Legislators reflect on what it’s like to be some of the youngest members of the Missouri General Assembly and what propelled them to the Capitol at such a young age.
These four op-eds — from Reps. Rasheen Aldridge, LaKeySha Bosley, Phil Christofanelli, and Dirk Deaton — are part of The Missouri Times 2020 30 Under 30 List. Read more about this year’s 30 Under 30 honorees here.
Rep. Rasheen Aldridge: “How fighting for justice has been in my DNA”
Even at a very early age, I knew one way or another I was going to be a rebellion that never wanted just to allow things to be normal because being different is needed. At birth, I laid on my right leg which didn’t give me proper blood flow. It made my right leg grow shorter than my left leg. I still have a foot with toes, but since it grew shorter, the doctors turned my foot around to play as a knee since that didn’t develop also.
Staying in the City of St. Louis but attending Parkway West High due to the desegregation program, I lived in two worlds. One, when I went to school, things seemed nicer from the air, grass, to the whole surroundings. Then, in my community, I would feel like an animal in a cage. No community centers, playgrounds, or places for the community to come together.
After high school, I was determined to stay home to fulfill my idea of one day moving my community from where it is to a place that it could be. While attending community college and working at Jimmy Johns, I was approached by a white organizer who asked me some tough and emotional questions one day when I was at work. He asked, “How much you make here? How is one sandwich more than what you make?” He later told me he was with the “Fight For 15.” The Fight For 15 included many workers from all across the country coming together to fight for a liveable wage and the right to unionize. I blew it off until one day I was at work and was disrespected by the area manager. The manager told me to hold a white piece of paper that said I made three sandwiches while he took a picture on his phone. I felt the most embarrassed in my life ever. That was the day enough was enough. I started organizing in my store. I talked to my coworkers — who were much older than me with families and mostly were women — on why we deserved to be respected at work and to have the ability not to have to live check to check, especially as we put in 100 percent. On May 8 — I can remember it like it was yesterday — five coworkers and I were the first workers in St. Louis to begin the Fight For 15 movement. We walked off the job and joined other workers, community members, labor workers, faith leaders, and students demanding $15 and a union. This was the fire that eventually lit the flame inside of me to no longer injustice to just skate by without myself standing up and speaking out.
On Aug. 9, 2014, I was at work and saw a news article of how Mike Brown was killed at the hands of Darren Wilson. When I first heard about it, I — like many other people of color — was numb to it. I thought, “Another African American killed by police; nothing is going to come out of this.” I was wrong. Two days later — like many other young people — I found myself in a fight that I couldn’t leave. To see tanks on the very streets we all drove down and to be shot with tear gas for coming out to find justice in the death of Mike Brown made me and others never go back to what reality once was in St. Louis. During the uprising, young people who never organized or knew each other from a can of paint started something we would never have thought would happen. We forced the conversation of racial injustice that has been haunting the police departments and communities of color for decades.
We demanded the police be demilitarized and use less brutality at protests. Together, we all expanded the conversion with our white allies on what white privilege is — and not to feel guilty about it, but how to use it to move us all forward. And we forced the world to understand that Black Lives Matter and should be treated in all systems as if they do.
I always knew that we had to push this message for justice, not just in the street but also at the table where power and policy were to be addressed. If we had systems that were in place to give hope and equitable resources to communities like Mike’s, like mine, our oppressed communities wouldn’t be in the state they are in.
During Ferguson, Gov. Jay Nixon announced he was putting together a commission that would address the systemic issue that plagues our region. I remember wanting to join but not sure how the protesters would feel about it since we didn’t look at Nixon as an ally. Nixon didn’t think twice about calling in the National Guard and enacting unconstitutional things like mandating we must walk when we are protesting. (If we stood for five seconds in a spot, we would be arrested.)
But Lara Granich, who at the time worked for Jobs With Justice, told me that it is essential, especially for young people, to be part of the conversations that impact their community. I sat with that for a few days. However, her comments wouldn’t leave my head. So I applied to the Ferguson Commission and was selected. I missed our very first meeting because I was later invited to the White House with other activists across the county to talk with former President Barack Obama about policy change in our criminal justice system. Being a young person who was able to be a part of two opportunities that had the chance to change the system in my city and world was actually what I wanted to do since I was that little boy who didn’t understand why my neighborhood was different from others. However, it wasn’t enough for me.
My community was the main reason I started all this activism, and problems still existed in my community. After talking to several people in my neighborhood about the lack of leadership to address the root cause of problems in our area, I eventually decided to run for the committeeman of the 5th Ward. I ended up teaming up with a protester I met in the street who also was deciding to run for office: Bruce Franks. To make things sweeter, we connected with another protester in Ferguson, who was running for the US. Senate at the time: Cori Bush.
We understood the importance of moving from protest to politics. We needed leaders in our community, ones who would give hope to a hopeless community. Those who were was willing to be bold and unapologetic.
