An ‘Army of 16-Year-Olds’ Takes On the Democrats

Young progressives are an unpredictable new factor in Massachusetts elections. They’re ardent, and organized, and they don’t take orders.


By Ellen Barry

May 19, 2021Updated 4:50 p.m. ET

BOSTON — Dana Depelteau, a hotel manager, had just gone public with a long-shot candidacy for mayor in Boston when he noticed that someone in city politics was going after him online.

The effect of this attack, he said, was lightning-fast and pervasive. The morning after he announced his candidacy on Twitter, he showed up at his local barbershop and, while staring at himself in the mirror, overheard a customer describing his views as white supremacist.

“I’m thinking, ‘Man, politics is dirty,’” recalled Mr. Depelteau. He rushed home to fire back at his critic, a sharp-edged progressive who had dug up some of Mr. Depelteau’s old social media posts and was recirculating them online. But that, he discovered, was a big mistake.

“I didn’t know how old she was,” he explained. “I just knew she was a prominent person.”

That is how he became aware of Calla Walsh, a leader in the group of activists known here as the Markeyverse. Ms. Walsh, a 16-year-old high school junior, has many of the attributes of Generation Z: She likes to refer to people (like the president) as “bestie.” She occasionally gets called away from political events to babysit her little brother. She is slightly in the doghouse, parent-wise, for getting a C+ in precalculus.

She is also representative of an influential new force in Democratic politics, activists who cut their teeth on the presidential campaigns of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The full strength of these activists — many of whom are not old enough to vote — did not become clear until last fall, when they were key to one of the year’s most surprising upsets, helping Senator Edward J. Markey defeat a primary challenge from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who had been heavily favored to win.

In conversation, Ms. Walsh tends to downplay her movement, describing them as “Markey teens” and “theater kids” who “formerly ran, like, Taylor Swift or K-pop stan accounts.”


But the Markeyverse carried out a devastating political maneuver, firmly fixing the idea of Senator Markey as a left-wing icon and Representative Kennedy as challenging him from the right. They carried out ambitious digital organizing, using social media to conjure up an in-person work force — “an army of 16-year-olds,” as one political veteran put it, who can “do anything on the internet.”

They are viewed apprehensively by many in Massachusetts’ Democratic establishment, who say that they smear their opponents and are never held accountable; that they turn on their allies at the first whiff of a scandal; and that they are attacking Democrats in a coordinated effort to push the whole party to the left, much as the Tea Party did, on the right, to the Republicans.

Ms. Walsh, for one, is cheerfully aware of all those critiques.

In a podcast this spring, she recalled the day last summer when the Kennedy campaign singled her out in a statement, charging that negative campaigning online had created a vicious, dangerous atmosphere.

“I won’t lie, I was terrified,” she said. But then, she said, the fear evaporated.

“That’s when I realized I had a stake in this game: They are scared of me, a random teenager on the internet who just happened to be doing some organizing with her friends,” she said. “I think that made us all think, ‘Hey, they’re scared of us. We have power over them.’”

The next round

After Mr. Markey beat Mr. Kennedy in the primary, Ms. Walsh taped a copy of his victory speech to the wall of her bedroom in Cambridge and turned her attention to down-ballot races.

In his speech, Senator Markey had specifically thanked the Markeyverse for helping him beat Representative Kennedy. During a cycle in which campaigning moved almost entirely online, the young activists had done more than rebrand the candidate.

They seemed to have affected long-established voting patterns: In Massachusetts, the turnout among registered voters between 18 to 24 had shot up to 20.9 percent in the 2020 primary from 6.7 percent in 2018, and 2.1 percent in 2016, according to Tufts’ C


The race had left them with a heady sense of power. Tristan Niedzielski, 17, a high school senior from Marlborough, decided to skip Model U.N. this year and instead signed up to work on two campaigns, one for a seat in the state House of Representatives, and one for a regional school committee.


He applied digital approaches he had picked up in the Markeyverse, using chat groups, direct messages and texts to convert friend networks into a volunteer work force. Both of his candidates lost, but narrowly, and he said he had learned something bigger: Outside of major cities, Massachusetts Democrats are not running sophisticated grass-roots campaigns.

“It’s this lax culture of ‘Who do you know?,’” he said. “A lot of the state has never really seen any type of campaign political structure.”

Some of what the young progressives have done can best be described as opposition research, targeting Democrats whom they consider too far right.

In December, Ms. Walsh dug up off-color Twitter posts by Valentino Capobianco, a Kennedy supporter and candidate for a State House seat. (A few weeks later, allegations of sexual misconduct emergedagainst Mr. Capobianco, who would not comment for this article. He lost the support of leading Democrats, and won 8 percent of the vote.)

