The forty five presidents of the United States all vary based on political parties, affiliations, height, race — but the one characteristic they all share in common is their gender. They’re all men. Not one woman has been elected president in American history. Though we’ve made progress with female political leadership, with renowned figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi, that glass ceiling still has yet to be broken.
But this young politician, scientist, activist, and leader, the 17-year old Erica Choe, who was recently elected Governor of the Mid-Atlantic State’s Junior State of America, (JSA), gives us hope for the future. Our generation is bound to break the barriers of gender and race inequality, and teens like Erica stepping up to the plate is a sure sign of progress.
The Youngest Chapter President in BCA History
Erica Choe is a junior at Bergen County Academies (BCA), who is in science. In her free time, Erica volunteers for her town as an EMT, is interested in debate, writes science articles, and participates in microbiology research. She also manages her Olympiad Team, is the manager of her school’s concert band, in which she plays percussion, and other STEM-based activities. She likes to read both the New York Times and science articles geared towards the general public – which emphasizes Erica as an embodiment of the bridge between humanities and STEM.
But the one thing that helped Erica to flourish and blossom as the young, massively accomplished leader that she is today, is JSA. The Junior State of America is a national, student-run nonprofit organization where the youth can engage in political discourse, and attend debating events like Fall State, and mock-congress events in Washington, D.C. It’s separated into regions – Erica is a part of the Mid-Atlantic-State (MAS), and her local chapter is at her high school, Bergen County Academies.
Erica first heard about JSA in her freshman year, and all her friends were members of BCA’s JSA chapter. She joined, but was unsure if she really had passion or enthusiasm for the club itself. The defining moment in which Erica fell in love with JSA was when she went to Fall One Day – a convention at Princeton University with keynote speakers and traditional debate blocks discussing various issues. She realized that everyone at the event was there to better themselves as an individual and not fit into a mold, something that distinguishes JSA from other extracurriculars.
As her freshman year progressed and Erica increasingly found her passion for politics and activism, she decided to run for BCA JSA’s Chapter President. Usually, sophomores running for their junior year were the prospective candidates, and Erica knew she was taking a big risk. But she didn’t let her grade level define who she was – a true leader. With the support of her friends, and her dedication to the organization, she was elected. Erica became the youngest chapter president BCA had seen, and and the youngest CP at MAS conventions.
“Their trust in me as a leader superseded the fact that I was a year younger. My chapter has always been there, and I could not be in a position where I am without them.”Erica Choe, on winning BCA JSA Chapter President
The faces of every region’s JSA are the elected officials — Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker, South Atlantic Executive, New Jersey Region (NJR) Mayor, and NJR Vice Mayor. The governor position is extremely coveted during every election season, as it is the highest rank in the Region, the Chief Executive of each state.
As a freshman at Fall One Day, Erica would see the elected officials of that year stand up at the panel, and effortlessly command the room. She was immediately inspired, and she saw herself in those student leaders. She took that inspiration, as well as her love and dedication for JSA, and ran with it. Soon, she was hiring members for her campaign team, making graphics for her Instagram page, writing out her platform, and gaining endorsements.
When creating her platform, Erica wanted to make sure that the JSA community was accessible, being held accountable, and was continuing to be as diverse as possible. Her initiatives included increasing communications for average JSA-ers, not just EOs or Cabinet members. Erica viewed this lack of knowledge and effective communication as a “true hindrance to allowing JSA to reach their full potential in leadership”.
In light of the recent pandemic, the event in which elected official voting usually took place, Spring State, was canceled, and candidates had to shift to remote and digital campaigning. It was completely unprecedented, and although it was a challenge for Erica and her team to reach out to voters, they managed to do so using Instagram. It was a vital component in campaigning this year, depicted through the number of posts each candidate had compared to previous years. This form of campaigning further represents how the direction of social media is changing the way we communicate as Generation Z.
On Monday, April 20, 2020, two days after region-wide voting closed, it was announced via live stream to all of the Mid Atlantic State that Erica Choe had won the title of governor. When she found out, it was a “mixture of disbelief, excitement, and just pure emotion”. Erica replayed the stream after, realizing how her speech differentiated from her normal speech patterns. It was delivered at a slower pace, more careful and articulate.
Erica expresses her gratitude towards Sean Tracy, her campaign manager from the beginning, as well as her teacher advisors, the BCA JSA chapter, her campaign team, the 2019 Elected Officials, EFC Chairs, Elizabeth Ventura (aka EV, the MAS Senior Program Director), and so many other people that have helped her reach this point.
Empowerment, Leadership, and Hard Work
Before running for Governor, Erica served as an expansion agent, and now serves as Director of Expansion. Thus, she was able to experience first-hand the amount of work, effort, and dedication put in behind the scenes of every regional or state-wide conference. Erica gained knowledge in expanding organizations at a larger scale, giving opportunities to other people, and increasing diversity. She also learned about fundraising, through making JSA accessible to others despite their financial background.
