How Gen Z Is Taking over Boston Politics
We gave them climate change, Donald Trump, and social media. Now Generation Z is scared, angry, hyperconnected—and ready to take over Boston politics before they’re even old enough to vote.
It’s a beautiful spring day in Boston—the first full day of spring, in fact—but as the March sun begins to set outside, here on Zoom the mood is a little more feisty than frolicsome. I’m looking at my screen and getting ready to listen to four politicians who’ll be speaking at this evening’s virtual event, a hype session for progressive causes called #MapoliAgainstHumanity. #Mapoli, for the uninitiated, is the Twitter hashtag favored by insiders whenever they’re tweeting about Massachusetts politics (which is, trust me, often). In a few moments, all of the people who’ve logged on—a robust crowd of about 75—will split off into breakout rooms to play a funny, albeit slightly nerdy #Mapoli-inspired version of Cards Against Humanity.
But first, I switch to gallery view on Zoom and spot the lead organizer of tonight’s event, Calla Walsh, who’s nodding along as one of the speakers ticks off several key platform points: Free public transit. The Green New Deal. Affordable housing as a human right. Walsh, who has shoulder-length blond hair and is wearing a gold headband and dark eyeliner, is something of a veteran political activist and operator. Indeed, over the past several years, she’s been a key force behind a number of progressive causes, all designed, in one way or another, to upend the status quo. She helped mastermind a climate strike that drew thousands to City Hall Plaza. She’s part of a team trying to bring greater transparency to the behind-closed-doors dealings of the Massachusetts legislature. She’s orchestrated digital media for the reelection campaign of Julia Mejia, one of the city council’s most liberal members. Perhaps most notably, she cofounded a campaign group without which Senator Ed Markey likely would not have withstood the challenge from Joe Kennedy III last September, a win that progressives are still energized by.
Oh, I should probably mention one other thing about Walsh: She’s 16. A junior in high school.
Yes, that’s young, but the truth is, Walsh is not that much younger than any of the other attendees here tonight, nearly all of whom, at least judging by the thumbnail images I’m seeing on Zoom, are in their late teens and early twenties. And for the politicos speaking tonight, that’s exactly the point. If you’re a lefty officeholder or candidate in Massachusetts these days, this group—the engaged and enraged members of Gen Z, who’ve spent most of their short lives grappling with school shootings, climate change, and, now, a global pandemic—is pretty much your base.
As one speaker finishes, another, Helen Moon, a city councilor from Pittsfield, gets the floor. She struggles with her audio, and for a moment I wonder if she’s going to miss her opportunity. But she saves everything with a joke.
“Sorry, it took me a minute to unmute,” she says. “I’m a millennial, so I suffer with not being great with technology.”
There’s a brief pause, but a split second later I see all of the faces on my screen start to smile.
And with that, Moon, no doubt feeling ancient at 38, has done exactly what she came here to do: cement a bond with what just might be the most powerful group in Massachusetts politics right now.
Last September, not long after he’d been declared the winner in his heated, high-profile primary battle against Kennedy, Markey stepped to the podium at his campaign headquarters in Malden to thank his supporters and rally them for what was next.
“Tonight is more than just the celebration of a movement,” said Markey, who was wearing a dark suit, a purple tie, and the dorky white sneakers that have endeared him to a certain slice of the state’s electorate. “It is a reaffirmation of a need to have a movement, a progressive movement of young people demanding radical change.
“It’s a movement fueled by young people who are not afraid to raise their voices or make enemies,” he continued. “This is a tribute to those young people and to their vision. They will save us if we trust them.” The 74-year-old slowed down for emphasis. “We must look to them, listen to them, follow these young people—they want justice in our country and our world.”
If there’s anyone who knows what young voters—specifically, the under-25-year-olds who make up Generation Z—can do, it’s Markey. (It’s also, come to think of it, poor Joe Kennedy.) A little more than a year before that speech, Markey was down 17 points in the polls and such an underdog that many people—including, presumably, the Kennedy camp—assumed he’d simply retire gracefully rather than have his clock cleaned by the latest pretty face from America’s most iconic political family. Instead, the opposite happened. Thanks largely to what became known as the Markeyverse—a cadre of Gen Z supporters who took to social media to profess their undying love for the septuagenarian senator—it was Markey who did the clock-cleaning, drubbing Kennedy by 11 points and sending him into political retirement at the ripe old age of 39.
