Why I Rise Up: Jeffrey Clemmons
Meet Jeffrey Clemmons
When speaking about what characterizes the youngest generation of American voters, we often hear phrases like “Post-Columbine,” “Post-9/11,” “Post-George Floyd,” and soon to be “Post-Pandemic.” As a generation of young voters endures countless tragedies, American democracy is coming to a reckoning with its legacy. In a nation whose history is measured by tragedy, young leaders are paving the way for a future marked by its accountability and justice.
Student activist Jeffrey Clemmons is a rising senior at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. President of his campus’ NAACP chapter and Ambassador for The Andrew Goodman Foundation, Jeffrey has organized around issues of police reform, gun violence, and climate change in his local community. Learn more about Jeffrey in the Q&A below!
Join student activists like Jeffrey at The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Rise Up Weekend beginning on June 25th. Register here!
How did your upbringing bring you to the work you do with The Andrew Goodman Foundation?
I didn’t grow up in a household where we talked about politics. However, like other People of Color, we live at the intersection of different identities and the issues that envelop them, even inside my household. Things like my mother’s struggle with addiction, mental health, sexism at work, and my struggles with self-esteem and sexuality were all a part of the larger political systems of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and classism. I grew up being cognizant of how these issues distinguished my family and community politically and naturally made me an empathetic person who is drawn to do something about them.
I also grew up cognizant of the things that set my generation apart politically. I was born in 1999, the same year the Columbine High School shooting happened. We grew up in the active shooter generation. And now, it’s become a thing that happens every day. We are a generation in terror. We’ve seen endless wars. We’ve seen politics corrupted by big money. All of which sows distrust in the government, which has come to the detriment of the American people.
We are a generation in terror. All of which sows distrust in the government, which has come to the detriment of the American people.
In the 7th grade, my family moved from Lancaster to Rockwall, Texas. It was a complete culture shock to move from a place with a high demographic of Black folks to an area of Texas that is majority white because it also illuminated these incredible wealth disparities that were formative to my political development.
When I was in high school, I became interested in political issues, primarily environmental issues. This big field next to my high school was covered in trash, and we drove by it every day. Out of frustration, I began to pick up the garbage by myself. I began to organize and recruit among my friends to get people to help me clean up. That effort grew into a campaign to raise awareness about climate change.
Now that I am in college, I have been able to work on political campaigns centered around voting rights, such as the work that I do with The Andrew Goodman Foundation. I go to a Historically Black College. That already feels like I’m coming from a different starting place with a different set of values and needs, which allows me to offer a voice for organizations that speak from a constituency that usually isn’t heard. I’ve also worked with organizations like Texas Rising to advocate for legislation that protects student voter rights and ensures that young people’s voting rights are respected.
What is your role with the NAACP and The Andrew Goodman Foundation like? What does your work entail?
I’m the president of the NAACP chapter at the University of Texas, and most recently, we worked around getting people to vote in the 2020 election. Texas is one of the most restrictive states in the country for voting. It is challenging to vote in Texas, and it has only become more complex with the pandemic.
Other issues that I organize around include work on student debt. Along with mass shootings, a global pandemic, and climate change––student debt is also something that characterizes my generation’s struggle. In the United States, student debt is tremendously high, going into the trillions. People are being shut out of opportunities, and we must transform how we treat young adults who are pursuing an education in this country if we are serious about our future direction. I’ve been testifying at the Legislature, talking to representatives, sending letters and emails, and organizing my peers to create pressure that will ensure our voices are being heard.
Part of what I do with The Andrew Goodman Foundation is building infrastructure for civic engagement on campus. The lack of infrastructure for civic engagement reflects the lack of civic education in the United States, which fosters distrust and ultimately hurts our democracy.
The lack of infrastructure for civic engagement reflects the lack of civic education in the United States, which fosters distrust and ultimately hurts our democracy.
What inspires you about the legacy of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner and the Foundation’s mission?
Their story gives me chills when I think about it. It still echoes today regarding police violence, racism, and being murdered for fighting for one’s rights. It’s a story that has had such an impact on me because it’s a story of radical defiance and affirms for me that I need to continue with the work that I’m doing. It wasn’t long ago that Black people wouldn’t have been able to access the Texas Capitol to speak with elected officials on issues that matter to them. People need to realize that civil rights weren’t the end of political struggle in the United States. It’s their story that gives me a renewed vigor in what I do.
Why is youth voter participation important in shaping our country’s democracy?
When we say these issues that young people care about will have a disproportionate impact on students, politicians tend to regard us as apathetic and ignore us. The Austin College Student Commission is often not taken seriously, even though we organize around issues that impact the nation’s future generations. Since we were toddlers, we’ve been told that we are the future, but we get patronized when we stand up for it. There are 5.4 million students in Texas and 100,000 students here in the city of Austin. Last year, we had a 600% increase in youth voter turnout, which was crucial to turning the tide on elections. One hundred thousand college students can easily be a whole congressional district. That is why there have been many recent attempts to ensure we aren’t involved in elections by attacking civic education. For example, critical race theory was recently banned in Texas. When these politicians no longer hold their seats in Congress, we will still be left with these issues. The stake of our democracy rests on the shoulders of young people and depends on us getting politically involved. Young people can completely change the way we can think about politics. Part of the reason maybe we’ve been in this political deadlock for so long is because we haven’t taken on new ideas on how to organize our society.
The stake of our democracy rests on the shoulders of young people and depends on us getting politically involved. Young people can completely change the way we can think about politics.
Aside from voting, what can people do to take part in helping build our country’s democracy?
Growing up, there is no guide to becoming involved in politics or elections. The best thing that one can do is show up and see what is happening for yourself. If you want to cut through the partisan noise, you have to show up and see what is happening on the floor. State representatives are here to serve you. When you learn how things work, you can also begin to see how things are not working, which helps identify problems that need to be addressed. Connect and organize with your local community and join organizations like the NAACP and The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Be present in your community and help where needed. The roots of all politics are in community, so if you’re not out in the community, you’re missing out on a big part of how politics can make the world a better place.
How does recently introduced voter suppression legislation across the United States threaten the future of our country?
Voter suppression fundamentally robs people of their voices by taking away their ability to vote for who represents them, and that has real material consequences on communities.
When a small number of registered voters show up to the polls, a small number of people decide the fate of millions of people. If you don’t show up to the polls, you end up with someone who doesn’t represent you but makes decisions for you.
What motivates you to Rise Up?
What motivates me to Rise Up most mornings is anger about the state of our democracy and the fact that we continue not to make progress on it. It has been a year since George Floyd’s murder, and we still haven’t seen significant police reforms in the way that we need to. Police have continued to make headlines for murdering Black folks since. I don’t know how you couldn’t be angry at the lack of progress since. I Rise Up every day to raise awareness on these issues, to try to fight against things that are working against the interests of people who are being brutalized by the state.
About the Author
Student activist Jeffrey Clemmons is a rising senior at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas. He is President of his campus’ NAACP chapter and an Andrew Goodman HBCU Ambassador.