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