What was fascinating about the election wasn’t just that young voters supported Markey, who is, after all, coauthor of the Green New Deal, arguably Gen Z’s most passionate cause. It was that they did so in the most fabulously Gen Z way possible. They texted and phoned friends relentlessly to drum up support. They created and shared memes about Markey. They shot scores of Markey-inspired videos that got more than a million views on TikTok. And they launched more than 100 pro-Markey stan accounts on social media, ranging from straightforward ones such as Students for Markey to more rococo iterations like Hot Girls for Markey, Dogs for Markey, and Why Is Joe Kennedy Running? (The Joe mocking got so intense that, at one point, his campaign actually complained about it—which was, of course, about the uncoolest thing a 39-year-old man could do.)
The blizzard of digital messaging worked. In a typical election year, says John Walsh, the longtime Democratic operative who ran Markey’s campaign and is now his chief of staff, voters younger than 35 account for about 10 percent of ballots cast. Last September that number spiked to almost 20 percent statewide and more than 30 percent in Boston, and the vast majority supported Markey, with polls suggesting he captured seven out of 10 young voters. “A quarter million young people showed up who weren’t supposed to show up,” says a grateful and enthusiastic Walsh (no relation to Calla Walsh).
Still, the Markeyverse is just one sign of Gen Z’s passion when it comes to politics. A vast number of marchers at last year’s Black Lives Matter protests were young people—Black, brown, white, and AAPI—demanding an end to systemic racism. There’s been a rise in the number of college students declaring themselves political science majors, an echo of the spike in MBAs back in the money-loving 1980s. The social media feeds of even some junior high schoolers now contain political messages. “They are alive and awake, and seeking what we would call power,” Walsh says of Gen Z. “They’re seeking impact.”
Two things stand out about this politically aware generation. One is the size of the ideas they’re pushing forward. Wizened by the crises they’ve seen in their short lifetimes, from police shootings to a pandemic, and frustrated by previous generations’ responses to such events, they’re talking not about $300 tax credits, but about ending and repairing 400 years of racial oppression; reordering how we live in order to combat climate change; and replacing our mostly capitalist society with a mostly socialist one.
The other defining feature, as Markey will surely tell you, is their willingness to roll up their sleeves—or at least loosen up their thumbs—and become part of the political process. In the wake of the senator’s groundbreaking campaign, for instance, numerous members of the Markey diaspora are now getting involved in local contests around Massachusetts, including Boston’s mayoral race, as well as council races in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. If they can repeat the trick they pulled off against Kennedy and get more far-left candidates elected, Boston would become, practically overnight, a pretty different place.
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical that such a major shift can happen. Not only do young voters typically not show up at the polls, but in the case of Gen Z, many are not yet even eligible to vote. What’s more, last fall enough progressive candidates lost in the state that it made you wonder: Which was the outlier, their defeat or Markey’s win?
And yet it feels like a mistake to assume a transformation can’t happen. While social media has been a factor in politics for more than a decade, the generation now coming into adulthood—the first-ever social media natives—may harness their coalition-building power like no group before them. And then there’s history. Whether you’re talking about the American Revolution, the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, or the civil rights movement, the truth is that big social change happens not when the people in power decide to make a few tweaks, but when people outside of power get pissed off enough to overturn the status quo.
This much I can tell you: Gen Z is pissed.
A day after the #MapoliAgainstHumanity event, Calla Walsh and I are sitting on a bench on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, just down the street from City Hall and not too far from where Walsh lives with her parents and siblings (she is the second oldest of four and goes to the Winsor School in Boston). Dressed today in a pink T-shirt and Mom jeans, with another headband in her hair, she is, in person, a fascinating blend of idealistic teenager and seasoned political pro—one with a particular expertise in the organizational strategies that work best to engage her generation.
“It went so smoothly, I was honestly surprised,” she says brightly when I ask about last night’s event. “It’s something my friends and I have been talking about doing for a really long time. This is the group that I organized Students for Markey with,” she explains, referring to the cohort she formed in early 2020, well before the Markeyverse had become a thing, that helped lay the groundwork for the phenomenon the senator would become. “We’re just, like, a group of best friends, and we thought this would be a really fun event to do after seeing a group of people do it in New York, about New York politics.”
