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Hill Climbers: Politics Gave Ellison Staffer ‘Direction in Life’

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Stephen Lassiter, a legislative aide for Rep. Keith Ellison, spent two years teaching English and history at a high school in Palestine’s West Bank before moving to D.C. and finding a job on Capitol Hill.

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.

“I think that anybody who spends any time in the region will see that the stories we hear are true, but they certainly don’t set the standard for what life is like there,” he said. “You forget that the vast majority of what’s going on is regular life.”

He returned to the U.S. to help lead a critical language program at the State Department. And while he was here, he decided it was time to head to the “ground zero” of politics and policy: Capitol Hill.

Lassiter did the job dance known by many a Hill staffer: He spent two months interning with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), followed by an internship with then-Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), before he got a job as a staff assistant in Sen. Kay Hagan’s office.

He worked as a legislative correspondent for the North Carolina Democrat before moving in March to Ellison’s office as a legislative aide, where he works on issues such as foreign policy, defense, immigration and gay and lesbian rights.

The plan is to eventually return to school for a master’s of public policy. “There’s too much world out there,” he said.

“I don’t want to spend my entire career in Washington,” Lassiter said. “I’d like to get abroad at some point again. [Washington is] a great place to cut your teeth, but there’s more to life than just D.C.”

For now, he is happy where he is and wants to keep trying to make a difference.

“It’s empowering and encouraging in the sense that you can put some of your ideas into action,” Lassiter said.

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