Symone D. Sanders skips states like rocks across a river. In a recent week, the 25-year-old national press secretary for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spent a day in New Hampshire, the next day in New York, and then it was off to Wisconsin and then on to South Carolina. After that it was Atlanta, gearing up for Super Tuesday.
The breakneck schedule makes sense when you consider that we’re in the midst of one of the most contentious and, frankly, unprecedented election cycles the country has probably ever seen. Sanders is supporting the upstart Democratic candidate from Vermont who is different from her in every way—she, a millennial black woman from a midsize Midwestern state; he, a white man, born during the early years of World War II, from rural New England—except in name (“No relation,” she says at least three times a day) and their shared values around social justice.
“I became familiar with the senator because he has been a trade champion and a staunch advocate for the American worker,” explains Sanders, who said that she worked at Public Citizens Global Trade Watch before coming onto the Sanders campaign last August.
“I had the opportunity to sit down with the senator. We had a really great conversation,” she says. “We talked about everything from trade to criminal-justice reform to education. Then he asked me did I want to join the political revolution, and I’m here.”
Sanders is the consummate communications professional: poised, calm and down to earth, always quick with a big smile. The young African-American woman who has opened up for, and often travels with, her boss says her main job is to get the senator’s message out. She appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, debating actress Erika Alexander, who supports Hillary Clinton, and was there with Sen. Sanders when he came to Harlem to meet with the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“Really, it’s different every single day,” says Sanders, who says that on any given day, she may be on television, calling reporters and making sure they have her advisory, pitching different stories, working with campaign surrogates to get them booked and on television, doing radio, or writing. “One day I could be sending out press releases all day. Another day I could be hopping from studio to studio, going back and doing television hits all day. Some days I’m writing. Obviously, there is lots of travel with the job.”
Sanders, who studied business management at Creighton University in her hometown of Omaha, Neb., says that the love and mores of that Midwestern city are what propelled her to where she is today. This middle child of four grew up in a loving home with her mother, whom she likes to describe as a serial entrepreneur, and her dad, a retired chemical engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I like to say every opportunity that I currently have was only afforded to me because of my start in Omaha,” Sanders muses. “Omaha is where I first was interested in the political process. Omaha was where I first got my taste in media and decided that I liked communications. Omaha is where I got my first internship. Omaha is where I had my first experience of public service. I am eternally grateful for the people and the experiences that helped shape and mold me.”
Sanders recounts that her very first job was at Time Out Chicken, one of the oldest family-owned African-American businesses in the city. “They employed me all the way through college,” she says proudly. “I worked many internships, but I could always come back to Time Out if need be.”
The young co-ed also had a lot of other things going on. While she wouldn’t go so far as describing herself as a workaholic, it is clear that the young activist kept busy—from working in the mayor’s office and snagging an internship in China, to serving as president of her collegiate NAACP chapter and heading the Action America student association. She is an activist at heart.
The former immediate past chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice National Youth Committee, she says that she and the senator really connected around criminal-justice issues—the senator has introduced legislation to deprivatize prisons and has never taken money from the prison industry. His racial-justice platform includes the five types of violence inflicted on black communities every single day: physical violence, economic violence, legal violence, political violence and environmental violence.
“He gets it,” she continues, saying that the senator is accessible to his staff and listens. “I didn’t have to work hard to explain it to him. I know that he gets it because he has unabashedly spoken out on the issues of police brutality.”
And though statistics show that young black activists like herself are not coming to Sen. Sanders in droves, Symone Sanders says that she encourages young people like herself to get involved, whatever the party:
Every single time the needle has moved in this country’s politics, engagement has helped move it. We would still be sitting in segregated lunch counters if young people didn’t get engaged and involved. Women still wouldn’t have the right to vote if young people didn’t get engaged and involved. We would not be having a national conversation about police brutality. Folks would not be scrambling to figure out how to fix our criminal-justice system if young people had not gotten engaged and involved.
I think if you actually want to do something in this world you have to get engaged and involved. For some people, that’s running for office. For some people, that’s being an outside agitator. For other people, it’s being an attorney that represents people, who can write policy. Whatever it is, I think no one can afford to sit on the sidelines, especially in 2016.
Angela Bronner Helm is a writer, editor and professor of journalism at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter.