Norcross meets with millennials to talk guns, DACA, debt
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OAKLYN – They gathered around the table at The Square Meal in Oaklyn to talk about … well, whatever they wanted to talk about.
At the head of the table, surrounded by millennial voters, was U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross. The Camden Democrat wanted to hear what was on their minds Tuesday.
The cross-section of young professionals included a school teacher, tech entrepreneurs, college students, a stay-at-home mother, community activists and a young married couple. Two were immigrants; at least two said they were children of immigrants. They came from Voorhees and Camden, Somerdale and Collingswood.
And despite their varied backgrounds, many of them shared the same concerns with Norcross: gun violence, ethnic and religious intolerance, student debt and getting the people who represent them in Washington to listen.
The warmth outside on this unseasonable February afternoon was reflected in the intimate setting. The Square Meal, on a revitalized block along Oaklyn’s Clinton Street, offered a wide table for the group to gather around.
When Norcross asked who at the table had outstanding student loans, every person raised a hand.
The electrician and former union official has been a vocal supporter of alternatives to four-year colleges, advocating for trade and technical training and touting the affordability of community colleges.
Melissa Le, a co-founder of a Camden tech start-up, said she has $80,000 in student debt. Brianna and Sean Kohler said they both carried debt from Philadelphia University and Drexel University, respectively, said that combined with high property taxes were impacting their ability to start a family.
“I work with colleagues from other countries who laugh at us, that we take on so much debt for our education,” said Sean Kohler.
Khai Tran, a Camden entrepreneur who works with Le, challenged the idea that college is necessary and argued that, if companies stopped requiring degrees for jobs, colleges would be forced to lower costs as demand went down.
Karanveer Pannu, a Voorhees resident, said that as a Sikh he hasn’t really experienced any issues because of his faith in a hometown he described as “like a big family.” But the rise in hate crimes nationally and a climate filled with incendiary rhetoric has made him fearful.
“If we have hard-working people here, but we tell them that they don’t belong here, we’re pushing ourselves back into the Stone Age,” the Rutgers–Camden sophomore said.
Tran, whose family emigrated from Vietnam when he was a child, said he’d always self-identified as an American when he visited his homeland.
“I felt protected,” said Tran, an American citizen. “I don’t really feel that protection as much anymore,” he continued.
Norcross asked those at the table whether they felt as though the current economic climate offered everyone the same opportunities for success.
“I think it depends on who you are,” said Fatima Heyward, a 24-year-old from Somerdale. She’s involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters to help young women of color on the path to college.
Schools, many of the participants agreed, need to do more to give students the tools to navigate the complex process of choosing — and paying for — higher education. Many of them said they were simply steered toward college and told to take out loans, rather than having discussions about how that debt might impact their future, or how to minimize the amount they might need to borrow.
Chris Barrett said he’s worked with the Camden County Democratic Committee to make the voice of younger, and more progressive, voters heard within the party. The Collingswood resident talked about taking on college debt to get an education and credit card debt for living expenses, all while trying to become filmmaker — a dream he ultimately had to abandon.
“There are tons of stories like mine out there,” he said.
Walking to his car after the discussion, Barrett said he worried too many young people want to get involved, but aren’t sure where to start.
“All we have to do is open a discussion,” he said. “We have a voice. And the closer the midterms get, the more we’ll be heard.”