I think it’s important to communicate to people why you love something. It’s not enough to say, oh, I love it, I met so many great people. You need to show people how it changed you, impacted you, and how you’re going to change the world.– Erica Choe
A Bond Like Family
When working as an expansion agent, Erica was frequently asked, “What’s different about JSA? What distinguishes it from a debate or volunteer club?” JSA is a community, where you make friendships and go beyond your chapter to meet other people. Erica considers everyone she’s met through JSA her family; her relationship with them goes beyond JSA and politics, and they simply discuss their lives, worries, high school, and more.
Erica is especially close with her Bergen County Academies JSA Chapter. They talk often, and hang out outside of school and JSA, like going ice skating for team bonding at Winter Con in Washington, D.C.. It’s important, considering they are part of different academies and grade levels. Even within the region, Erica has friends from many different schools, and they’re younger, older, of different races, religions, and more.
They’re all bonded by the fact that they do JSA. She sees it as “one of those organizations and extracurriculars that really empowers you to do what you want.”
Amplifying the Voices of Asian-Americans
Erica is Asian-American, specifically Korean, and feels that there is more to be done when it comes to racial diversity in JSA. She yearns for races to be more heavily represented in JSA, wanting to be that change she wants to see. Erica feels that it’s important for different identities, such as race/ethnicity/nationality, gender, sexuality, and more, in leadership. If people can’t connect with said leaders, and understand their point of view, it creates a disconnect as well as a sense of discouragement.
According to Erica, there aren’t many Koreans in JSA, and she finds it compelling since New Jersey has a large population of Koreans and Asian-Americans. She figures it has something to do with Asian culture. JSA is humanity, writing, and politics based, and it’s not branded as a competition, which could make it somewhat unattractive. However, Erica feels that’s a strength, not a weakness.
We really need to hone that and emit that. Nobody’s here in JSA to beat other people. You’re in the wrong club if you want to do that. We need to stress the importance of community, and why it’s so worth so much more than a medal or an award.Erica Choe
It’s common in Asian culture for students to pursue a STEM-based career, such as doctors or mathematicians. While Erica is studying microbiology and is going down the path of working in the medical field, she also embraces and encourages the politician and activist side of her, both building bridges and breaking barriers.
Women Can Be Bosses Too
Although we see a lack of stylish female pantsuits and heels in American Politics, this certainly differs in the Gen-Z based organization of JSA. The majority of the ten governors of each state in JSA for the 2019 Academic Year were female. Even this year, the newly elected governors were mostly women, and what contributes to this fact is that teenagers are more tolerant. They work harder to break stereotypes of gender, sexuality, and all different types of identities.
Erica has always had progressive views on Women’s Rights, something important to her since sixth or seventh grade. Growing up, she felt what it was like to be as a girl instead of a guy. She worried more about her appearance, and there was a lot more of this idea of what you can or can’t do. Erica is heavily involved in STEM, and there seems to be a disconnect there, and so much doubt on her ability.
Image Provided by Anne Chu
Erica finds it upsetting that gender plays a role in how people percieve others. It’s portrayed in elections, and people can claim they aren’t sexist, but still imply it indirectly. She feels that it’s important to recognize problematic views, as it is the first step into working towards a better mentality to change it. By being a role model and leading figure for such a widespread organization, Erica helps to create fractures in the ever-looming glass ceiling.
It’s really just about putting that behind you and being like, this is the work I’m gonna do, this is what I’m going to accomplish, and I’m going to do it. Whatever people say, I think that this judgement, whether it be to your face, or behind your back, it’s going to be there no matter what you do. You just need to do your own thing and know what you’re doing, and that’s just enough to keep you going.Erica Choe, on pushing back against gender inequality
Gen-Z: We’re Woke and Politically Aware
Erica is one of the teens of our generation striving to bring inclusivity and opportunities for all, and is the leading figure for both local and regional communities. She helps to bridge the gap between science and politics, and will truly be an asset to Generation Z.
She sees JSA as a great place to foster ideas regarding activism and politically focused movements, like climate change, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and more. It’s a great place for support to be gathered and to empower the voices of the youth. Activism is a large part of the organization, and during Erica’s term, she wants JSA to heavily focus on the background and importance of activism. It shows how people our age are not willing to take a step back and let the older generation do their thing. With aspects such as debate, activism, leadership, empowerment, and the idea of a nonprofit, JSA has the same message that a lot of Gen Z-ers do in terms of being the change they want to see in the world.
Erica Choe is the true personification of that. She’s brilliant, persistent, strong-willed, takes pride in her femininity and Korean identity, and leads an organization full of “woke” young teens that will insert themselves into the narrative. The New York Times, Science Magazine, the Nobel Prize, and the future as we know it better watch out – because Erica Choe isn’t going anywhere.