Boredom had set in.
The two sisters, ages 7 and 12, needed something to do. Every day they would leave school for their home in chilly Fort Collins, Colo., only to sit on the couch and watch television alone. They wanted to make better use of their time.
“Let’s go work for Obama,” the younger girl said, half-jokingly.
It was 2008, and Barack Obama was running for president for the first time.
Before they knew it, the sisters were working as volunteers on a presidential campaign, making phone calls on behalf of the future president.
The younger sister, in the second grade, found herself doing math homework between phone calls. The older sibling, meanwhile, was first learning what it was like to be involved in politics.
What started as a whimsical suggestion by her little sister, Taryn, has turned into a life centered on political activism for Teagan Sebba.
Sebba is the current president of Seton Hall’s Student Government Association. The senior political science major also interned at TurboVote – an online platform that assists in voter registration – over the summer in Brooklyn. Not even old enough to drink, Sebba has volunteered on three presidential campaigns – Obama’s first in 2008, his re-election in 2012 and, most recently, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign – in addition to local level work in Fort Collins and South Orange.
A Democrat, Sebba has committed herself to politics and spreading awareness. She knocks on doors, collects donations and disseminates information regarding voter registration and polling places.
Given the country’s political divide, especially during this election cycle, Sebba’s job is not always easy. She’s had a few doors slammed shut in her face.
“There was one woman who told me, ‘You should do more research. You don’t know what you’re talking about. [Clinton’s] not all you think she is.’ I was like, ‘You think I haven’t done the research?’ If I’m spending my Saturdays knocking on doors I think I’m pretty set. You can’t sway me,” Sebba said. “People on the phone are a lot meaner because you don’t see the face.”
While the people she encounters are not always the friendliest, Sebba has yet to waver. She has a legacy to carry on.
It was Jim O’Rorke, Sebba’s grandfather, who fostered her political drive. A soldier for the United States Army in World War II, O’Rorke spent roughly four years as a prisoner of war. Japanese forces did not release him until the global conflict ended in 1945.
Following his service, O’Rorke went to work for the State Department. His job was to try and spread democracy to countries like Honduras, Panama and Guatemala.
Sebba explained what her “best friend” taught her and her sister.
“He really instilled in us that you can’t take democracy for granted,” she said. “He put his life on the line to fight for our democracy and other countries’ democracy.”
Both sisters inherited that same outlook. Now 15, Taryn said her mother, Susan, also helped make her and her sister more appreciative of democracy and the world they live in.
“She never sheltered us,” Taryn said. “So often parents want to show the world to their children in the most beautiful, sing-songy type of way, but that’s not how things are. She never babied us and she definitely exposed us to the world and let us watch the news. Because of that, it made us realize how malleable our futures are and how we can really change the world. Anyone can create policies, anyone can get involved in politics as long as you have passion for it and as long as you’re driven.”
Sebba may not be traveling to foreign countries as her grandfather did, but she certainly wants to be involved. It’s why she volunteers on campaigns, heads the SGA and applies for internships that allow her to be politically active. For her, it is a way to give back.
“I feel like Teagan was born with this sense of responsibility of wanting to do whatever she can to help other people that might not be as fortunate as her to make their lives better. She has this inherent responsibility,” said Jennifer Williams, vice chair of the Larimer County Democratic Party in Colorado, who has supervised Sebba on the campaign trail. “It seems like she really lives the Gandhi quote, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ Anytime you throw anything at Teagan she’s willing to take it on.”
Sometimes, Sebba goes the extra mile. This year, for Halloween, she dressed up as TurboVote, simply hanging a sign with the company’s logo around her neck.
“Her middle name on Facebook is TurboVote,” SGA secretary Christina Simon exclaimed.
“She wants people to be voting. She wants people to be active and informed,” added SGA vice president Andrew Aguilera. “She’s always been so enthusiastic.”
As a result of her commitment, Sebba has gotten to meet a couple of big-name politicians.
This past summer she met Secretary Clinton in Newark. Sebba had to hop a fence, but she was able to make some small talk and snap a selfie with the presidential hopeful.
The summer before that, she interned at the Clinton Foundation’s Harlem office, which doubled as Bill Clinton’s personal work space. She remembers not being on her A-game when she got the opportunity to talk with the former president.
“I froze. I walked up. ‘Hi,’” Sebba recalled in an awkward tone. “He was like, ‘Where are you from?’ and I was like, ‘A small town in Colorado.’”
Sebba said Clinton responded by saying he felt he knew the United States pretty well. She followed up, saying her hometown was north of Denver. Clinton wanted a name, though. Finally, Sebba told him she was from Fort Collins.
When Clinton said he knew where that was, Sebba said, “Cool” before walking away. That was the end of the conversation.
It was not the first time she was “star struck.”
The first time was when she got to meet Barack Obama. She was not worried about herself, though. Instead, she was focused on her grandfather, who wanted nothing more than to meet the president.
It was October 2012, and Obama had a rally planned in Colorado, a swing state. Sebba wrote to every senator and state representative she could think of, hoping someone could pull some strings. Finally, State Sen. John Kefalas gave up his own VIP tickets for the two.
“He’s such a role model because what a selfless – he gave up his spot for us,” Sebba said, still moved by the gesture.
As Obama wrapped up his speech, Sebba recalled him making a beeline for the crowd. The Commander-in-Chief not only knew Sebba and O’Rorke were there to meet him – he actively sought them out.
Sebba remembered O’Rorke being cool and collected, offering a firm handshake before sharing a few jokes with the president. She just looked on, unsure of what to say. When it came time to part ways, Obama thanked O’Rorke for his service.
“Obama taking the time out,” Sebba said, “made my grandpa’s whole life.”
Just a few months later Obama secured his second term. O’Rorke passed away shortly after that, and a few months later, Sebba went off to college.
It is here at Seton Hall that Sebba first got involved with school government. She had never served in high school, instead donating her time to the campaign trail.
She became president of SGA during the second semester of her sophomore year. She has held the title ever since.
“She bleeds SGA,” Aguilera said.
Now, she sees a career in politics ahead of her. So do others.
“If she decides to ever run for office she can be very successful,” said Maggie Bach, Assistant Dean of Students for Leadership Development and SGA adviser. “Whatever she wants to do she’ll be successful at.”
Sebba is not quite sure what awaits her once she graduates. Law school is a possibility, but she sees herself in an elected office sooner or later. She ultimately wants a position where she is still surrounded by and working for the people. Any higher up than governor and she feels she may lose touch.
“I want to stay with people,” she said. “Once you start commuting to D.C. you get detached from the whole reason you’re in office.”
Others, though, have much higher aspirations for Sebba.
“President of the United States,” her sister Taryn said without a second’s hesitation. “I don’t think she’s necessarily spoken about it, but she would be a really amazing president. At the end of the day she wants to help people, she wants to better our country, she wants to continue working hard, continue to see advancements for everyone.”
The younger sister is right – Sebba has not thought about such lofty goals just yet. She doesn’t know exactly where she will end up in politics, but she knows she wants to make a difference.
She knows she wants to do better.
“I see these representatives who use [politics] as a career,” Sebba said. “They don’t give back and they’re kind of in it for themselves. I could do better. I could do so much better. I want to help people and I think my avenue for that is elected office.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.