Leading a Grassroots Movement

After falling just short in his campaign for mayor, Eugene Young continues to advocate for social change through Network Delaware, a new nonprofit coalition

Candidates who lose elections tend to take either of two paths afterward: the road to oblivion or the roundabout that leads to one failed race after another.

Eugene Young, after finishing second to Mike Purzycki by 234 votes in the eight-way Democratic primary for Wilmington mayor last September, is trying to pave a different route—one he hopes will lead to success.

Young, 34, is the board chairman of Network Delaware, a new nonprofit coalition of community organizers, leaders and activists that is trying to spur grassroots involvement to advocate for social change throughout the state. He has a “day job” too, working as advocacy director at the Delaware Center for Justice, a nonprofit whose executive director is Ashley Biden, daughter of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Network Delaware is “very unique in this moment,” says Elizabeth “Tizzie” Lockman, advocacy director for the Christina Cultural Arts Center and vice-chairperson of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission.

The organization is an outgrowth of the political campaign, Young says, a collaboration of volunteers who “doubled down and said ‘we’ve got to get involved’” following their disappointment with the outcome of the November elections.

A week after the election, he says, “about 65 people came out, just to get together, and started to look at ways this could work.” By the end of January, he was able to launch the operation, getting it off on a high note with a rally-like meeting that drew about 300 to the Christina Cultural Arts Center.

Progressive and Charismatic

Lockman met Young about 10 years ago, when the St. Mark’s High School and University of Maryland Baltimore County graduate was organizing a basketball league for Wilmington kids and she was cutting her teeth with several nonprofits in the city. They reconnected two years ago, when he returned to Wilmington after spending two years as an advisor to Cory Booker, first while Booker was serving as mayor of Newark, N. J., and then as a U.S. senator.

Almost from the beginning, she says, she recognized that Young, being both progressive and charismatic, “was somebody who was going to be able to do whatever he wants.”

What Young wants to do now amounts to figuratively turning “the Delaware Way” on its head. Rather than having business and foundation leaders meeting at the table with a bipartisan assemblage of political power brokers, Network Delaware would take a bottom-up, grassroots approach to developing public policy.

While proponents of the Delaware Way tout the relative ease with which key stakeholders in government, business and nonprofit circles can assemble to hash out issues in a small state, Young notes that, with this closeness, “it becomes very easy for a small group of people to become exclusive.”
As it starts out, Network Delaware has no causes. The nature of those causes will evolve, Young says, as the organization listens to its members and learns their concerns.

To those familiar with issue-based organizations, Network Delaware’s mission can be confusing, says Lockman, who is doing some policy advisory work for the group. “They ask, ‘What are we working toward?’ But it’s not a specific issue. It’s building the community, linking it to the civic process and giving them the tools” to become advocates for their causes.

“We’re focusing on what people’s concerns are and finding solutions for those concerns,” Young says. “A lot of people don’t care because their voices aren’t being heard. Our goal is to amplify their voices.”

In some respects, Network Delaware’s intended growth trajectory mirrors the strategy Young employed as the young man who grew up on the city’s East Side and morphed from an unknown political quantity into a near-winner in the race for Wilmington’s highest office. During the campaign, Young and his volunteers knocked on doors throughout the city and churned out position papers on issue after issue.

While the other candidates in the primary had pockets of support in particular neighborhoods—Purzycki, for example, dominated the upper-income areas on Wilmington’s west side, with help from a campaign urging Republicans in those areas to switch party affiliation to vote in the primary—Young’s voters were distributed throughout the city, indicating diverse support by ethnicity and income levels.

Similarly, Network Delaware is drawing members from diverse backgrounds. “We’ve got people of extremely high socioeconomic means and resources to people in poverty, and everything in between,” Young says. In terms of their politics, he says, “we have progressives, we have libertarians, we have some conservatives.”

The organization’s big tent, he adds, “allows people to interact with those who they might not have necessarily met before.”

Everybody has a role to play. “If you’re about justice, if you’re about creating a better community, then you’re with us,” Young says.

