Eric-John Szczepaniak was only 18 when, in 2016, he was elected to the Kenowa Hills School Board, becoming the body’s first LGBTQ and youngest elected official. Then, in 2019, Szczepaniak was also elected Student Body President at Grand Valley State University where he attends college full-time studying public and nonprofit administration. At both institutions, he has enacted policy that requires LGBTQ nondiscrimination in hiring and service practices for any private vendor that does business with either governing board. Now, Szczepaniak is running for Alpine Township Clerk in the fall. He said that he has worked with community members to build “agency and ownership” in their communities.
“At age 17, I began regularly registering my classmates to vote and have been party to the efforts at GVSU over the past four years as well,” Szczepaniak said. “In September of 2019, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson appointed me to the Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force to look into barriers that still exist for young people when it comes to voting and civic education. I realized that the position of clerk lines up with my passion to build agency and ownership in communities. This role has the potential to engage every citizen in their democracy, to work to make sure that more folks are using their voice, which means all the time and not only on election day.”
Plans for Office
If elected to office, Szczepaniak has ambitious plans. One of his main priorities centers around doubling the number of permanent absentee voters throughout the township because of the Constitutional changes voted on in 2018.
“Many forward-thinking clerks have already mailed all registered voters in their jurisdiction an application to be on the permanent absentee list,” Szczepaniak said. “This ensures that folks never miss an election since they will get their ballot by mail and access to vote-by-mail has been shown time and time again to increase voter turnout.”
On the campaign trail, Szczepaniak is often joined by his mother, who, herself, is running for Alpine Township Treasurer.
“My mother, Sabra, makes me a better public servant,” Szczepaniak said. “I love her to pieces and know that this duo can help others work through their issues and make Alpine Township government feel like family.”
More dedicated to politics than most at his age today, Szczepaniak credits his time in high school with motivating him to become politically active.
“I think being involved in many extracurriculars and seeing how everything is linked together made me realize that I have immense potential to be a force for good,” he said. “An early experience that I am proud of was during my junior year at Kenowa Hills High School when my AP US Government teacher required every student to address a Supreme Court decision that they feel was decided incorrectly and explain why.”
Szczepaniak chose the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission as his case.
“It has proven disastrous for democracy and allowed millions of unreported dollars into the political system. At the time, I learned about various groups of individuals trying to amend the U.S. Constitution to state that money is not speech and that it should be limited in the political system,” he said. “I requested and met with my state representative who was sort of sympathetic but uninterested because he said that I was the only person to talk to him about this issue.”
But Szczepaniak was undeterred.
“I went to every city and township that he represented and asked the local elected officials to ask this of him publicly. The City of Cedar Springs, a small town in northern Kent County, passed a resolution after I spoke at public comment to oppose Citizens United v. FEC and asked the state representative to address the issue. He did not address it before he was term-limited, but the City of Cedar Springs is now, on record, opposed to this terrible decision. That process made me realize that positive change requires more voices at the table, more input to get the attention of elected officials. I wanted to do more organizing and community building.”
So, when the opportunity arrived, the decision to run for school board, Szczepaniak said, was simple.
“I saw that there was no student representative for the Board of Education, so it was quite possible that they didn’t ever hear from student voices,” he said. “I had been very involved during my high school years, serving as a class officer for all four years, and I wanted to continue making positive change for other students in my school.”
That same drive for change, he said, is present in his campaign today.
To learn more about Eric-John Szczepaniak, visit alpineforall.com.