Later, as I became the state representative of HD 78, I knew it was my duty to bring those same values and voices of the most underserved individuals I had been standing with for years to the most powerful halls of our state. To be able to change racist policies that have been on the books for years and address police brutality was something I was and planned to talk about with my colleagues. To help not just lift the wages in St. Louis, but the rural areas is what moves us all forward together.
I know this train eventually will have a stopping point, but at this moment, I know that if I want to move a community from where it is to where it can be, this is the work that is needed. If it’s in the streets of St. Louis or Jefferson City, addressing the systematic racism that Black and Brown bodies go through on a daily basis is paramount. I’m standing on the House of Representatives floor ensuring we pass legislation that chips away at a system that tells Black people that police brutality is OK. I fight so the next generation doesn’t have to ask themselves why they feel like an animal in a cage in their own community but not in others.
Rep. LaKeySha Bosley: “Politics is my whole life”
A product of a two-parent household in North St. Louis City and raised in the heart of the city with a rich history and encompassed with community, I grew up to be adventurous. My father, Freeman Bosley, Sr., was an alderman in the City of St. Louis for more than 30 years, the second-longest sitting alderman. My brother Freeman Bosley, Jr., was the first African- American mayor and the first circuit clerk of the 22nd Judicial Circuit.
Being a part of politics was not an option for me, it was my whole life. I didn’t choose politics, it chose me. Being active in the community, being on ride-alongs with my father, and long nights reading legislation — during the summer, of course — prepared me for the future. But believe it or not, I never wanted to be in politics. As a teenager, I despised it. It made me late for basketball games and cheerleading.
Furthermore, it all started with my grandfather, Preston T. Bosley. He sparked a flame so deep that it touched generations. He was a man of unity. He would always say, “In order to play the piano, you must play the black and white keys.” (At least that’s what my father always said he’d say.) That meant in order to make something harmonious, you needed everything to work together in one. This was also applied to the community and changing things for the better. That’s something that was passed on to me at a young age. My father chained himself to the front door of Homer G. Phillips Hospital because it was being forced to close. This was the only hospital that would serve African-Americans in a time when racial tensions in St. Louis City was extremely high. My dad was and is my Black Panther, long before a film was created. He is my inspiration. Honestly, I consider my entire family the “Political Avengers.”
Upon graduating from the Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School, I attended the HBCU, Tennessee State University, where I studied nursing. And this is where I had my first experience of being a part of politics outside of St. Louis. Down almost 200 votes, and two weeks before the election, my dear friend who was running for Miss Junior Tennessee State University asked me to be her campaign manager. With what I knew about politics, I used all those skills I learned over the years and was able to aide her to come within 30 votes. Although she lost the election, we were able to gain more ground because of the experience I had in politics.
Understanding that there are many ways to reach a goal, I came back home, earned a certification and became a licensed Certified Nursing Assistant from the Daruby School in St. Louis where I graduated top five of the class. With this certification complete, I was able to continue my work of service. Being able to interact with families and listen to their stories humbled me. This gave me even more of a heart for people who would eventually position me into the political arena. Before I ran for office, doing community service, helping other candidates going door to door, engaging with people, hearing frustration from felons off probation and parole thinking they lost their right to vote forever, and many of them fed up with the system that continued to fail them for years — they denounced the voting process — further birthed that fire in my belly to do more and be more for the people. I wanted to be a voice for those who felt that the government abandoned them.
To see and hear the brokenness that many were experiencing made me want to be a part of recreating the narrative and for the sake of our future.
Earning a degree from Forest Park Community College and currently studying at Harris Stowe State University, an HBCU, I am continuing my education by seeking a degree in political science with a concentration in pre-law. I am an advocate for positive social change in all aspects of life regardless of race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and tax bracket. My way of fighting back is being involved in politics and showing many young girls and boys they don’t have to “give up” on the system, they just have to “get involved” in the process. I also want them to know that they don’t have to conform to society’s idea of professionalism, i.e. natural hair is “unkempt.” Lupita Nyong’o said it best: “I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume; it was something I just had to be.”
I am a business owner, a student, a daughter, an aunt, a stateswoman, and much more. When I think of everything that has brought me to this point, I thank God for favor. My mission in politics and in life is for people: “Not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style,” as Maya Angelou said.
Rep. Phil Christofanelli: “Find your political team”
Despite coming from an apolitical family, I took a natural interest in politics as early as I can remember. I watched C-SPAN even before I really knew what was being said. My interests intensified in high school during the 2008 election. That is also when I began to study free-market thinkers such as Ayn Rand, Milton Freidman, Freidrich Hayek, and so many others who inform my worldview to this day.
I moved to Missouri in the summer of 2008 to attend Washington University. True to my Italian heritage, I lived on the Hill. I volunteered for numerous Republican campaigns and participated in the local party apparatus. In particular, Rep. Paul Curtman’s campaign inspired me to action. His principled and articulate approach to politics demonstrated that one could both honor their values while achieving political success at a young age. Were it not for Paul, I’m not sure I ever would have thought that becoming a state representative was something that I could do.
