Castro talks about civic life, the importance of the youth vote, and the role of the United States in foreign affairs
Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.
Congressman Joaquín Castro, a Texas Democrat representing the 20th Congressional District, talks about civic life, the importance of the youth vote, the role of the United States in foreign affairs—and the best way to reach your elected officials. Castro also serves on the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees, and is first vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He came to Tufts as a guest of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Tisch College of Civic Life.
The Diplomatic Cable podcast
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
KATIE STROLLO: Welcome, Congressman Castro. Thank you so much for speaking with us here at Tufts University on the Medford/Somerville Campus. We would love to start by talking with you about the youth vote. How important is the youth vote today?
JOAQUÍN CASTRO: The youth vote is extremely important. Historically, young people—not just in this generation, but in prior generations—have voted at a lower rate. But I always remind folks that, for young people, the decisions that are made today by the Congress, by state legislatures, and local governments, young people have to live with those decisions much longer than I will, somebody who’s forty-four, my parents who are seventy-one and seventy-eight. So, the policies that are coming out of where I serve—Congress—are especially consequential to the young people of this country. And I hope that they will come out and vote and speak up.
STROLLO: Do you think that students could have a direct effect on the outcome of the midterms?
CASTRO: Yeah, I think that if we’re going to change the course of politics in this country, if we’re going to go a different way, it means that there are going to be more folks—and new folks—who come out to vote. I’m hoping that the young people make a strong statement that they want to see America go in a different direction.
STROLLO: Are you hearing from students directly—whether it be Texas or other parts across the country?
CASTRO: Yeah, I’ve heard from a lot of students over the last few years. This has been a very intense time for the country and a very tense time for students. People are worried about being able to afford college. A lot of folks who have graduated from college are worried about being able to repay their loans and not being able to pursue the jobs they want or live on their own or get a car because they’re saddled with so much debt. So yeah, it’s been a very tense time and we hear from our constituents a lot.
CASTRO: Yeah, a lot of it is folks that are in college or their early twenties, but I’ll even get letters from high-school students. Once in a while I’ll get letters from middle-school students on a particular issue, and it’s always good to see some folks that are already thinking about issues that are important for them, but also for the country.
STROLLO: On that note then, how would you advise students to get involved in civic life? What are the first steps?
CASTRO: The first thing is to pick something that you care about. The thing that will keep you engaged and involved is doing something that you care about, whether it is something in politics, volunteering for a campaign, or a cause, for example, whether it’s animal rights or homelessness or any kind of issue that somebody cares about. The place I would say to start is to start with your heart, so to speak . . . start with something that you really care about.
STROLLO: Can you expand on that a little bit? If you were talking to, say, a new graduate and this topic is at that student’s heart, as you said, what are the first tangible steps that they should be taking?
CASTRO: I would say, for example, if they were concerned about homelessness, that they should volunteer, whether it’s Habitat for Humanity or a food bank or a place that serves the homeless. Get involved in the issue that you care about directly. And I think it also helps early on to get involved in a way where you can see tangible results of something that you’re doing. That’s the beauty of a program like Habitat for Humanity is that, at the end of the day, there’s a tangible result to it and that often is very rewarding for the people that jump in and help build those homes.
And then, later on, as you get more involved in the policy or the theoretical stuff or the things that you can’t always see immediately, but to really get somebody engaged early on, I think they should take a step where they can see a concrete result to what they’re doing.
STROLLO: Now on the topic of diplomacy, with The Fletcher School of Law in Diplomacy here at Tufts, we have a vested interest in preparing our students for their futures in diplomacy. We are wondering, in this political climate, how should these students be preparing themselves?
CASTRO: Well, I think they should be looking ahead to the horizon. I pose a challenge to folks now the fact that, fifty years ago, if you asked somebody who was living somewhere around the world where on earth they would want to go if they were going to leave their home country, for all the work that we had to do in terms of civil rights and voting rights and women’s rights, when you asked that question fifty years ago, the answer was very clearly the United States of America.
The challenge for young people today is to make sure that when you ask that question fifty years from now of somebody living abroad that the answer is still the United States of America, and how do we make sure that that’s true? How does the United States remain a leader among nations of the world and also a prosperous nation for all of us?
STROLLO: When it comes to foreign policy, can you talk a little about the United States’ current role in the world?
