Taylor Berlin starts her day like thousands of other college students in the District: interning on Capitol Hill. But she ends it as an elected official, carrying out the duties of local government.
Berlin, a 20-year-old American University student, is one of five students in the city serving as a advisory neighborhood commissioner and recently was named treasurer, making her the youngest ANC officer in D.C. history.
Berlin, a summer intern in the office of Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), realized she needed to get more involved in domestic policy during the 2016 election.
“I had this unshakable belief that politics would always turn out all right,” said Berlin, who volunteered at a phone bank for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “After that election and seeing the results, I realized that phone banking and canvassing and donating to candidates wouldn’t be enough, and if I wanted to see politics return to normal, I had to become even more involved.”
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, her professor canceled class, and she went to the White House to protest. The following January, she went to the Women’s March, where “everywhere you looked it was just pink,” Berlin said, adding that she was struck by the number of people there.
A friend tried to convince Berlin to run for the ANC position that was earmarked for a student, but she initially said no — a couple of times. After meeting for coffee and learning the seat had been vacant for two years, however, she agreed to run.
Created through the Home Rule Act in 1974, advisory neighborhood commissions are nonpartisan groups of locally elected representatives who advise the District on a range of issues. Commissioners act as liaisons between residents and the city government. Each commissioner represents about 2,000 residents and serves an unpaid two-year term.
In the beginning of 2018, Berlin, who lives on campus, laid the groundwork to become a commissioner. She had one month to collect 25 signatures from students on campus who were registered D.C. voters.
Berlin stood outside freshman dorms to find students who hadn’t registered to vote in their home states and registered them to vote in the District, essentially creating her own voter pool, she said. At times, she would even try to convince students to run against her.
Berlin just wanted someone in the seat.
She turned in more than 50 signatures and was the only candidate. After a waiting period, she was in.
Now, she’s making an impact.
Berlin, from Trumbull, Conn., was sworn into office in March 2018, and by July, she had worked with the District Department of Transportation to put a signal on a crosswalk in the Ward Circle. The death of a freshman AU student nearby after he was hit by a car while crossing a street at night put pedestrian safety in the forefront of Berlin’s mind.
The next project on her to-do list is a food bank in Spring Valley, geared toward students who live off campus.
Last year, she worked with Vote16DC, an effort to lower the local voting age to 16, and testified on behalf of the campaign before the D.C. Council.
Noah Wills, a 2018 graduate of AU who has known Berlin since 2016, said that in the past, the ANC didn’t value student opinions because none served on the commission.
“Now we have a seat at the table,” said Wills, who lives in Fort Totten. “It’s not just a shadow seat where we don’t have a vote, but she can actually effect change.”
At times, AU students and the surrounding neighborhoods have had a rocky relationship.
“Part of that was that no one was advocating for students or representing students,” Berlin said. “And so, any narrative could be said about students, and there was no one to push back on that.”
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 3D02 Troy Kravitz echoed that sentiment. “One of my goals and some of my fellow commissioners, [we] wanted to improve the relationship between the neighborhoods and the university,” he said. “There’s a lot of distrust and a lot of antagonism.”
Berlin will speak up for her students, chairman Chuck Elkins said. At a June meeting, the university’s associate dean of students said AU had procedures for preventing and addressing sexual assault, according to minutes of the meeting. But Berlin argued that the school’s Title IX office wasn’t performing adequately. The associate dean offered to meet with Berlin to discuss the matter further.
To be eligible to run for advisory neighborhood commissioner, residents must live in their district for 60 days before the petitioning period in July, making it “darn near impossible,” for students who go home over summer break to be able to run, Kravitz said.
Elkins said Berlin has earned the trust of the other commissioners.
“We really don’t distinguish her from any other member of the commission,” Elkins said. “She just represents her constituents and does a good job of it.”
Elkins added that the commissioners will informally look to Berlin for guidance on parliamentary procedure — a topic Berlin said she loves.
At a June farmers market outreach event for Students for D.C. Statehood, clipboard in hand, Berlin asked a man who was holding a newly purchased plant to write a postcard to his member of Congress and seek support for D.C. statehood.
But she is still a student.
During the school year, Berlin often has 14-hour days — she stays caffeinated with cold brew — that start with 8 a.m. classes and end with late meetings and homework. She reserves Wednesday nights once a month for commission meetings. Other nights, she’ll mentor students at AU College Democrats or attend an Alpha Xi Delta event — two of the organizations she’s involved in.
During an ANC meeting that was pushing past midnight, Berlin had to leave early. Her economics final was at 8 a.m., and she needed to study.
Berlin will graduate a semester early in December with a bachelor’s degree in international studies. She plans to earn a master’s degree in public administration from AU. She wants to stay involved in local politics.
“But I do know that this city is so much more than what is happening on Capitol Hill, and there are so many opportunities and points of conflict in this city, and those go largely ignored because everyone is focusing on the federal,” Berlin said.