Tag Archives: RFK Young Leaders

Westport Millennials Honor RFK’s Legacy

You’ve heard the stereotypes of millennials: They’re lazy. Entitled. Narcissistic. And completely oblivious to anything that happened any time before they were born.

If Ian Manheimer and Ben Erwin have their way, those stereotypes will be shattered. They’ll shake up the supposed millennial order — just the way one of their heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, did in other ways, when he was alive.

The Staples High School Class of 2001 graduates did not set out to emulate RFK. Yet they are certainly channeling the activist attorney general and senator, who was killed while running for president — and inspiring millions of young people — in 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy

Robert F. Kennedy

But this is 2016. Ian and Ben admit that until a few years ago, they did not know much about Bobby Kennedy.

However, through their work at Charity Buzz — a website that raises funds for dozens of non-profits — they volunteered at the RFK gala.

The annual event — sponsored by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights — featured a Maysles brothers documentary on RFK.

The timing was fortuitous. Ian and Ben had been looking for a non-profit board to get involved with. Many “junior boards” — for people of their generation — were focused on cocktail parties. “There was not enough hands-on work, getting things done,” Ben says.

They were inspired by the video. But, Ian says, “We didn’t know a lot about Bobby Kennedy. As we learned more, we realized his vision is more important today than ever. If it’s not transmitted to younger people, it will be lost.”

The RFK Center did great grassroots work, Ian and Ben found. But the donor base was older. The Staples grads pitched an idea of focusing on youth.

Ian Manheimer leads an RFK Young Leaders work session.

Ian Manheimer (standing) leads an RFK Young Leaders work session.

“Bobby Kennedy traveled the globe. He believed in the spirit of young people,” Ian says. “We wanted to keep that spirit going.”

Center officials realized the value of that proposal. “We’re not just on the board now,” Ben says. “We’re more than the ‘RFK millennial organization.’ We don’t just raise money. We have a say in things. We’re an official program. It’s a great way to recruit young talent, and do good things.”

RFK Young Leaders logoThe group they founded is called RFK Young Leaders. Activism by his generation, Ian says, is “an itch that’s not being scratched. The chance to give people their first experience in human rights is huge.”

RFK Young Leaders focuses on local issues. Ian and Ben have grown passionate about farm workers’ rights in New York state.

Kennedy fought hard for farm workers. When Cesar Chavez ended his 25-day fast, he broke bread with the New York senator.

“The impression is that New York is a progressive state,” Ian says, echoing RFK’s passion.

“But conditions are really bad for farm workers. They’s excluded from all labor laws. They get no overtime pay. There are very limited restrictions on child labor. Employers don’t need to carry disability insurance, and there’s no monitoring for pesticides. Farm workers don’t even get days off. We were shocked. Farm workers are integral to everyone’s life.”

A group of RFK Young Leaders, examining conditions in the farm fields of New York state.

A group of RFK Young Leaders, examining conditions in the fields of New York state.

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has been stalled in Albany for 15 years.

RFK Young Leaders hired organizers, who conduct financial literacy, ESL and sex education training. They raise awareness of immigration and labor issues.

“It’s not easy,” Ian notes. “Farm workers have a lot to lose if they speak out.”

For the 1st couple of years, RFK Young Leaders was all Ian and Ben. They raised money, and  hosted events. Now they’ve recruited other young people to help, in areas like fundraising, sponsorship and digital marketing.

There are about 2,000 members in the the New York area. They’ve launched a  Washington, DC chapter, to focus on local issues there. More will come, in other cities.

Ben Erwin (center) and Ian Manheimer with Tim Cook. The Apple CEO met with RFK Young Leaders.

Ben Erwin (center) and Ian Manheimer with Tim Cook. The Apple CEO met with RFK Young Leaders.

“Awareness of Bobby Kennedy’s legacy is low” among his generation, Ian admits. “But he’s the guy for our generation. He foresaw the way mass communication technology could change the world, by uniting young people.”

Ian and Ben are inspired by their talks with Kerry Kennedy (the senator’s daughter, and president of RFK Human Rights). “She talks about spending Thanksgiving with her father and Martin Luther King. She tells us about her uncle Jack,” Ben says.