At age 20, I successfully ran for Missouri Republican State Committeeman. Subsequent to that, Chairman Ed Martin and then-Chairman John Hancock appointed me to the State Executive Committee. In fact, I nominated Hancock as chairman when he ran in 2014. At the time, speaking publicly in front of that many people was the most terrifying thing I had ever done. I’ve overcome those trepidations, and today, I suspect there are a handful of people who might wish I was quiet more often.
After a several-year interlude serving as a press secretary to a member of Congress, I returned to Missouri in 2015. When Rep. Mark Parkinson faced his term limit, I met with him at a McDonalds in our district and asked if there was anyone interested in filling his seat. At the time, I was 25 years old — just above the minimum to run. Mark informed me that he had not heard of anyone, so I jumped in with both feet.
I knew that to run a successful campaign, it was incredibly important to raise money. I set out to raise $10,000 dollars in my first quarter. I called literally everyone I had ever met seeking small donations. After three months, I had hit my goal, and I knew that I had a real shot at winning.
My experience as a grassroots activist taught me one thing: doors get votes. I spent the entirety of 2016 knocking every house in my district at least three times. Luckily, I had the help of Parkinson who had decided by then that I should fill his shoes. I still remember the night that the results came in as one of the happiest days of my life.
At the time, I became the youngest member of the Missouri House. Today those shoes are filled by Dirk Deaton, and soon, Michael Davis. As I write this, I am spending my last day as 30 years old. My advice to any young person entering politics is to find a team of like-minded friends who have your back. Politics is a rough sport, and it can burn you out, but when you’re there fighting alongside your friends, every day is worth it.
Rep. Dirk Deaton: Perspective from the youngest member of the Missouri Legislature
Two years ago, I ran for state representative, and after a contested primary and general election, the people of the 159th District elected me to serve as their representative. I was sworn in at the age of 24, which also happens to be the minimum age at which a person can serve in our lower chamber under the Missouri Constitution.
Serving as the youngest member of the General Assembly makes me an outlier with respect to age. The question has been asked of me if any of my colleagues have treated me differently in light of this fact. I can honestly say that I have never, at any point, felt as though any other member disfavored me because of age. It is my belief this stems from the fact that we all got to where we are by the very same means. In meeting one of your legislative colleagues for the very first time, they know you went through a common crucible before they know anything else about you. Getting elected is not easy, and making it successfully through that process gives one mutual respect and credibility that is hard to take away.
In considering running for public office, it occurred to me it would be more convenient if I merely waited until later in life. This idea of convenience conflicted with the urgency that led me to consider running in the first place. I had grown up in a country that seemed to be giving up on the ideas of freedom — ideas that are very young when considering the history of governments. The principles of our most important documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, rest on the assertion that government is instituted to preserve and protect the natural rights of the people. It is this focus on individual liberty, economic liberty, and an understanding of human self-agency and responsibility that made this country the freest and most prosperous in the history of the world.
Yet, leaders in both parties have participated in the enormous consolidation of power in government hands at the expense of our core freedoms. As the decades have passed, government has more control over our economy and lives than ever before. Not even 250 years have passed and we seem to be abandoning the very principles that brought us to where we are. Many political leaders today speak of a world in which government “takes care of you” from cradle to grave. It has often been said that a government that has the power to give you everything also has the power to take everything away.
Over the last several years, there has been a discernable shift by many in the Democratic Party toward a more explicit socialism that would have been more disguised or muted in the recent past. This leftward march has only continued and shows no sign of subsiding. Make no mistake; I view proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as antithetical to the American ideal. While I believe policies like these and many others being offered are repugnant to a free and prosperous society, I also recognize our system of government is always a battle of ideas. These important and consequential battles are being fought now. If I were to wait 40 years, it occurred to me there might not be anything left worth fighting for.
Some of the greatest American accomplishments and leadership in our history have come from the younger generation. Thomas Jefferson was only 33 when he penned the Declaration of Independence. The European continent was wrestled from Nazi tyranny by those mostly in their twenties, and it was only because of their heroism that freedom in the world was not extinguished. Sam Walton managed his first store at 26 before going on to become the largest private employer worldwide as well as the richest man in America.
If we are to remain the great bastion of freedom and liberty throughout the world, I believe it will be, in large part, due to younger people exhibiting a commitment to these principles entering the arena. It is Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who is known for the phrase “states are the laboratories of democracy.” It is my desire that Missouri would lead the way when it comes to defending these core principles, thus my entrance into Missouri politics.
If these efforts are fruitful, perhaps we can export our success to the national government so that in the future, a new generation of young people will be given their opportunity to defend American liberty and freedom. While not convenient or comfortable, I believe this path is right and the importance is great. No matter what, one thing does seem certain — come January it is unlikely I will continue to be the youngest member of the Missouri House. It appears more young people are on the way, and since entering the 100th General Assembly, I have continued to age.