Walsh’s poise and political precociousness are not necessarily surprising, at least given the company she’s traveled in and the responsibilities she’s shouldered. In addition to all the other things she’s done over the past year, for example, she mentions that she and her friend Daniela Finlay, a fellow Markeyite, just finished teaching a six-week online course on youth organizing. “We kind of left the Markey campaign in shock that we won and in awe of what we were able to build,” she says. “And we really wanted to let other people do that, and really wanted to write down everything we’d done, remember it before we moved onto other areas.”
There are two big keys, Walsh explains, to capturing the youth vote. The first is understanding Gen Z’s issues. “None of the strategies we teach will work if you’re not a progressive candidate. After the Markey campaign, a lot of people would come to us and be like, ‘Oh, how can I get a ton of stan accounts for myself? How can I get hundreds of teenagers to make calls for me?’ And we looked at them like, Hey, you don’t even support the Green New Deal.”
The other key is peer-to-peer contact—reaching out to prospective young supporters not through an anonymous person two decades their senior, but through their own friends. “Having a conversation with someone you already know is a lot more effective than having a cold call from some stranger,” Walsh says. “And I think that’s especially true for young people, just because peer pressure is more present.”
This approach—“relational organizing,” it’s called—was one of the cornerstones of the Markey campaign, and it paid off big time. Young Markey volunteers would reach out to their friends via text, social, or phone, cheerlead for Ed, then try to get those friends to reach out to even more people, Amway style. By last summer the Markey camp had not only signed up more than 600 official digital fellows, it had literally thousands of young people sharing some Ed love on social media. The Markeyverse.
For the past year and a half or so—and certainly during the pandemic—Walsh’s world has been consumed by politics. She reads deeply to educate herself about issues. She’s created a spreadsheet detailing every single candidate running for office in the Boston area this year, and updates it frequently with their fundraising totals. She works as an organizer with the progressive group Act On Mass. And she spends hours on social media, firing off tweets about Massachusetts politics. “I kind of consider school my side job,” she says when I ask how she squeezes it all in. “Homework is not, like, a priority.”
Like many members of her generation, Walsh is, ideologically, a Democratic socialist. The precise definition of that term can be a little fuzzy, though the website of the DSA, of which Walsh is an active member, offers some help: “Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.”
Walsh also considers herself an abolitionist and advocates for the dismantling of the prison-industrial complex. “I don’t believe in policing or prisons,” she says. These views, she notes when I ask, have engendered some interesting conversations, and occasionally some tension, with her parents, whom she calls traditional Cambridge liberals. (Her father, Chris Walsh, tells me his views are a little more complex than that, but adds, “I’ve been called worse.”) After last fall’s presidential election, Walsh says her parents wanted to buy an American flag to fly in front of their house as a way of reclaiming the symbol from the MAGA crowd. Walsh pushed back, hard. “We got into a big argument about that because I thought what it symbolizes doesn’t really change after Trump is gone,” she says. “It still symbolizes the genocide and slavery the country was founded on.” No flag was ultimately flown, although Walsh doesn’t think she actually convinced her parents she was right.
Walsh’s first involvement in politics came when she was in ninth grade and knocked on doors for the “Yes on Three” campaign in Cambridge, which protected civil rights for trans people. The following year, when she was 15, she co-organized the Boston portion of the youth-powered, international Climate Strike, which drew more than 7,000 people to City Hall Plaza. Then she got involved in electoral politics, first volunteering for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, then going to work for Markey. (Along the way she also was the communications director for Jordan Meehan’s unsuccessful state rep campaign.)
Students for Markey—and ultimately the Markeyverse—grew out of two things. One was the wreckage of the failed Warren and Sanders presidential runs. “We had all supported Bernie or Warren and became really disenchanted, honestly, with politics,” Walsh says of herself and her co-organizers. “We were all looking for a new cause to dedicate our passion toward. And Ed Markey”—old-school progressive, champion of the Green New Deal, endearing underdog— “seemed like the perfect choice.”