Then she went after Mr. Depelteau, 36, a self-described “centrist Democrat,” recirculating social media posts he had made criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. (Mr. Depelteau, who withdrew from the race in April, said it was not because of Ms. Walsh’s criticisms. He then left Twitter, which he called “toxic.”)

She maintains a detailed spreadsheet on the declared candidates for mayor in Boston, monitoring donations from developers, police and energy companies. She runs trainings for young activists, entertaining her Twitter audience with juicy nuggets from campaign finance records, like a state representative who used campaign funds to expense AirPods.

Her father, Chris Walsh, the director of Boston University’s college writing program, said her political enthusiasms have drifted over the last few years, from the existential cause of climate change to an exceedingly detailed focus on government and policy.

Plus, he said, “Calla is also a 16-year-old. Like most, and maybe more than most, she’s not particularly communicative.”

“Some of what I say is informed by looking at her Twitter,” he said.

The surge of grass-roots activism has come as a jolt in Massachusetts, , which, because it is so firmly in the grip of one party, does not have a history of competitive primaries.

“The old guard, the consulting class, hasn’t figured out a way of combating it,” said Jordan Meehan, 29, who turned to Ms. Walsh to organize digital outreach for a campaign last year, when he challenged a 34-year incumbent for a State House seat. He lost, but credits Ms. Walsh with devising a creative approach, reaching out individually to his social media followers and recruiting them for events and volunteer shifts.

“It really does threaten the whole consultant-industrial complex,” he said.

Numerous political strategists in Massachusetts refused to comment for this article. This is in part because, as one of them put it, “I don’t want to be bashing high schoolers on the record,” but equally, perhaps, because they are wary of becoming targets online.

The Kennedy-Markey race left a bitter aftertaste for much of the state’s political class, who say the young activists overlooked much of Mr. Markey’s 44-year congressional record and unnecessarily vilified Mr. Kennedy.

“Either Kennedy or Markey would have been good for the things they care most about,” said Matt Bennett, the co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank based in Washington, D.C. “The idea that Joe Kennedy wouldn’t have been good on climate change is ridiculous. The notion that he wasn’t pure enough is a thing we have to be careful about.”

And he warned against overestimating the power of the Markeyverse, noting that since that primary, many challenges to moderate Democrats have fallen short. Even in Massachusetts, he noted, Joe Biden won the presidential primary, beating out Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.

“Everyone pays far too much attention to Twitter,” he said. “It’s a fun-house mirror. It’s not real. It’s why so many journalists fell into the Bernie-is-inevitable trap. This is not where Democratic voters are.”

One test of the young activists’ clout will come in the upcoming Boston mayoral race, in which many former Markey volunteers have thrown their support behind Michelle Wu, a Warren ally who has proposed major changes to policy on climate, transportation and housing. City elections in Boston have, traditionally, been decided by middle-aged and elderly voters. But the surge of youth activism has thrown all those assumptions into the air.


“It’s energy from the bottom up, it’s not some ward and town committee chair telling people how to vote,” said the political strategist Doug Rubin, who is advising the campaign of Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey. “Previously, all the insiders used to find out who was going to win, and then they would want to be with the winners.”

He said he welcomed the change. If it makes consultants nervous, Mr. Rubin added, it’s meant to.

“People who say, ‘I can’t control it, I don’t understand it,’ well, that’s the whole point — you can’t control it,” Mr. Rubin said. “If you’re good on the issues they care about, they’re going to be with you. If you’re not, they’re not.”

Markeyverse vs. Markey

That became clear last week when the Markeyverse went on the offensive.

Their target, this time, was Mr. Markey himself, who on Tuesday had put out a carefully worded Twitter thread on the mounting violence in Israel, apportioning some blame on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

This was a disappointment for many of the young progressives, who had been hoping for a sharp rebuke of Israel, like the ones that came from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, or from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Though Mr. Markey’s voting record on foreign policy was no secret — he voted to authorize the occupation of Iraq in 2002, for example — it had faded into the background in their embrace of his candidacy, which focused heavily on his record on climate. Now, the group chats and Slack channels that comprise the Markeyverse were flooded with emotion, disappointment and betrayal.

“It’s horrible to watch, and it’s disappointing,” said Emerson Toomey, 21, one of the authors of Ed’s Reply Guys, a Twitter account that helped establish Mr. Markey as a progressive star.

Ms. Toomey, a senior at Northeastern University, was computing, with some bitterness, the “hundreds of thousands of hours” of unpaid labor she and her friends had provided to the senator. It made her question the compact she had assumed existed, that, in exchange for their support, he would accommodate their views on the issues that mattered.

“Maybe he just said those things to us to get elected,” she said.

They had shifted into full organizational mode, circulating a letter of protest that, Ms. Walsh hoped, could induce Senator Markey to revisit his positions on the conflict.

“He owes us much of his victory,” she said, “so we do have leverage over him.”

