BLACK HISTORY MONTH: At 21, Davis is a veteran at the politics of helping others
Austin Davis never had any doubt about what he wanted to do with his life.
"I've always had a passion for public service," said Davis, 21, of McKeesport. "I always had the drive to want to help people. It was something I'm interested in. I'm interested in politics. It just seemed to be the right fit."
He serves as legislative intern for state Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, a position the McKeesport native has held since the summer of 2009. Davis works out of the White Oak office along Lincoln Way a few days a week while studying for a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
"Marc is a very good leader in our community. He cares about the community," Davis said of the state legislator. "He deals with a lot of issues that pertain to the community. You can see (that) by all the bills he sponsors in the state House and all the legislation that he works on and some of the recognition he gets. He's definitely a tireless advocate on behalf of the Mon Valley."
Davis works mainly with Gergely's constituents and addresses their concerns, such as property tax rebates, transportation issues and how to obtain tax forms.
"If they come here I can help them (with) anything related to a state issue," he said.
Gergely says having Davis on his staff is an asset both to him and to Gergely's constituents.
"Austin has a great insight into the region, and giving advice," Gergely said. "I do call him off hours and we have good quality discussions about things, and he molds well with the rest of my staff, top to bottom. Everybody works together here and Austin's become an asset to me."
As the son of Kathy Davis, a hair stylist at Mary's Snips 'n Tips in McKeesport, and Ankarie Davis, a systems analyst for CareFirst in Washington, D.C., Austin knew at a young age that he wanted to be involved in politics.
"My family's very supportive. They've always pushed me to go after my dreams and pursue what's important to me," he said. "They stand behind me 100 percent."
Davis said his godmother, McKeesport council vice president Loretta Diggs, has been his mentor and instilled in him the importance of public service and of giving back to his community.
In 2005, when Davis was 15, he approached McKeesport's then-Mayor James Brewster about developing a mayor's youth advisory council.
"We advised the mayor on youth policy issues like curfew, how to reduce crime among youth in neighborhoods, how to create new programs for the city that pertain to youth," Davis said. "I think we had a significant impact. While I was chair of the mayor's youth council, along with Mayor Brewster, there was a reduction in youth crime in the city.
"We saw an increase in programs not just through the city but through other social organizations to help get kids off the streets in a positive direction. We also spread a lot of awareness that there was a problem with youth in our city. We did a lot of youth walks in different neighborhoods in the city."
The youth council eventually dissolved in 2008 when Davis graduated from high school, where he was senior class president.
"I would challenge the new mayor (Regis T. McLaughlin) and whoever the next mayor's going to be to actually go out and find a young person and put it together," Davis said. "It's something that's definitely needed in the city and it's a good way to show young people how government works and to try to get more young people involved in government, in the political process."
Davis said being involved in student council in the city school district has helped him become a better leader and work with people with different ideas.
Davis expects to graduate from Pitt in May 2012, and wants to continue to be involved in politics in some fashion.
"I don't know where life will take me in the next 15 years," he said. "I was born and raised in the city of McKeesport; so I'll always have a soft spot for it in my heart, but I don't know that I'll live here once I get older and graduate and start a family of my own. I don't really see myself leaving the region as far as Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but I don't know if I'll still be in the Mon Valley." Davis may find himself in Gergely's seat some day.
"I would love to be a state representative," he said. "I think it's a great way to represent people that you care about. It's a great platform to make a lot of changes in the state and get a lot of things done to better your community."
Gergely said he took Davis to Harrisburg and tried to give him a thorough political education.
"When he came to Harrisburg, I tried aggressively to set him up with as many people as I could to show both the elected side and the operational side," Gergely said. "From private industry to being a chief of staff, different committees. So if he made that choice he knows what lies ahead of him."
Black History Month is not only a time to reflect on the contributions of African-Americans, but to look to the future. Austin Davis said he does not know where he would be without politics, and has a message for today's youth and those who want to make a change in America.
"Volunteer on political campaigns. Volunteer at local community organizations. Volunteer for nonprofit groups," he said. "Those are easy ways to get involved and to get your voice heard ... I think you kind of have to stand up and say, 'I can't vote (yet), but I'm willing to go out there and I can get 10 people who do vote that think like I do.'"