The other factor was the pandemic. Walsh says the original plan was mostly to knock on doors for Markey, but when the coronavirus shut everybody inside, all of that youthful progressive energy turned online. That, as it turned out, was crucial.
For Walsh, the elevation of Markey to patron saint of Gen Z and of Gen Z to potential political kingmakers was both eye-opening and empowering. “The narrative that emerged from the Democratic presidential primary was, sure, you can have a lot of young people supporting you, but that doesn’t actually mean you’re gonna win,” she says. “And we totally flipped that narrative by proving that the youth vote won Ed Markey the Senate seat and defeated a 136-year political dynasty.”
Which is not to say there wasn’t some cost to the victory. For instance, when I ask Walsh’s dad, Chris, if he ever gets concerned his daughter has taken on too much politically, he says not really—she’s generally handled her responsibilities well. Then he adds, “But maybe you can put something in your article about doing the dishes. She can save the world, but the sink is full.”
The simplest explanation for why Gen Z is so fired up politically is Donald Trump. To some extent, Trump’s divisiveness and dishonesty have made everything and everyone more political over the past five years, and Gen Z is no exception. But young lefty activists will tell you it’s not just him; it’s the totality of the things they’ve dealt with so far in their lives—a series of disturbing and challenging truths—that has really pushed them forward.
One recent morning I’m on a Zoom call with Hodan Hashi and Toiell Washington, cofounders of the organization Black Boston. “In a lot of ways our generation grew up watching Black men die on TV,” says Hashi, a 22-year-old Jamaica Plain resident who graduated from BU in 2020. “We’ve just seen so much loss. We’ve watched it on Twitter. We’ve watched it on Facebook. It’s all at our fingertips.”
She and Washington—who’s 23, lives in Dorchester, and just graduated from Salem State—first connected last year on Black Twitter and ended up co-organizing last May’s Black Lives Matter march in Boston. The duo didn’t even meet in person until the day of the event, but they quickly discovered, as Washington says, “we’re kind of the same person.”
Energized by the success of the event and realizing that they’d built a valuable digital infrastructure (the Twitter handle they created, @blackboston2020, quickly amassed a couple thousand followers), they decided to form an organization dedicated to dismantling and eliminating racial inequality. Less than a year after the launch, they feel like the organization—which now has more than 6,500 Twitter followers and seeks to educate people about various issues, including the upcoming mayor’s race—has already captured the attention of both the power structure and their own community.
But their ambition goes far beyond that. “We see this as something we’re building long-term,” says Hashi, who envisions one day having chapters in other cities across the country. “We see the work we’re doing have a very large impact not only on Boston, but hopefully nationally at some point.”
Both women acknowledge how young they are, but they point to a long, rich history of youth activism, including the many young people on the frontlines of the civil rights movement in the ’60s. “It’s important to remember we’re fighting the same fight, but in different ways,” Washington says. “My grandmother and great-grandmother are still alive, and they were trying to vote. Racism did not just start in 2020. People are like, Oh, 2020 was such a horrible year. The last 400 years have been horrible.”
But racism is just one issue that’s been omnipresent throughout Gen Z’s existence. This is a generation, after all, that’s been doing school lockdown drills since pre-K, in the same way that older baby boomers did duck-and-cover drills at the height of the Cold War (the key difference being, of course, that the Soviets never actually fired a missile at the U.S., while in America we’ve seen an estimated 250-plus school shootings since 2000). It’s a generation that’s felt the impact of the greatest income gap in a century and spent the past 15 months dealing with a pandemic that’s disrupted practically every facet and ritual of teenage and young-adult life. Maybe most notably, it’s a generation that sees climate change not as an abstract theory but as an all-too-real catastrophe that could affect where, how, and even whether they live.
The result of all of this—turbocharged, no doubt, by their social media habits—has been the radicalization of, or at least extreme political awakening of, many Gen Zers. Talk to them, and what you hear, sometimes between the lines, sometimes in the lines themselves, is a frustration that borders on desperation: The adults who’ve been in charge have fucked things up royally, and unless we demand change, we’re screwed.
