Young Leader Alexa Browning talks about civic engagement, criminal justice reform, and her advice to other youth organizers

This world, Robert F. Kennedy said, “demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.” That’s why Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights strives to empower the next generation of changemakers through its Young Leaders program, now entering its fourth year, which works with college students across the country.

Alexa Browning, a young leader at Texas State University, spoke with us about how the program has refined her worldview and how working to get local ordinances passed and to increase voter turnout has strengthened her commitment to civic engagement.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation with her.

How did you become involved with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights?

I have been civically engaged since my freshman year of college. I had not been as engaged in high school, so I wanted to get more engaged on my college campus. It was a fun way for me to learn more about what was going on in my community and get to know other people. One of my friends told me about Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and how the organization does projects that help a lot of people. I learned more about the Young Leaders program, and it was exciting to me because it was a way to get more involved on campus and to get other people interested in what RFK Human Rights does.

What have you accomplished as a young leader?

It has made me feel a lot more confident in my abilities to be civically engaged. It has made me want to learn more about what is going on in my community. The more I learned through the program, the more confident I felt speaking out and advocating for causes. One of the most exciting things we did with our chapter was help a coalition of local organizations, led by Mano Amiga, to get a “cite and release” ordinance passed by our city council. The ordinance ensures that people who are ticketed for certain Class C misdemeanors—mostly nonviolent crimes—do not have to be detained in jail. People who were detained for them would miss shifts at work, get their car towed, or miss a payment that would drastically affect their lives. We worked together for months, researching and having meetings with representatives from the police department and city council members. It was a cool opportunity for students in our organization to collaborate not only with students from other organizations but also with people in our local community who were passionate about the ordinance. After months of working with them, we got the ordinance passed at the city level. It was really amazing to see how being involved with an organization like RFK Human Rights helped us create tangible change in our community.

What are some other ways you have created change in your community?

Our chapter focused on helping local organizations that do Get Out the Vote drives. We made sure people were registered to vote and went to the polls. We educated them about the candidates and propositions they were voting on in that election. 2020 was a tough year, so it was harder for us to grow our chapter. I’m looking forward to a comeback for organizers everywhere. This year, we are focusing on mutual aid drives, which included one over Thanksgiving handing out canned goods and other groceries to the community.

Which of our core causes are you most passionate about, and why?

I am very passionate about ending mass incarceration. That is why I’m studying legal studies. The whole process of getting the “cite and release” ordinance passed and working with those local organizations to learn about it made me even more passionate about this. It helped me decide to pursue a career working with defense attorneys. I want to make sure that people do not have to spend a significant portion of their lives in jail. It’s important to protect innocent people who are wrongfully convicted. I’ve had friends and family members who have had experiences in the criminal justice system. As I became more plugged into the community and connected to other people who had these experiences as well, I became even more passionate about criminal justice reform.

Is there a changemaker who particularly inspires you?

Dolores Huerta. I first learned about her in a Latinx studies class. I just loved how she was a woman who was unapologetically challenging the existing leaders. She wasn’t afraid to say, “You’re not listening to marginalized communities, men are making all of the decisions, and women need to be involved in the decision-making process.” I feel like a lot of that is still relevant, so when I heard that she was saying that decades ago I just thought to myself, wow, she was right, and this is still happening. She inspires me so much.

What impact has working with RFK Human Rights had on your life?

I have had so much fun working with RFK Human Rights. I feel like it’s made me learn and grow as a member of my community. Also, having an attachment to students across the country who are also passionate about being engaged in their community is so inspiring. I look forward to continuing to organize and work with RFK Human Rights. 2020 was a tough year for all organizers, so I am looking forward to finding new ways to plug into the community and help out where it’s most needed.

What advice do you have for other young people who are looking to get involved in their communities?

My number one piece of advice would be: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. People are generally nice, so ask them questions like: “What is going on at the city council this week?” or “Are you organizing with anyone right now?” People love to talk about things that they are passionate about.