The Root's Talented Ten: Elizabeth Wilkins
Policy Assistant, Domestic Policy Council
Steeped in a history of activism and black empowerment, Elizabeth Wilkins carried her familiy's torch to communities of color during the 2008 campaign. Now, she's making sure Barack Obama's policy agenda affects the lives of those she met on the trail.
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Campaign Positions: Field Organizer, Field Director—Michigan
Campaign Turf: Chicago, South Carolina, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan
New Washington Gig: Policy assistant, Domestic Policy Council
Elizabeth Wilkins’ yearning for government service is probably genetic. Roy Wilkins, the 1960s head of the NAACP, is her great-uncle, and her father Roger, now a celebrated journalist, worked for civil rights in the Justice Department of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Her family, she says, taught her the virtues of giving a damn: “You can look at this country and see its flaws and be disgusted,” she says, “or you can remember how it was founded and believe in it and fight for it. I grew up very much with the latter sense—that your job is to believe in this country and to fight for it if you have the means and the ability.”
So after graduating from Yale University, helping tenants organize in the Bronx, and working a year in the political wing of the Service Employees International Union, Wilkins moved to Chicago for months of grinding campaign work. She describes the Obama operation as “a vicious meritocracy,” in which “people see talent, they grab it and they run with it.” She rose quickly through the ranks and praises the campaign for helping thousands of young people “realize that you can both win elections and do community organizing.”
Wilkins now joins a select group of 20-somethings working for Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes. Being so young and in demand can be a “terrifying” experience. “I remember the day that my boss asked me to be field director for Michigan, and I said yes, and then I went home and threw up,” she says—adding that the extra responsibility was absolutely worth the trouble. “People who would never cross the neighborhood line or cross social barriers were doing it for Barack Obama.” From Orangeburg, S.C., to Baltimore to Philadelphia to Detroit—where she would end up as the only black female director of a battleground state—“people said we couldn’t do it, that there was not a culture of volunteerism in the black community. … To be able to go from state to state and prove people wrong over and over again was a really incredible experience.”
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