The influence of the Internet in all of this, and social media in particular, is almost impossible to overstate. Not only has a digitized world given young people access to more information faster than at any point in human existence, it’s also connected them to like-minded souls while they consume that information. And that solidarity—that strength in numbers—is powerful. “Being able to create new spaces to talk with each other, especially meeting people who might be across the country or in a different country—I think that exposure to new ideas really helps,” says Emerson Toomey, a third-year philosophy major at Northeastern and another political vet. (Toomey’s credits include the creation of Markey’s Reply Guys, the most popular Markey stan account.)
The presence of social media has also shifted the balance between the powerful and the powerless, the governing and the governed. Young organizers like Hashi and Washington, for example, no longer need mass media outlets to cover a protest—with an iPhone and a Twitter account, the word spreads organically. Meanwhile, broadcasting your opinion about, or even talking directly to, a politician no longer requires writing a letter or even picking up the phone. With a few clicks and swipes, your voice can be heard by the leader of your choice, and by the masses.
All of the above doesn’t just apply to Gen Z, of course; social media has changed the rules for all ages. But the truth is that Gen Z—for whom Instagram and TikTok are like 11th and 12th fingers—are simply better at it than anyone else. And they know it. One of the funniest moments I had while reporting this story was in chatting with Toomey, who all but rolls her eyes while talking about politicians—or, more accurately, their millennial staffers—who try to create memes and connect with her generation on social media. “You can tell there was a whole group of people who put their heads together: a consulting agency,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not supposed to take you more than 30 seconds to put together. If you have to think that hard, it’s not funny.”
Millennials, in other words, could never have created the Markeyverse.
Here’s a question: Is something like Markey’s reelection repeatable? Can the Markeyverse metastasize and spread throughout the body politic? One test will come this fall, as far-left candidates, backed by Gen Z supporters, do their best to win everything from Boston’s mayoral race to council contests in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. In the mayoral election, for instance, there’s already a concerted effort to create a “Wuniverse” of young supporters behind Michelle Wu, the progressive city councilor who’s running.
Several council candidates, meanwhile, are also trying hard to drum up Gen Z energy for their races. One of those candidates is Kendra Hicks, a Democratic socialist from District 6 who spoke at the #MapoliAgainstHumanity event in late March. One day a couple of weeks after that event, I got a chance to chat with her director of field operations, another Markey campaign vet named Anthony Collins.
Collins is 24, a San Jose native who came East to go to Northeastern and now says he’s in Boston for good. When I ask what drew him to politics, he smiles. “I’m a loud, leftist Black man, so my whole existence is political.”
Collins first got involved politically as an undergrad, working on Marty Walsh’s mayoral campaign and doing a co-op with Congressman Stephen Lynch. He says he wouldn’t support either pol now—both are far too moderate for his socialist sensibilities. In the past couple of years, he’s been on the campaign teams of several far-left candidates, and his goal going forward is to work exclusively for progressive Black women. “I think it was Malcolm X who said the most disrespected person in the United States is the Black woman,” he explains, “and I think that’s something that really needs to be fixed.”
One exception he’s made lately is the Markey campaign, which he joined in time for the general election race against Republican Kevin O’Connor. The campaign was eye-opening to him—both the youth energy that propelled it and the relational organizing strategy that was its backbone. “The cool, new, innovative ideas we’ve had are so often shut down, regardless of if they’re good or not,” he says of his and other young staffers’ experiences on other campaigns. “So it was really cool to come onto Markey’s campaign and see that was actually the dominant structure.”
Collins is so enamored by the relational organizing model that he’s now trying to replicate it for Hicks. He acknowledges it’s not an easy approach to copy in a smaller, more geographically focused race. While Markey’s digital ambassadors only needed to know if their friends lived in Massachusetts, Collins and the Hicks team need to know if potential supporters live in District 6. But he says they have an app to help, and he’s optimistic about where things are headed.
Not everyone is bullish the Markey model can work in smaller races, including Eitan Hersh, a political science associate professor at Tufts. Hersh is the author of the recent book Politics Is for Power, which explores a phenomenon he calls “political hobbyism.” His thesis: that while it might appear Americans are more politically involved than ever—tweeting, watching Fox or MSNBC, following the latest presidential polls—we’re mostly doing so as spectators of national races, not as participants actively working to change anything in our own communities. “It’s much harder to get people activated around state and local races,” Hersh says. “It’s possible. It’s happened before. But it’s an uphill battle to get people’s attention.”
