Austin Strassle, 25


Austin Strassle, 25

At 25, Austin Strassle is poised to be the youngest elected official in Kansas City, Missouri history. As he’s watched his hometown’s economy grow exponentially, he’s also seen it’s growing inequality. Austin is running for city council to ensure that growth is inclusive of all in Kansas City, and uplifts the entire community together.

What was the best piece of advice you received before you ran for office?

Someone said to me, “Do it. Just do it.” I think for a lot of folks especially young people, there's always this perception, especially in politics, that you need permission from someone to run for office, right? I never really agreed with that and I don’t think that is something that sits well with our generation.

So when someone told me, “Just do it, run for office. Your voice matters.”It struck me, “Oh, should do this. This is something that I can actually do.”

So when did the light bulb go off? When did you realize you wanted to run for office?

In January of 2018, I was attending a neighborhood forum. The neighborhood was going over results of a survey they asked residents. They pulled the questions from a survey that they asked residents in 1988, to see how things have changed in the neighborhood. And I kid you not, they were quite literally the same answers on both surveys.

What that told me is that for 30 years, you have a neighborhood in Kansas City where residents are expressing their concerns and their desires for what they would like to see for their neighborhood, and nothing has been done to help that.

That told me that there was a need for new voices and a new perspective. We need folks who understood that we can't just sit around and wait for things to change, we have to make them change. We have to have folks in office who are willing to stand up and fight for that change.

What are those issues residents are passionate about? What are the “potholes” or issues that have been neglected that you think need to be addressed?

Well, if you ask people here, potholes are an actual problem.

I think that the most pressing issue that is impacting Kansas City and impacting communities across the country is inequality. I say inequality because it touches on so many other aspects of our lives - on housing affordability, on education, on transportation, on food security, health care, etc.

Kansas City is a severely segregated and divided city. One part of the city has been experiencing immense momentum and new investment that we've never really seen before. And that’s exciting.  But it's also exacerbating some of the larger underlying problems that impact a vast majority of people in the city.

I always ask the question: How do we make housing more affordable for folks? How do we expand public transportation? How do we make sure that students across the city are being afforded quality educational opportunities that are going to lead them to opportunities later down the road into their adulthood whether it’s a university, a trade school, or a living wage paying job? How can we talk about ending the food deserts that exist in Kansas City? How can we end homelessness?

For a long time, we’ve failed to address the serious inequalities that exist within Kansas City. So when I go out and talk to folks, I always talk about how we can make sure that this momentum that we're experiencing as a city is being shared equally amongst all of us, so that everyone can be afforded the same opportunity to share in this exciting time that we’re experiencing.

Speaking on this unprecedented growth in Kansas City, some view it as gentrification and displacement. Others say it’s economic development in an opportunity zone. Is it one or the other, or is there a way to compromise?

So it depends on who you ask, you've got one side that definitely says this is gentrification and is something we should be preventing. And then you have the other side where it is economic development. I say we need to make sure that we have housing available for all individuals of all incomes, and we need to make sure that we are creating diverse neighborhoods. I think that we need to be very sensitive, when we are talking about new investments in communities, especially historically marginalized communities, because there is a serious risk for gentrification and displacement to occur.

That's part of the reason why I've been talking a lot about policies that would protect neighborhoods from gentrification. Because when I talk to folks who are living in historically marginalized and historically disinvested communities, what they tell me is, “We don't necessarily not want new investment to come into our neighborhood. We don't necessarily not want new development. But what we don't want is for entire communities to be displaced.”

We need to be very conscious about how we make sure that everyone is at the table. What I've seen and what I think a lot of people are feeling right now is that the developer, the corporations, the construction companies, and the architecture firms are leading the conversation right now, when really it should be the community that's leading the conversations, talking about what they want for their neighborhood and for their community. I think that we can’t have those conversations if we're not all at the table talking about them.

Let's talk a little bit more about you and your past. You’re currently a mental health caseworker. What led you to public service work?

“I work in mental health case management with individuals who are experiencing homelessness. So I see on a daily basis where policy has failed to address the inequality that exists within my community.”

My family has a long history of working in the medical field in general. I've got two grandparents who were both state caseworkers working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. It’s always something that I was familiar with and grew up around. But really,  what drew me to working in the community and working within vulnerable communities is tied to my own experiences growing up. My family was like many families in the neighborhood in which I lived. We struggled, we had issues with financial insecurity, housing insecurity, food insecurity. My family has a history of substance abuse and mental illness. And the only way we ever managed to get through all that was because of the community around us.

