Mary-Pat Hector, center, campaigning with friends in her race for a seat on the City Council. (Courtesy: Mary-Pat Hector)

By the time Mary-Pat Hector was in high school, she was already a seasoned activist.

It began, she says, when she was 9 years old and a friend was struggling with an abusive parent. So Hector wrote a play about the trials young people of different socio-economic backgrounds face to give her friend’s problems a voice. She called it, “Easy Street Ain’t So Easy.” Two years later, at 11 years old, she arranged a sit-in of 50 students to advocate for a new community recreation center in response to increasing juvenile crime in her neighborhood. Local media and community leaders ignored her, so she called into Rev. Al Sharpton’s national radio show, and he came down to Georgia to meet her.

The two hit it off, and the famous civil rights advocate made her, at age 14, the national youth director of his organization, National Action Network. In a 2015 Washington Post profile of Sharpton, he referred to Hector as having “a little Sharpton in her.” That relationship would even bring her face-to-face with President Barack Obama last summer at the White House for an intimate, inter-generational roundtable discussion on civil rights issues. There, Obama, a former community organizer, told them that change begins at the local level.

So it was little surprise that Hector would be the first among her peers to make good on a promise that she and her friends all made on Election Night to run for public office at the first chance.

Now a 19-year-old college sophomore at Spelman College, Hector is running for a City Council seat in Stonecrest, an area in DeKalb County, Ga., that residents voted last year to incorporate as its own city.

But before Hector could even begin campaigning against the four others in her district vying for one of the five council seats, she had to beat back a challenge from one of the candidates over whether her young age disqualified her from running. They wanted her “to wait her turn,” she said.

To Hector, it made no sense. She was old enough to vote in the upcoming election, and to defend her country in war, but she couldn’t run for office? As someone who had devoted her young life to the service of others, what message would this send other young people only now engaging in the political process? They needed to be encouraged, not deterred, she said.

And so, she did the only thing she knew how: She mobilized, and she fought back.

With the help of a local attorney, Marvin Arrington Jr., who represented her pro bono, she made her case to the DeKalb County Board of Elections during a public hearing on Feb. 9. The board voted unanimously that she could remain on the ballot. The small room packed with her friends and supporters erupted in cheers and applause at the decision, according to news reports.

Arrington said he had followed Hector’s burgeoning career from afar, so when he heard she needed help, he wanted to support her.

“I think we have to look to influence the younger generation. We always talk about diversity; we talk about it in the sense of race or sex, but we need age diversity, too…. Having the voice of a younger person is crucial,” he said. “She is a breath of fresh air. She brings a voice that is needed. It was a pleasure to hear her talk about her community and how she believes she can help.”

Hector’s story, of a young woman determined to run for public office, but facing unforeseen obstactles, received a lot of national media attention. She has even inspired a Georgia state senator to write a bill that would codify 18 as the minimum age to run for office. It is now up to her, she said, to put a face to the 19-year-old woman people in her district have heard about.

With a team comprised mostly of college students — her campaign manager is a 20-year-old student at Georgia State — Hector said she hopes to knock on all 10,000 doors in her district. She’s campaigning on an economic platform geared toward investments and opportunities for young people in their community. She points out the shuttered malls and stores, and tells her would-be constituents to imagine making their town the “Silicon Valley of the South.”

Early voting has already started for the local March 21 election, and Hector said that while the response has been overwhelmingly positive, some residents still think she’s too young to run and tell her so. One man referred to the news stories about her candidacy as “cute,” she said, and another questioned her ability to balance the responsibilities of the office with her schoolwork.

For Hector, her campaign is about more than just her own ambition — it’s about showing other young people, many newly energized after this last presidential election, that they can have a real voice in the process.

“I will go to marches and I will march, but I think you can’t leave it at that,” Hector said. “To see change, you have to effect change in an effective manner. If you look across history, it’s because of young people lending themselves to it, and it’s through policy. The only way to do that is to create it, by gaining that power. You have to be part of the school board, the city council. You have to take your activism to another level and be engaged all the way through.”

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