CASTRO: That’s a great and complicated question right now. I believe the United States is still a leader among nations of the world. What’s unclear is the direction that President Trump wants to take the United States, whether we’re into a full period of retrenchment, where we are going to allow longstanding institutions to wither or to weaken, NATO, for example . . . and whether we’re going to recede into the background a bit or whether we’re going to remain, I think, a leader among nations of the world.
That, to me, under this president’s leadership still seems fairly up in the air. Part of the challenge in discerning that is that, on any controversial issue of foreign policy, you usually get two or three or four different answers coming out of the Administration, and that’s very difficult, not only for Americans to figure out, but also for our allies and our adversaries to figure out. I think you can do that for a while. But, after a while, with that kind of deep uncertainty, what happens is that other nations start to make plans around you and start to find certainty in that void.
STROLLO: How should the country move forward?
CASTRO: I think that we need to make sure that we do everything we can to preserve America’s preeminent place in the world. I don’t think that we should beat up on our allies or alienate our allies. I think that there are times where we can challenge folks, but I think the president often times, as he does with domestic politics, he takes things too far and that the world will start to move around you when you do that. It may not happen in six months or even fully in six years, but if you continue on that course, this country will not be in the same standing position that it has been since after World War II.
My concern is to make sure that we remain strong, that we preserve our alliances around the world, that we preserve the strength of the multilateral institutions that have helped the United States be a leader among nations, but have also kept relative peace around the world. I say relative, obviously not complete, but those are important things and I feel most of all as though we’re marching forward as a government right now under this president’s leadership without a clear idea about which direction we’re headed or what our final goal is, what the end game is. It’s kind of an ad hoc type of policy.
STROLLO: You spoke earlier about the youth and the issues that they are raising to you. Under the topic of foreign policy, what specifically are you hearing from the youth?
CASTRO: Different things. For example, one of the things that I’ll hear often about are the different crises around the world with displaced peoples. Right now, there are about 70 million people around the world who are displaced from their homes for different reasons, whether it’s famine or economic desperation or civil war. I’ll get a lot of messages asking, “What are you all doing about that?” The Rohingya issue, for example, the crisis there in Myanmar . . . in Venezuela, where you’ve had probably about a million people over the last eighteen months leave Venezuela, fleeing the Maduro regime.
Some of it centers around that and then also issues about the United States’ alliances with respect to Saudi Arabia, for example, what our role should be or shouldn’t be in Yemen . . . some humanitarian concerns, but also some very, very thorny and controversial issues around foreign policy and what our posture should be towards different countries.
STROLLO: If students are passionate and they want to reach out to Congress directly, how would you advise them to move forward there, to use their voices to be able to reach their Congressman?
CASTRO: I would say now . . . In 2003, when I was elected to office, I used to tell people that I thought the most direct way to make sure that members of Congress would read what you had to say was to e-mail them, because most of them check their own e-mail. The staff would open the letters and answer the phones, but the members of the legislature at that time where I was serving would check their own e-mail.
Now, I would say it’s through social media. In many ways, social media has really democratized the voices out there that can speak directly to elected officials. I see different messages come to me every day from folks who are not big, powerful people in society, but are citizens, often times constituents, who want to speak out on a particular issue. Sometimes they’re very, very friendly and supportive, and other times they’re very harsh in their criticism, but they’re speaking directly to me. I would say, for this generation, do what you do best, which is through social media. Make your point.
STROLLO: Are you finding that you’re spending a good part of each day in the world of social media connecting directly with students and constituents?
CASTRO: Yeah, I try to stay on top of it. I have an official Congressional Instagram account, Facebook account, Twitter account, so we try to make sure that we’re covering different platforms and getting our message out on all those platforms.
STROLLO: We are just wondering if there is anything else that you would like to tell us about you that people don’t know?
CASTRO: You know, I wanted to come here to Tufts really just to say how proud I am of all the work that you all are doing here and the incredible students that have come out of here. I have friends from Texas that have graduated from here and are doing great things and really just to challenge folks to be a generation of leaders that make sure that this country remains strong.
In terms of things about me, well my brother has a book coming out, so I’ll let him write that part of the story. He’s my twin brother, so he can kind of write for both of us for now.
STROLLO: Then you have your own podcast, The Diplomatic Cable. It’s a foreign policy podcast available on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. Is there anything that you’d like to add while you’re here with us today?
CASTRO: No, I think you got it. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
STROLLO: Thank you so much. We very much appreciate it.
HOST:Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at email@example.com. That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Anna Miller recorded Congressman Castro’s interview. Web production and editing support provided by Momo Shinzawa and Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Tisch College of Civic Life and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Our songs are sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.
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