We had supportive neighbors, very supportive family members, and it's that sort of community relationship that is really meaningful to me. It drives everything that I do in my own work now. So when I left college, I knew that I wanted to do something in the community, I didn't necessarily know what it was. This avenue was one I had a lot of experience in from my own background, and it's something where I feel like I can make an impact in, to help individuals see that they have their own voice, their own power, and their own agency.

What takeaways from that work will you bring with you to public office?

I work in mental health case management with individuals who are experiencing homelessness. So I see on a daily basis where policy has failed to address the inequality that exists within my community.

My job offers me a perspective that I don't think you often see in public service. Folks who are in office are often attorneys. They’re folks that are familiar with the inner workings of political machines, and I am very much outside of that. And that’s okay! The perspective I offer from outside working in the community is an important voice to have in city government! When we have diverse voices representing the broader community, the ultimate policies that get implemented are more inclusive of all people's voices.

If you have just one set of individuals -  attorneys or wealthy individuals, or white straight men - representing a very diverse city, the policies that get implemented may not necessarily be in the best interest of everyone. I think that having that perspective as a caseworker, someone who works in the community with vulnerable communities, someone who is LGBT, someone who is young, I think that perspective affords a lot of opportunities to be an advocate and to say let's think about this issue in a different way.

What perspective then do you think it missing from Kansas City Council?

I think that there are a few perspectives missing. If you look at the Council right now they're all attorneys. I think that there is a need for younger voices on the council, voices that don't necessarily come from the “professional careers” like attorneys and business folks.

I'm also the only candidate running for city council in Kansas City who is LGBT. So potentially in August, there will be no LGBT representation on the council at all. I don't want to lose that voice, because while Kansas City has made great strides when it comes to making the city inclusive of LGBT folks, there is a lot of work left to be done to address the intersectionality that impacts LGBT individuals, particularly amongst young people. 50% of homeless youth in Kansas City identify as LGBT. There really aren’t many resources in Kansas City for homeless youth, specifically homeless LGBT youth. There are shelters that provide services but those resources aren’t allocated to support this particular population. These shelters don't provide LGBT focused or trauma-informed care.

The rate of violence against transgender women of color in the city is astronomically high. HIV transmission rates are not going up, but they're not going down either. That’s a big thing that if you're not familiar with and if you're not connected to that community, and you don't have that perspective. This is a population that never has a seat at the table and never has their voice heard.

I also think it's important to have young people on the council, Kansas City does have a history of electing young people office. And I am potentially the youngest person elected to office in Kansas City history. It’s important that we continue to have young people represented on the council and I don’t want to lose that perspective in City Hall.

Campaigns often focus on what’s wrong with a community. Let’s focus on the positive. What is something you love about Kansas City?

I’m born and raised in Kansas City. I've seen Kansas City transform almost overnight and that's been so exciting to see. Kansas City is so dynamic. There's so much energy here and I think that's fueled by the fact that there are a lot of young people here. There are a lot of people who are coming to Kansas City because there are opportunities for work, to raise a family, and to just have fun. There is so much to do in terms of art, culture, music, and food.

And the people are just so nice. That is what really inspires me every single day when I go out as a candidate into the community, is just how nice people are and how much love people share for their community, for their neighborhood, and for each other.

For a long time, we’ve centered policy around economic development, which usually involves bringing jobs in or erecting new buildings, and those are fine. But for me, if we're really going to make Kansas City a strong, resilient, and dynamic capital city, we have to set policy around people.

What are some doubts people have about you as a candidate? What do you say people who think you’re too young to run for office?

I definitely get pushback from folks who say that I’m too young. It's usually from older folks. That's okay, I get it. This stuff takes a lot of time and energy and sometimes it takes someone to show that this is something that is possible for young people to do.

But for every person who says that I'm too young for running for office, there are three people who are excited to see that there are other young people who are ready to step up to be advocates for the community. That's been very exciting to see.

What is the best piece of advice you’d give to another young person considering a run for office?

I would say exactly the same thing that folks here said - Just do it. If you're passionate about your community, passionate about the issues, if you're ready to be an advocate for where you live, then just do it. You're going to get pushback, but that's okay. It's politics, it's running for office, there's always going to be pushback, but just know that there are so many more people out there who are going to be inspired by seeing you running for office as a young person. It's the most gratifying experience that anyone could have. I firmly believe that if more young people step up and run for office, that our communities, our states, and our country will be that much more capable of addressing some of these big issues that are impacting all of us.

Go do it. You'll never regret it. It's the greatest experience. You are qualified, regardless of what anyone says, just go do it.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff. 

Lacy Wright