My New Hero

November 29, 2011

Photo from Sullivan's Twitter page.

By J. Rashad Brown

It can be difficult, sometimes, to find people worthy of admiration. In this age of cynicism, echo chambers and partisanship, looking to people trying to find truth and meaning in life is damn near impossible.

Searching for them amongst those we’ve chosen to be our leaders or those we’ve allowed to monitor them is depressing at best and soul-crushing at worst.

Indeed, locating those who can shine a bright light of reason in otherwise dark times are hard to find. Which is why it was so fitting and life-affirming that I’ve found one of my newest, personal heroes in a young woman in Kansas who decided her voice of truth was more important than a coerced voice of false regret.

Emma Sullivan — she of the Youth in Government program in Kansas — found herself in that state’s capital listening to her governor, Sam Brownback deliver a speech and, on her way home, took to Twitter, saying “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

Innocent enough … and certainly not worthy of further comment other than by the 65 people who followed her on Twitter. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Brownback’s director of communication, monitors social media for any negative comments about her employer. Once she saw the tweet, she contacted the Youth in Government organizers who, in turn, contacted Sullivan’s principal who contacted the 18 year old.

The fact that Brownback has people on his payroll whose job it is to scour the Internet to see who’s being mean to him is a perfect example of what is wrong with our political system. But what happened after Brownback’s media office went on Red Alert is even more troubling.

Sullivan was brought to her principal’s office and, after a thorough scolding, was told to apologize and was given talking points she could use in said apology. She staunchly refused.

My kind of girl.

Incidentally, Sullivan didn’t actually do what she said she did in her tweet. She was joking. It was a joke … meant to be read by the 65 people following her and not by cronies in the governor’s office charged with helping the governor keep his job and, by extension, their jobs.

It’s not like she was given a private audience by the governor to hash out some policy points in front of the media corps. She was on her way back to school on a bus and having a little fun … not that it matters one way or the other.

Her flippant tweet – a tweet, of all things – and her refusal to bow down to those older and more willing to kowtow to those in higher positions than they brings, to me, a sense of hope for the future of our society.

It was small, almost meaningless in the grand scale of things. But the fact that she looked those charged with monitoring her behavior and mindset and told them in no uncertain terms that she had no intention of taking back her opinion is refreshing.

Refreshing, because she realized, very quickly, that she had nothing for which to apologize. She expressed her opinion to few friends via an outlet Brownback’s cronies had freedom to access but no power to alter. Brownback should take a minute to read the documents he swore to protect. Maybe they could give him and his staff some much-needed direction.

In fact, perhaps Brownback and his staff should take more time to examine the harm his policies have done to the people of his state than the flippant remarks of a teenager in the back of an auditorium. I’m sure his obvious distaste in the arts, the rights of women and social services should give him and anyone else living in Kansas pause. I certainly know it does me.

Sullivan’s stand is proof our young people haven’t lost their capacity for critical thought concerning our government. She and others like her are just as interested in the direction in which our country finds headed and the people responsible to that. It’s heartening.

There is just one problem.

Youth in Government is an organization dedicated to getting high school students interested in government, but Sullivan shouldn’t be interested in being a government stooge, she should get into journalism and cover politics. We need more people like her with smarts and guts. She should freshen up her resumé.

I have a feeling Jones-Sontang will be.

J. Rashad Brown is the co-editor of Quarters.