New Grad Combines Politics and Social Justice
When John McCarthy graduated with honors from Catholic University in May, he didn’t need to look for a job. He was already the executive director of a national nonprofit.
Future Civic Leaders (FCL), a 501c3 non-profit, non-partisan organization that empowers high school students from underserved communities to become involved in the political process, was co-founded by McCarthy during the summer after his high school graduation.
That wasn’t his only milestone that year. At 18, he was elected chairman of his local Democratic Party and served as the youngest Democratic municipal chairman in New Jersey.
McCarthy grew up in the borough of Keansburg in Monmouth County, N.J., a Jersey shore town known for its boardwalk and amusement park.
“I had an opportunity in high school that helped shape me and continues to influence me today,” says McCarthy about being selected for a summer program with Junior State of America.
From an early age, McCarthy had been interested in politics, but this program, he says, “convinced me that government must go hand-in-hand with a commitment to social justice, that politics should be about human dignity.”
And it was that belief that led him to Catholic University, where he majored in politics with a minor in theology. “The intersection of faith and politics along with the D.C. location drew me to CUA,” he says.
While at the University, McCarthy was active on campus, most notably as chair of College Democrats, a mission trip leader, and deputy speaker for the Student Association General Assembly. He also continued to work on political campaigns and in government offices in D.C., including in the office of then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and he regularly boarded an Amtrak train home to Monmouth County to work in the office of U.S. Representative Frank Pallone.
So how did he find the time during his college years to grow FCL? “I don’t do well with free time,” says McCarthy.
Explaining his commitment to the philosophy of FCL, McCarthy says, “We are reaching young people who live in underserved areas, who feel they are disenfranchised, who don’t have a voice. People in these communities have a high level of government distrust and as a result, low levels of voter turnout.”
The cornerstone of the FCL program is residential and non-residential civic leadership conferences that train students in the skills they will need to make tangible, sustainable changes in their communities. Once accepted into FCL programs, students attend at no personal cost.
“At these conferences, we lift the veil on how government works. We show these kids that anyone can make a difference and we show them how. Our speakers and workshop leaders are working politicians and government staff members. We don’t give them opinions, we give them the tools to effectively communicate their opinions to elected leaders and to participate in the political process,” explains McCarthy.
The ultimate goal of FCL, he says, is to show students how to identify and effect solutions to problems in their communities. “One of our alumni went back to his community and realized there was no debate for the mayoral candidates and he organized one,” says McCarthy.
"Many of our alumni come back to the conferences as counselors and that is one of the best testaments to the success of the program,” he says.
FCL’s advisory board includes former and current Republican and Democratic senators and congressmen and former governors and cabinet secretaries. McCarthy’s goal now that FCL is his full-time job is to grow the organization enough to increase the staff. “Right now I do a little of everything and a lot of fundraising,” he says.
His other goal is to increase the locations for conferences so that “no student ever has to drive more than two hours to attend a program. We want to make FCL more accessible to high school students in communities across the country.”