Six Working Groups

Young launched the six-tiered nonprofit with the goal of creating social change and commuity leaders. (Photo by William Moree)
Young launched the six-tiered nonprofit with the goal of creating social change and commuity leaders. (Photo by William Moree)

What remains to be seen is what the new group will be able to accomplish. It is organized into six working groups, or “pillars,” each one with a distinct role: base building, an economic opportunity incubator, an electoral politics committee, a leadership development pipeline, a public policy and research institute, and a nonviolent movement building group.

Base building represents the core of the network—getting involved with people on a block-by-block basis, learning about their needs and identifying potential community leaders—while the economic opportunity incubator will focus on training entrepreneurs and developing new small businesses, with a focus on economically troubled neighborhoods.

The electoral politics committee will not only identify, recruit and mentor candidates for public office. It will also develop an “information hub” with political profiles of each lawmaker’s district and a report card system to track voting records of elected officials.

“We’re going to train people to be organizers. We’re going to train people to be candidates. We want to be community-led but outcome driven,” he says.

Serving as a public official is hard work, Young points out. Just as important as holding legislators accountable for their votes is to “provide cover and support when they do the right thing.” If lawmakers suspect that their constituents don’t care, they will be less likely to stick their necks out on controversial issues, he says.

The leadership development pipeline will train leaders for Network Delaware and other organizations, while the public policy and research institute would examine issues, develop a repository of laws passed in other states and adapt these laws to fit Delaware’s context.

The nonviolent movement building group, according to the organization’s website, “will plan resistance to nationalist, authoritarian and undemocratic narratives and actions, while building a unifying vision.”

Having such a unit in the organization doesn’t make Network Delaware part of “the resistance,” the mushrooming array of issue-oriented groups that have expanded or been birthed since the November elections, Young says.

But, he adds, “If you’re not doing what’s right for the community, for the people in this country, we’re going to resist. I don’t believe in blind resistance. We will go issue by issue.”

While the organization may be grassroots and somewhat populist in its approach, that doesn’t mean it’s not business friendly, Lockman says. “It’s pro-business, it’s pro-growth. We just want to make sure everyone has access.”

Young hopes to see Network Delaware grow in numbers, reach and influence. In his view, improving communities is a shared responsibility, with each individual having a role. “If I’m not working to impact the lives of those in our community, whatever happens to them impacts me anyway,” he says. “If I’m in New Castle and a child in Dover is not getting educated, or a family in Milford can’t break out of poverty, that will impact me, whether I like it or not.”

Achieving Systemic Change

Building a statewide network is no small challenge. Building one that has genuine influence is an even greater task.

“When you’re trying to achieve deep systemic change, there’s definitely not an immediate payoff,” Lockman says. “But I have a good amount of faith that it is going to work.”

At this time, it’s fair to say that Network Delaware’s evolution as an organization could well be a significant factor in determining Young’s political future.

During the mayoral campaign, Purzycki and Young occasionally traded sharp barbs, with Purzycki questioning whether Young had the experience necessary to handle the job. Despite their differences during the campaign, Young now describes their relationship as “very cordial.”

While there was some post-primary speculation that Purzycki might offer Young a position in his administration, that never happened. “If he thought there was a role for me, he could ask, and I would consider it,” Young says. “I want him to be successful.”

For now, Young isn’t thinking about another campaign, even though he has gotten some mentions as a possible senatorial candidate if Tom Carper doesn’t seek re-election in 2018, or as a repeat mayoral candidate in 2020 if Purzycki doesn’t try for a second term.

Young’s current priorities are his work with the Delaware Center for Justice and growing Network Delaware. “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now,” he says.

“It takes a lot out of you to run for office. I put my family through enough,” he says, referring to his wife, Nicole, who earned her Ph.D. during the campaign and is on the business faculty at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and his daughter, Madison, who celebrated her second birthday in March.

“Anything I do, I have to be sure, I have to feel it in my gut,” he says. “It’s not a plaything. It’s not about wanting power, prestige or money. It has to be something you believe in.”