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Youth Work Behind Scenes in Washington

  • Barry Newhouse
  • Crystal Park

The government and non-profit organizations in Washington employ legions of young people who help government function, keep elected officials informed and help create policy. As part of VOA's "Youth and Politics" series, Crystal Park and Barry Newhouse spoke to several young staffers and research assistants within the city's vast bureaucracies.

Washington is a city of old buildings and graying politicians. This year, the average age of members of Congress is 56, the oldest in U.S. history. Most of the Supreme Court justices are older than 65, the age when many Americans retire.

But behind the capital's aging elite, an army of young people is responsible for much of Washington's day-to-day operations. "There's an adage that says Washington is run by a bunch of 20-somethings. And while I wouldn't necessarily agree that it's run by them, it certainly makes the machine stay on time, and makes everything hum." said Charlie Keller, who is already a veteran congressional staffer at age 28. He has worked for three members of Congress, starting out as an intern and working his way up. He is now the communications director for Representative Ginny Browne-Waite, a congresswoman from Florida.

"As the congresswoman's liaison with basically the outside world, with press, with media, and to a large extent to our constituents, it's my job to look at the policies of the congresswoman, work with the legislative staff, and to best [of my ability], evaluate how to get her message out to the voters," he said.

The average age of the roughly 10,000 full-time staffers on Capitol Hill is 31. Hundreds of even younger interns also work for little or no money, opening mail and answering phones.

That's how Jacob Stefanik got his start. He's now a 24-year-old senior legislative officer for Congress's billion-dollar Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides aid grants to developing countries. "They're passionate about it. Staff here, I know, on the Hill work long hours, come in here at 7:30 in the morning, and work until eight at night, because they believe in the cause they're doing," he said.

He says these young staffers provide essential help to Washington's elected officials. "They're briefing them on the issues. They're doing the research. They're saying, 'Okay, here are the key concerns you need to look at, here are the key concerns you need to focus on.' So, it might not be in terms of what we say, 'the public realm,' or the face on television, but behind the scenes, absolutely," he said.

Outside of government, there are thousands of other young people in Washington working long hours for non-profit groups, political organizations and research groups.

Pakistani national Faaiza Rashid, 24, researches South Asian issues as a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She says, despite her age, her superiors take her seriously.

"Even when I go to meetings to brief them about something, they'll say, 'Well what do you think?' Before anything. 'What is your opinion?' And the first time I was at a briefing, I was like, 'Okay, wow. They really do care about what my opinion is,'" she said.

She has lived throughout the Middle East, speaks several languages and has degrees in international relations and chemical engineering. Many accomplished young people in Washington have taken jobs with heavy workloads, long hours and little pay, because they enjoy the work.

"It's surprising, because, you know, my father said to me, 'There is something very wrong, if you enjoy your first job this much.' He says, If you want to be really successful in life, you have got to change at least five or six jobs,'" she said.

Many jobs in Washington do have a high turnover. Faaiza Rashid's position only lasts for one year. Most young Congressional staffers leave after a few years, continuously replaced by a steady stream of eager young arrivals. But a few people will make this work their career, for the same reasons they were first attracted to it.

"Politics is a bug, and it infects you, and gets under your skin, and until it goes away, you've gotta keep itching at it," said Mr. Keller. He says he's happy in his current job. But in the long term, he may run for office, perhaps even becoming one of those aging politicians at the top of government.

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