t seen in a long time. Their joy and encouragement give me the energy to carry on.

What has also kept me from giving up is always remembering that our generation has the possibility and responsibility to profoundly shape the direction of the 21st century. You are never too young to answer the noble call of public service. Attend your city council meetings. Run for elected office. Establish a local nonprofit.

I believe that our generation is inherently pragmatic. We grew up amid two wars in the Middle East and a global financial crisis. The polarization between the two major political parties widened and thus many younger voters are registered as independent. Therefore, we think differently from previous generations of Americans, along with being more socially accepting. This generation isn’t willing to settle for hyper-partisanship and gridlock. Unfortunately, common sense and civility have become rare commodities in the policy making process. Instead of politically grandstanding the issues, our generation should work towards thoughtfully solving the issues.

We need more individuals with the right combination of wisdom, tenacity and empathy to tackle the various policy challenges facing the world. None of this will be simple and straightforward, but we cannot afford to let the cynics and skeptics decide the terms of the debate.

So much of our modern politics is driven by charlatans and demagogues manipulating the anger, fear and anxiety among voters about a rapidly changing economy and society and relying on sensational, inaccurate soundbites that deteriorate the quality of civil discourse. Indeed, when I interned at the Oklahoma State Capitol and the United States Congress, sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I was in a governing institution or on an elementary playground.

We can — and must — do better.

As participants — not spectators — in the arena, each of us can be someone, as President Teddy Roosevelt described, “who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions.”

Daniel Pae graduated from OU in May 2017 with a B.A. in economics and an M.P.A.

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