More specifically, Hersh believes the maneuvers that worked so well in the Markeyverse—the spicy tweets, the funny memes, the irreverent stan accounts that mocked Joe Kennedy—don’t translate to a smaller stage. Such tactics “turned the Markey race into a sort of celebrity showdown,” he says. “If you take that culture and apply it to the state and local level, in most circumstances, it’s going to fail.”
Hersh’s critique raises an interesting broader question about Gen Z: If most of the information and motivation they get about politics comes from social media, just how deep is their engagement really? I’d certainly never question the commitment of any of the young activists I talked to, but the frictionless way the masses can now “engage” does make you wonder if, at least for some members of Gen Z, politics is as much about fashion as anything else. TikTok, after all, is not a place anyone is going deep on the Federalist Papers. It’s a concern Calla Walsh and I spoke about. “I do worry that people see social media as the only thing they have to do,” she said. “It’s so easy to sign a petition or put something out in a story or posture as a progressive—Oh, I care about this—without taking any substantial action.”
The counter argument, of course, is that in politics the action that matters most is voting, and on that front John Walsh remains convinced Gen Z has the potential to pack a wallop. “Here’s a lesson for Democratic candidates, particularly those who aim to be progressive: The youth vote is much more available than your high-priced consultant is telling you.”
Indeed, maybe traditional political experience of any kind is just plain overrated. Of course, some candidates may grasp that innately. One of the candidates in Boston’s District 4 council race this year is Nikkia Jean-Charles. She’s 18.
A confession: It was impossible for me to work on this story without thinking back to what I was like at 16…18…22. That was in the early 1980s, a time that politically and culturally was the opposite of the age we’re in now. Ronald Reagan’s free-market conservatism was in full force, and the prevailing cultural notion (one not necessarily shared by everyone, to be sure) was that government should get out of the way and let people and markets work their magic. And yet, what stands out for me is how apolitical my world felt. Yes, I suppose my friends and I had occasional conversations about presidential politics, but for the most part our focus was elsewhere.
Ironically, it’s the values and consequences of that era—the winner-take-all-bottom-lineism that’s defined us for decades—that lefty Gen Zers are rebelling against. And they feel an urgency about it, not only because they want the world to change now, but because they’re aware their passion for changing it might not last forever. “I feel like as you get older, you kind of assimilate into the system you’ve been challenging,” Hodan Hashi said to me. “You’re kind of like, that’s just the way it is. I never want to get to a point where I’m telling people, ‘That’s just the way it is, just deal with it.’ We’re trying to make sure that the way it is is completely different.”
The weakness of youth is an inability to see nuance: Everything is black or white, and there’s rarely much gray. But youth also brings a gift—an ability to look at the world with fresh eyes, pick out what’s so obviously wrong with it, then ask, sometimes loudly, why no one is bothering to fix it.
Calla Walsh, who turns 17 in June, certainly feels an urgency. When I asked her if she’d thought about college yet, she told me she hopes to go to BU, where her father teaches and she’ll get a discount. She doesn’t want the burden of student loans. But she’s not going to college right away, anyway. Her plan is to take a gap year and work on the 2022 elections.
When I first began reporting this story, I started following Walsh on Twitter. Nearly all of the tweets I saw were about politics, but one day she shared something different: a picture of herself with a new hairstyle. The headbands I’d seen were gone, and her blond locks were now closer to platinum. She looked older.
It made me think about something Walsh had said when we talked on the bench. “I feel like this narrative has sort of emerged that Gen Z is going to save us all,” she said. “I really try to push back on that because I feel like it’s a way for older generations to place the burden of fixing all these problems on our shoulders. So while I love youth organizing, and I love how involved people have gotten, I also know it’s out of desperation. I wish I could be more of a regular teenager sometimes. I wish I had more free time and didn’t devote all of my extra time to organizing. But I do it because it’s for survival, and I think that’s how a lot of other people see it, too. Like we’re in a fight for our lives and futures.”
Looking at her new haircut, I couldn’t decide which Walsh it represented: the kid who just wanted to do something fun, or the young woman driven to clean up the mess.