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Stephen Lassiter likes to say that his political consciousness is thanks to the New York Times.
Well, that and his mother.
After the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, Lassiter’s mother started subscribing to the newspaper to “keep tabs on the Bush administration,” he said. She would complain about the policies to her husband, who eventually got tired of hearing it.
So she turned to her teenage son, then in high school. To keep up with what she was talking about, Lassiter started reading the paper regularly.
“That was an education in and of itself,” said Lassiter, now a legislative aide for Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
Lassiter said he was always aware of the issues affecting the world around him. As a Quaker in Greensboro, N.C., he often had discussions about social justice and progressive issues at meetings. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, his congregation would gather in the streets after meetings to protest the war.
As a teenager, he participated in Anytown, a diversity program run by the National Conference for Community & Justice.
He decided to study journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, because his father is a journalist. But all the politics and policy that he had learned about while growing up had left their mark, so he went for a double major, adding political science.
“It gave me direction in life,” he said. “I was less interested in becoming a banker on Wall Street after experiences like this.”
As someone who describes himself as “a child of 9/11,” Lassiter had always been interested in the Middle East.
“I was a junior in high school when it happened and didn’t have a full understanding of the circumstances as to why something like that might happen,” he said. “I was curious and wanted to learn more.”
He knew nothing about the region but thought he should, a feeling which drove him to study abroad in Jordan in 2005. After graduating in 2007, he returned to the Middle East and spent the next two years teaching English and history at a high school in Palestine’s West Bank. He had learned about the school from a family in his Quaker meeting.
Lassiter and his roommate bought a car, spending weekends in Tel Aviv and visiting Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Lebanon and Syria.