“People still want to be involved with the Kennedy name, for a variety of reasons,” Ian says. “That’s an introduction for some. But when they hear about what’s happening an hour north of New York City, they get drawn in.”

Just as Ian Manheimer and Ben Irwin have been. Now — like Bobby Kennedy, who died nearly 2 decades before they were born — they too are making a difference.

Talib Kweli and Ryan Leslie joined the 2014 RFK Young Leaders party:

Ian Manheimer’s Slice Of New York

Westport Pizzeria offers the best slice Ian Manheimer has eaten anywhere — outside of New York and New Haven.

He should know. He wrote the book on pizza.


The New York Pizza Project is a fabulously photographed, intriguingly produced journey into the world of New York City slices. The subtitle is “Exploring a city through its quintessential food.”

But this is no Zagat’s for ‘za.

Manheimer — a 2001 Staples grad, who majored in communications and English at Tulane, but (most importantly for this project) lived in New York until age 12 — and 4 friends have produced an homage to pizza. As well as to the men who make it.

During intense discussions over another important question — which pizzeria produced the best slice — Manheimer and his 20-something buddies decided to conduct hands-on (and mouths-full) research.

Ian Manheimer, hard at work.

Ian Manheimer, hard at work.

With their commitment to social justice — Manheimer, for example, founded RFK Young Leaders, a program of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights that concentrates on groups like farm workers — the quintet quickly realized that the New York pizza story involves many kinds of dough.

Dough, as in dollars too.

“This book honors the guys struggling to perpetuate a tradition we all love,” Manheimer says.

“It’s mostly 2nd-generation Italians and 1st-generation Mexicans. After that, it’s Greeks and Albanians. They face threats of gentrifying neighborhoods, immigration, and how to make money on a $2.50 product. No one had documented their stories.”

Now, Manheimer has.

He and his friends set up an Instagram account. New Yorkers responded with photos and comments about their favorite neighborhood pizzerias.

Eventually the authors narrowed their focus to 120 shops, in all 5 boroughs. Over 5 years they took tens of thousands of shots, and conducted hundreds of interviews. They focused on local shops — no chains. And no “gourmet pizzerias” (an oxymoron, am I right?)

In addition to "The Makers," there are 3 other sections in The New York Pizza Project: "The Eaters," "The Shop" and "The Block."

In addition to “The Makers,” there are 3 other sections in The New York Pizza Project: “The Eaters,” “The Shop” and “The Block.”

Manheimer learned plenty. For one thing, during the entire project he did not encounter one black pizza maker. Fewer than 5 were females.

The authors were also surprised at how hard it is to make a living. “Slice joints are everywhere — but none of them are new,” Manheimer says.

“The economics are so difficult. You have to be on your feet, and open, all the time.”

Kids today, Manheimer notes, grow up amid (and being marketed by) the likes of Domino’s, Little Caesars and Pizza Hut. Their pizzas are “inferior, and worse for you” than the ones produced by the sole proprietor around the corner, Manheimer says. But, he warns, neighborhood places risk losing the younger generation that sees the chains everywhere.

His favorite picture in The New York Pizza Project shows Johnny’s — a New York pizzeria since 1973 — standing next to an 8-year-old Papa John’s. “That symbolizes the new New York,” Manheimer says. “And it asks the question: What will be the New York of the future?”

Johnny's Pizza, and Papa John's: Which would you choose?

Johnny’s Pizza, and Papa John’s: Which would you choose?

The book — which was favorably mentioned in the New York Times — has struck a chord with New York natives who no longer live there. “We transport the New York pizza experience to wherever they are,” he says.

The other day, Manheimer met a soldier just back from Iraq. Before he saw his family, he stopped off at his favorite slice shop. “That memory kept him going through months at war,” Manheimer says.

The book is being sold at many of the pizzerias featured in it. It’s also in 30 retailers, including all the city’s major museums.

You can buy "The New York Pizza Project" at many New York pizza joints.

You can buy “The New York Pizza Project” at many New York pizza joints.

So is The Westport Pizza Project next?


(For more information, or to buy The New York Pizza Project, click here. It’s $29.95. For $5 more you get a map too.)