Each day during the school year, hundreds of George Washington University students dash across H Street NW, dodging cars and bicycles. The road separates one of the university’s largest residential halls from Kogan Plaza, a popular gathering space.
James Harnett, 20, is often among those jaywalking students. But lately he’s begun looking at that stretch as more than just the quickest path to food trucks and his classes — he also sees a dangerous route he wants to help make safer.
In March, Harnett became a member of one of D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, groups of officials who advocate for their communities on issues of zoning, recreation, education and other services. Most commissioners are longtime residents, often with deep roots in the city. But a handful of the ANC districts are carved out around college campuses, which typically means students are the ones to join the panel.
As the phenomenon of young people running for office continues to ramp up nationwide, these student commissioners have a long tradition of taking on official roles. Harnett is joined by another student commissioner at George Washington University, and there also are two commissioners at Georgetown University and one each at Catholic University and American University.
For Harnett, a computer science and political science double major from New Jersey, it has meant spending less time studying and more time thinking about the university’s relationship to the city. He has met with other student leaders about their experiences on the street and researched past efforts at safety improvements. He even has reached out to officials overseas in Barcelona to talk about their ideas for using urban design to make areas more pedestrian friendly.
The minutiae of calming traffic may not seem important in the current scope of national politics, but it matters to Harnett’s constituents.
“It’s a miracle that it hasn’t happened yet, that someone hasn’t been . . . killed or seriously injured” on H Street NW, said Harnett, a rising junior.
Patrick Kennedy, an ANC commissioner who started when he was a student at GWU, said being a strong advocate for very local issues is the nature of the role. The city has 296 ANC seats. Most commissioners are elected, but some, like Harnett, applied to fill a vacant seat.
“Being an ANC commissioner is not glamorous. . . . It really is about hard work and thankless work,” Kennedy said. Still, he said, it can bring a “sense of accomplishment over tangible things.”
Commissioners, who aren’t paid and serve two-year terms, are placed in one of several dozen district groups based on geographic areas.
The ANCs act as an advisory panel to the District, and although the D.C. Council and agencies are not required to follow that advice, they are required to consider it. ANC members, for instance, weigh in on a variety of issues, such as whether a local restaurant should be granted a liquor license or whether a bike lane should be added to a local road.
Undergraduates tend to learn about open ANC seats from student commissioners who try to recruit potential replacements before graduating.
Harnett promised his predecessor, a friend, he’d help find someone. When that didn’t work out, he stepped up himself. Then when he heard the seat for the AU campus district was vacant, he reached out to a student there he had met through his involvement with Model Congress in high school.
Taylor Berlin, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she initially balked at the idea of taking on a public role, saying school activities kept her busy. Finally, the two students sat down for coffee, and “by the time we were done, I was convinced I was going to run,” Berlin said.
“Living in D.C. right now, I’m seeing that young people don’t have to wait to be involved in politics or make a difference in politics,” Berlin said. “It’s important that young people know that there is a place for them in politics and that they matter.”
Neither Berlin nor Harnett had any challengers for their seats. Both sought vacant seats outside the election cycle and were considered elected once they obtained a petition with 25 voter signatures. Any vacant ANC seat can be filled by someone who meets that criteria and has lived in their district for at least 60 days.
It’s not unusual for students to seek their seats when there’s no election. Getting on the ballot requires would-be candidates to collect qualifying voter signatures over the summer, when few students are on campus. And finding voters registered in those districts is often difficult, because students frequently move.
In addition to the traffic issue, Harnett has been working on a resolution he introduced at a recent ANC meeting to support a bill by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local and federal elections. On the H Street safety issue, he said many students feel an additional crosswalk wouldn’t solve the problem, so he also is pushing the city to find ways to divert traffic from the street.
Berlin has spoken with members of the AU Student Government about putting a food bank in Tenleytown, which would provide for students in need who don’t live on campus and can’t easily access the food pantry located in a residence hall. She is also working with the District Department of Transportation to put a signal in one of the crosswalks in Ward Circle on campus.
“It’s absolutely crucial that we have more people that are engaged in the bodies that oversee them,” Harnett said. “Yes, students are temporary residents . . . but students will be ever-present.”
This article has been updated to note that there are two commissioners at Georgetown University.