Civics 101: Cliff Martin, 17, Heading to Democratic National Convention

"I know it's going to be an amazing experience," 17-year-old Cliff Martin said. But "I shouldn't be going because I'm a youth. I should be going because I can represent (my community well)."

Cliff Martin isn’t looking to be the poster boy for any cause, candidate or political party.

The 17-year-old just does what he feels is right. He thinks. He learns. He follows through. 

Above all, he’s involved. 

And now the soon-to-be senior at (formerly ) is looking at a busy three months ahead of him—including a trip to Charlotte as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention.

"I know it's going to be an amazing experience," he said. But "I shouldn't be going because I'm a youth. I should be going because I can represent (my community well)."

Leading the way

Martin, who turns 18 in July, didn't plan to run for a national delegate spot when he showed up to Rosemount High School last month for the  endorsing convention.

He was there, in part, to support Northfielder Patrick Ganey in his bid for Congress, but was also there to learn as much as he could about the process.

Martin, who's also a delegate for the Rice County DFL and Senate District 20 DFL groups, was encouraged by Jane Moline to run as a delegate the day of the convention, according to Shawn Groth, the chair of the Rice County and Senate District 20 DFL groups.

So he did.

Martin stood up and spoke from his heart for 60 seconds.

He didn't talk about President Barack Obama. He didn't talk about how, as a 17-year-old, he's been involved politically. He didn't even talk about many issues facing America, many of which Martin has deep interest.

He talked about the importance of civic engagement for youth. It worked. Martin was the second of four male delegates selected.

"It feels, to me, like the system is broken," he told Patch. "If there aren't youth involved, that's not, to me, a hopeful (future)."

Groth agreed. 

"It's always good to see young folks get involved," he said. "We've had a hard time getting the younger folks involved in the local party and keeping them engaged."

Groth said there's been an uptick in teens and and students getting involved locally and, more importantly, staying involved.

And he's not the only one who has taken notice of Martin.

, a former state representative who is running for Minnesota House District 20B this year, first heard Martin speak last year on for a rally in favor of .

"I thought he was a college student," Bly recalled of the then-high school sophomore. "I was so impressed with his speech. It was very good and very passionate."

Following the rally, Bly struck up a conversation with Martin. 

The two developed a friendship and a working relationship of sorts. Bly wanted to get some feedback on youth issues and advice on getting youth involved; Martin wanted help with a project and interviewed Bly about state government. Bly even took Martin to the Minnesota Capitol for a legislative day and introduced him to some politicians and talked about some issues facing the state.

"I think it is important for kids to be involved," Bly said. "He puts about the same amount of time learning and being involved in civil action as other kids do sports."

Catalyst for change

Martin's interests aren't necessarily in politics.

While he said he supports local DFLers, Martin doesn't plan to spend much of the summer and fall walking in parades and knocking on doors.

“That’s not my focus,” he said. “My focus is community-based social change.”

And he's got a full slate of work ahead.

In his mind, Martin says all progressive, liberal issues are connected.

Immigration reform leads to education reform, which leads to health care, which leads to housing, which leads to the economy, which leads to corporate influence in politics.

"Finding one thing to focus on is very hard," he said.

Martin's working on for downtown Northfield, for which he's also developing a business plan as a school project. 

He's working on the Inside Out project, which invites folks from across the world to submit a photo of their faces that embodies a cause. It then gets printed out on a large poster with a QR code for someone to scan with a smart phone, which then takes them to a Facebook page that shares the person's cause.

"We have faces of hundreds of Minnesotans," he said. "We hope to make that one even bigger. It's a direct and meaningful way for people to know their efforts are counting."

Then there's a website he's working on with some friends to create an online database for Minnesotans to find activism opportunities in their communities.

"We want to make activism accessible," he said.

He's also working with Minnesotans United for All Families and Take Action Minnesota on their efforts.

And he recently connected with WeForest, a group that focuses on reforesting and sustainable food communities, to build up its Facebook presence.

The obvious question here: How did this yearning to be involved start?

"There's never really been a moment where I knew I had to do this," he said. His parents, Jane Fenton and Harold Martin, aren't particularly political or involved, Martin said.

Folk music from artists like Pete Seeger have in part inspired Martin to better the world. But he believes his need to help was just programmed in him.

If there's something he cares about, it's not just enough for him to care, he must do, Martin said.

"You can't change people; they can only change themselves," he said. "You can create an environment where they can make that change." 

Senior year and beyond

Martin knows the opportunity to go to Charlotte in September as a national delegate is one that not many people get.

And he doesn't plan to take it for granted.

“I’m very privileged to have a lot of people who want to see me go to this,” he said, who has begun fundraising efforts to pay for his trip. Groth, the local party chair, estimates the four-day trip costs upwards of $3,000.

Martin plans to go to the convention and meet more people, build relationships and learn how to help build a community—both small and large.

Following high school, Martin said he's interested in pursuing social environmental engineering and design—essentially what he's laying the groundwork for now, but to be paid for it.

But first he has to get through the summer and the Democratic National Convention.

Groth said it's not hard to see why Martin is receiving the support he has.

“I think it speaks a lot of the kind of person Cliff it is that he’d take this on—it’s a pretty big responsibility," he said. "It's a great grassroots story."

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