Raleigh residents, are you looking for a mayoral candidate who would attack the problem of homelessness with more affordable housing? Who would put free buses on the road so people who need a job can get to a job? Who would lead the charge for a City Council resolution opposing the anti-gay constitutional amendment?
Seth Keel is such a candidate. You won't be able to vote for him this year, however, because he just turned 17—four years short of the number required to hold elective office in North Carolina. So he's not on the ballot.
This fact has not stopped Keel, a senior at Middle Creek High School with a commitment to social justice, from campaigning for the mayor's post at public forums, in press statements and social media. His purpose is twofold: to raise issues of poverty and inequality, and to make the case that a youthful voice in government would improve public policy.
"We're not respected, and our voice is not listened to," Keel says. "But it needs to be. I want to show that you can make a difference at 17."
Keel has met with the three official candidates for mayor—City Councilor Nancy McFarlane, businesswoman Billie Redmond and Dr. Randall Williams—to talk issues and pitch his idea for a youth task force or commission to advise City Council. They all promised to give teens a role if elected, he says.
McFarlane, in fact, suggested to Keel that it would be better to add a youth member to existing advisory bodies instead of creating a new, and more easily ignored, youth commission. "I appreciated his bringing his ideas to us," she said. "It's important to hear young people's perspectives and include all opinions in our process."
Williams called Keel "a refreshing departure" from the trend of young people being disillusioned about politics. "I really hope the next mayor will help him," Williams said, "and I give him lots of credit for not only having ideals but working to bring them to fruition."
Keel worked door-to-door and on the telephones for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, then volunteered for Cal Cunningham in the 2010 U.S. Senate Democratic primary election. He did so, he says, out of a conviction that "everyone should have a voice and be represented in society, but we see that too many aren't, and they've been pushed down."
And people shouldn't assume that teens are so self-centered that they don't see what's going on. "That's a big impression people get of teenagers generally, and being a teenager, I guess I'm lumped into that [view]. But I think that if someone, no matter what age, can demonstrate that they have the ability to make decisions, the ability to fight for social justice and to fight for issues that they're passionate about, that they've demonstrated that they have the ability to lead—in some aspect—in government."
Keel speaks quickly as he explains what he thinks and why. With his mother, Jill Hinton, a psychologist with Easter Seals/ UCP, he attends Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, one of Raleigh's most progressive congregations. Hinton is on the board of the Hope Center, Pullen's nonprofit anti-poverty arm. She is a big influence on him, he says.
Keel showed his passion a year ago when he organized an act of civil disobedience at a Wake County Board of Education meeting. Linking arms with two teenage friends and a trio of older women, Keel denounced the school board majority's efforts to drop diversity from student assignment policies. He wouldn't cede the microphone when his two minutes were up. The six were promptly arrested and led away (because of earlier protests, police were at the meeting) as diversity supporters in the audience cheered.
The charges against them are still pending, Keel says, and he isn't allowed inside the building when the school board is in session.
Keel stood with angry protesters at school board meetings, but that doesn't mean Keel is an angry young man. No, the 16-year-old who appeared nervous before the board—his 16th birthday was the day before—was obviously frustrated, rather than enraged, by the sight of an elected body of adults whose decisions were so wrong about how young people should be educated. Why didn't they talk to the kids?
A year later, Keel is shedding his baby face, and his baritone voice carries strongly when he speaks at meetings. But when he talks, his message is positive, and he laughs easily, especially at himself. Raleigh, he says, without irony, is "a wonderful city." He loves the place, he says, "but nothing's perfect," and city government should be doing more to help out people in need. His first thought: more accessible and affordable transit.
Free transit, like Chapel Hill? "It would be amazing" if it could be free, he says. But Raleigh can't act alone. It needs to partner with the other towns in Wake County and be a regional leader. "That would be awesome."
How would he attack homelessness? Beyond building more affordable housing, Keel doesn't have a specific plan. What he has is a belief that smart people can figure it out if, first, they decide they want to be aggressive about tackling the problem, and second, if they're willing to spend money—raise taxes—to tackle it. He would couple additional housing with intensive job-training programs.
But this circles back to his main point, which is listening to young people. They're not clueless, he repeats. They see the problems. Most important, they're not jaded, and they're all about solutions, not reasons why nothing can be done.
Or many of them are, anyway. Keel thinks it's completely unreasonable that 21 is the minimum age for holding elective office in the state. (It's in the state constitution.) Similarly, he thinks 18 as the minimum voting age is "arbitrary" given that youths can be charged with adult crimes at 14, and are permitted to drive automobiles at 16.
Being adult, he says, is a state of mind, not a number. But if there must be numbers, 21 and 18 are too high.
The adult world is doing young people no favors, however, by drilling them full of facts useful for multiple-choice tests but useless as training to be critical thinkers, Keel says. Critical-thinking skills are what's needed to be an adult, and what's needed for adults to create a better world for one other.
If he were mayor, Keel would attend school board meetings and speak out. He would also go to Cary Town Council meetings and those of other municipal governments to "share ideas." Would he be getting arrested? Not if he didn't have to. "In a better world, there'd be no need for civil disobedience," he says, laughing softly.
Keel's undecided where he'll go to college. Due to health issues, he was out of school for a while during his junior year and as a result has some bad grades. (He's appealed them to Superintendent Tony Tata. Note to Tata: Keel thinks you're "a very nice man, [who] respects you and allows you to have a conversation with him." But he does think your plan for single-sex academies was a rush job that needed more public discussion.)
Long term, Keel's certain that political activism, possibly combined with teaching, will be in his future. And future candidacies? That's a maybe, he says, with a laugh.
Correction (Oct. 5): Keel's mother's name is Jill Hinton (not Nancy Hilton).