On a rainy Thursday evening last week, a crowd of about 100 young people ranging from 18 to 35 years of age filled a ballroom in the ProvidenceG to participate in a Town Hall for the Next Generation organized by Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I.
“This is an opportunity for you to give me some guidance in what you think I should be working on and what you think are the most important issues,” Cicilline said. “We’ll pass the microphone back and forth.”
From the start, Cicilline emphasized his interest in listening to the concerns of attendees. He opened by urging those in attendance to be active voters and participants in America’s democracy. Joining the Congressman was a representative from the office of Rhode Island’s Secretary of State, who could register people to vote.
Cicilline asked attendees to respond to a Twitter poll that posed questions about their level of interest in various topics. The results from approximately 45 responses showed job creation as the topic of greatest interest at 95 percent. Reducing gun violence and confronting climate change came in second and third, with 90 and 84 percent of respondents marking interest, respectively.
“The issues that face young people are the issues that are the most important of our time,” Cicilline said, adding that he believes education costs, gun control, the environment, job creation and social justice issues to be among these concerns. Cicilline discussed some of his legislative work relevant to young people, citing the Student Loan Relief Act, the Fire Sale Loophole Closing Act, a gun safety bill, the Automatic Voter Registration Act and the Equality Act.
Higher education emerged as the first issue that Cicilline addressed in depth. He noted that he is working on a bill that would grant students access to interest-free loans.
“I don’t think the federal government should make money on the backs of young people trying to pursue an education. Period,” Cicilline said to applause. He added that he is a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide free community college for two years.
Cicilline also elaborated on his work related to gun violence and the multiple bills he has authored and co-sponsored that are aimed at preventing criminals and people with mental illnesses from obtaining firearms. Citing the 300 domestic mass shootings thus far in 2015 and the particularly horrific incident that claimed 26 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Cicilline said: “You think that would have been enough for Congress to do something.”
Today’s youth cares a lot about the country’s responsibility to “lead the world to respond to climate change in a way that protects the environment,” Cicilline said, adding that he hopes to do so in a way that incorporates investing in new and renewable energy sources.
Attendees asked questions on a broad variety of topics including the legalization of marijuana, police-community relations, the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration reform and campaign finance.
In response to inquiries regarding the legalization of marijuana, Cicilline said he has no problem with adults using the drug for recreational purposes, referencing the quote by John Stuart Mill “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
But Cicilline said he has concerns about keeping marijuana out of the hands of young people “whose minds are still developing,” adding that he wants to see results of research on how legalization impacts usage of the drug by young people before supporting any proposal for statewide legalization.
A Pawtucket student speaking on behalf of the Pawtucket Boy’s and Girl’s Club asked Cicilline about the incidents that occurred last month at William Tolman High School in Pawtucket. Video footage that shows police officers detaining and handcuffing two students at the school prompted public outcry.
“The most powerful weapon the police department has is the trust of the community,” Cicilline recalled a police chief telling him, adding that when he was mayor of Providence, he placed lieutenants in neighborhoods where they became close partners with these communities. These lieutenants were coaches and members of various boards, working to build relationships of mutual respect and achieving a 40-year low in the city’s crime rate, Cicilline said.
He did not discuss specific details regarding the case raised by the student.
In response to a question about his position on the Syrian refugee crisis, Cicilline said he had visited a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan filled by “ordinary citizens that are fleeing to keep themselves alive.”
“The fact that we have only accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees is embarrassing,” Cicilline said, adding that he has called for President Obama to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees.
A former undocumented immigrant urged Cicilline to continue his “incredible work” on behalf of those who have yet to gain citizenship.
Cicilline said immigration policies are “tearing apart families” when immigrants offer immense benefits to the country, adding that if passed, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act — which was approved by the Senate but has yet to be presented for a vote in the House by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — would help grant citizenship to the 11 million undocumented people in the country.
Regarding campaign finance, Cicilline said the ability of one wealthy donor to create a SuperPAC must “have our founding fathers spinning in their graves.”