Over the days that followed, Mr. Markey’s office was buffeted with calls from young volunteers. Twitter was brutal. John Walsh, who had been Mr. Markey’s campaign manager and is now his chief of staff, said he understood that they were disappointed and sounded regretful. (He is no relation to Calla.)

“I can tell you, Senator Markey loves these people,” he said of the young organizers. “He fought very hard for everything he told them he would fight for.”

The Markeyverse, he said, now faced a key moment in their movement, determining whether they were willing to bend to preserve a relationship with an ally.

“If compromising is not in your toolbox, that’s a hard thing,” he said. “Finding that balance is something, I think, anybody who stays at this for a long period of time figures out.”

Late on Friday evening, Mr. Markey’s office offered a second statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time, it called on Israel to seek an immediate cease-fire, and invoked “defenseless Palestinian families who are already living in fear for their lives and the lives of their children.” Mr. Walsh said the statement was a response to Israel’s plans to deploy ground troops.

It could have been recorded as a win for the Markeyverse, a sign that the senator had to pay attention to their views. But Ms. Walsh wanted to push further, pointing to a list of four policy demands that volunteers had sent to the senator’s office. 

The moment had become about proving something different: that the young progressives care more about issues than alliances. She concluded that they had been somewhat naïve last year. “We were politically infatuated with Ed during the campaign, which caused us to have those blind spots,” she said. “Looking back, I think we should not have developed those blind spots.”

She said that, in the future, she would probably never support another candidate whose views on the Middle East did not line up with hers. Then she ticked off a laundry list of legislation she would be happy to work on with Senator Markey, like climate change and universal health care.

She sounded, for better or for worse, like an experienced political hand.

“It was never about him as an individual,” she said. “We will always have this community, whether or not he is the figurehead. We have moved beyond this being about one candidate.”


Look for youth leadership after Covid 19

As societies open up again as the pandemic recedes, there will be an opening for creativity, for new ideas and innovations. For all of us who perceive and honor the capacities of youths to invent, create, and lead, this will be a time for us to recognize new leadership from youths and offer recognition and support. 

In particular this could be a time in which many of us more clearly identify the limitations of secondary schooling within the industrial paradigm and encourage youths to live beyond high school, to manifest their vision and imagination and creativity and competence now. 

Shubham Banerjee, 16

It all started with a school science project when then 12-year-old Shubham Banerjee used his Lego bricks to build a braille printer. With this inventive creation, he made computing more affordable for millions of people with vision problems and Braigo — a blend of braille and Lego — was born. Braigo took the world by surprise as the world’s first low-cost, silent, portable, and IOT-enabled printer and its creator, Belgian-born Shubham, became the youngest entrepreneur to receive venture capital funding for Braigo Labs, the company he launched soon after receiving attention for his innovation.

Not only did Braigo catch the attention of Intel, but it also led to multiple awards for innovation. These days, Braigo works to create innovative, alternative solutions to expensive products. The final version of the Braigo printer is currently under development.

Even though he’s one of the smartest and most successful teenagers in the world and is a highly sought-after speaker and presenter, Shubham Banerjee manages to lead a normal lifestyle. He lives in Santa Clara, California with his parents and younger sister. Shubham, in addition to being a startup founder, somehow found time to play as quarterback for Santa Clara High School, where he graduated in 2019.


Haile Thomas, 16

Haile Thomas has been an advocate for proper diet and nutrition from a young age. At the start of last year, Haile became the youngest certified health coach in the United States after graduating from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. In 2012, she founded HAPPY (Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth), a nonprofit organization that provides affordable culinary education to the youth in malnourished communities. When explaining what motivated her to choose this career path Haile had the following to say: “When I was 8 years old, my dad was diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes, a disease caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices,” she explains. “This diagnosis opened the eyes of my entire family. We started to learn about the importance of exercise and how food really affects the body.”


Taft Foley III, 18

At only 18, Taft Foley III is on the road to making his dreams come true. Foley III has taken it upon himself to create a mobile COVID-19 testing lab that gets people COVID-19 test results within minutes. And, he’s doing it while he’s still in high school.

Taft is already one of the youngest EMTs in the state. After finishing the EMT course this summer, he waited two hours to get tested for COVID-19 and another two weeks to get his results. “While I was self-quarantining, I thought to myself, ‘There has to be a better way,’ and that’s when I decided to really do some research and that’s when I found 15-minute tests and got the idea to go to people,” Taft said. By August, he had his Texas Mobile Medical Labs van rolling.

“People need help and I have the resources to be able to provide that help to others and so I don’t see a reason not to,” Taft said. He said the mobile lab tested its 500th person on Monday. “We average about 30 tests a day, which is pretty good,” Taft said. “The other day, we actually ran out of tests for the very first time which I was very excited about.” The Kinkaid School senior has had to cut things out like wrestling to launch his business.

