This Detroiter votes for the next generation and is inspired by the generations before him.
DETROIT, MICHIGAN — Robert Emmet Sullivan, 64, is a name to remember.
The Detroit resident was named after Anglo-Irish nationalist Robert Emmet who was executed for treason after leading an unsuccessful revolution against British ruling powers over Ireland during the 1800s.
Irish people suffered terrible fates under the Penal Laws (the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s), many were stripped away from owning land, educating their children, speaking their Gaelic language and practicing Catholicism and were forced to convert to Protestant — the religion of the ruling British. Emmet was 25 years old when he was executed for his beliefs.
Sullivan (of Irish descent) has a framed picture of his namesake hanging in his home “something I am always proud of.” He said that Emmet was a young man who fought for change. Young people, too, can fight for change and take their passions to the polls, he said.
“Young people — absolutely get involved in politics,” Sullivan said. “You may think it is difficult or there are barriers. You can join at the local level. They have meetings and all are welcome,” Sullivan said.
When Sullivan was 18 years old he did just that and took it a step further. He went into politics as a delegate in Detroit in the 17th district.
Sullivan’s aunt, cofounder of Focus HOPE: Detroit inspired him to campaign for the delegate position, which he won against one candidate by a landslide.
“I wanted to get involved in my neighborhood and community and do what I could to resurrect the city following the city rebellions (of the 1960s),” he said. “I got elected precinct delegate and I didn’t know what to expect. It was just amazing the wonderful people (and elected officials) I met.”
The sixth generation Detroiter said that he has been involved with the mission of helping Detroit and his job as general counsel and director of Career Development at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit is involved in that mission, too.
“When I was young I was raised to believe that everybody can make a difference no matter how old you are,” he said.
Tough times didn’t escape his Irish ancestors, some of the earliest settlers in Corktown, who experienced hardships of not being able to apply for jobs, not to talk of political positions. Things changed down the line as Sullivan comes from a family of politicians with two uncles elected to roles like: deputy Detroit mayor, Michigan Court of Appeals judge, Wayne Circuit Court and more.
Inspired by the spirit of Democracy in his heritage and all around him, Sullivan at 18 years old was inspired to write an opinion piece to the Detroit News about how the voting age (and age to hold most public offices) should be lowered to 18; it was 21 at the time.
“For a number of years a number of young people had been pushing for that and I agreed with it,” he said. “I was surprised they published my article in the paper. The argument was if you were old enough to go to Vietnam you were old enough to vote to make decisions.”
Making decisions and participating in the democratic process is something that Sullivan says inspires him when he goes to the polls.
“Young people have a point of view and a perspective that helps to diversify decision-making and that’s needed,” Sullivan said. “Older people have been young people at one time; either we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young or things have changed. Young people are needed to give their voice to politics.”