However, in between AP tests and applying to colleges Taft is staying focused on his long-term goals.

“One day I want to be able to call myself Dr. Foley,” Taft said.


Anika Chebrolu, 14

Anika Chebrolu, 14, won the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Anika’s winning invention uses in-silico methodology to discover a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “The last two days, I saw that there is a lot of media hype about my project since it involves the SARS-CoV-2 virus and it reflects our collective hopes to end this pandemic as I, like everyone else, wish that we go back to our normal lives soon,” Anika told CNN.

Anika, who is Indian American, submitted her project when she was in 8th grade — but it wasn’t always going to be focused on finding a cure for Covid-19. Initially, her goal was to use in-silico methods to identify a lead compound that could bind to a protein of the influenza virus. “After spending so much time researching about pandemics, viruses and drug discovery, it was crazy to think that I was actually living through something like this,” Anika said. 

“Because of the immense severity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the drastic impact it had made on the world in such a short time, I, with the help of my mentor, changed directions to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Anika said she was inspired to find potential cures to viruses after learning about the 1918 flu pandemic and finding out how many people die every year in the United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market.


Youth in Chile stated a national movement that has led to a vote on drafting a new Constitution

Students from the National Institute, Chile’s oldest and most famous public high school, in October 2019 started a movement that spread across the nation, a rebellion against the inequities embedded in Chilean society as a result of the Pincohet era Constitution. This movement grew to the extent that the conservative government of President Pinera agreed to hold a national vote on the drafting of a new constitution, first set for April 2020 but delayed to this month as a result of the pandemic. 

Haile Thomas, 16

Haile Thomas has been an advocate for proper diet and nutrition from a young age. At the start of last year, Haile became the youngest certified health coach in the United States after graduating from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. In 2012, she founded HAPPY (Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth), a nonprofit organization that provides affordable culinary education to the youth in malnourished communities. When explaining what motivated her to choose this career path Haile had the following to say: “When I was 8 years old, my dad was diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes, a disease caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices,” she explains. “This diagnosis opened the eyes of my entire family. We started to learn about the importance of exercise and how food really affects the body.”


Izzy Raj-Seppings, 13

As Australia burned from tragic bushfires, on Thursday I joined hundreds of others to demand action from our prime minister outside his Kirribilli residence.

It was a whirlwind of emotions and action. The drastic change from motivational speeches, to a peaceful sea of tents awaiting the PM’s climate action, to a squad of riot police moving through the crowd arresting people, was unsettling.

Many people have asked me what motivated me to drag my dad on a one-hour bus trip to Kirribilli House on one of the hottest days of summer. My answer? Our politicians’ denial, and the inaction of our government and our prime minister. Their denial has gone on for far too long. I’m tired, tired of the lies and misdirection. I’m tired of watching my future, my friends’ and family’s futures, all of our futures, burn before our very eyes.

How dare Scott Morrison race off to Hawaii during Australia’s time of crisis? What we need is a prime minister who acknowledges that this isn’t another normal fire season, that the cause of this is climate change! Lives and homes have been taken while Morrison lies on a tropical beach with his head in the sand.

When I first arrived at the protest it was a happy sight: young kids, families, students, adults young and old. Some were in costumes, some had painted faces, others had signs and banners. All gathered at the end of a small cul-de-sac, under a blazing sun. All there with a story, a purpose, a reason. The number of police didn’t

After the rally wrapped up, a number of people announced that they had decided to camp out until Morrison returned from his holiday. The crowd had mixed emotions, some cheered while others looked on with surprise and apprehension. Tents were pitched, food and games were passed around. We settled in, made new friends, exchanged stories. Even a Christmas tree was put up.

At this point, many more police vans had pulled up. Greens MP David Shoebridge arrived and complained to the police that it was unreasonable to move us as we weren’t hurting anybody or blocking anything. A “move on” order was issued. We chanted in response. We had a reason to be here – our prime minister is missing in action on the most important issue of our time.

Right before the riot police came it was quiet; dense smoke swirled over the road. A sense of unease settled over me. A squad of about 25 fully suited and armed riot police came marching over the hill. It was like something out of a movie. The officers approached the wall of students and protesters with intense intimidation tactics. They went for the loudest and most motivating people first, the natural leaders, grabbing their arms and pulling them into the police van if they didn’t comply.

I watched shocked and confused as my friends and fellow protesters were scattered, arrested and escorted off premises. It was chaotic, people were scrambling around filming on phones and photographers were buzzing around, capturing acts of bravery and courage in the face of injustice.

My dad and I were told to move on, which we did, but as I moved on I held my sign high in the sky:

Look at what you’ve left us 
Watch us fight it 
Watch us win.

It’s a day I won’t forget in a hurry.