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After Atlanta school board race, Emory sophomore looks to future

When Royce Mann told his political science class he was running for office, some weren’t sure he was serious. With the citywide race now behind him, Mann plans to continue his efforts to engage and energize young voters. Photo courtesy of Mann.

Royce Mann doesn’t like to sit still. Days after he came up short in securing a spot in the runoff for a seat on the Atlanta Board of Education — and after antibiotics conquered a nasty sore throat — the Emory University sophomore was out canvassing for two Atlanta City Council candidates vying for wins in their runoffs later this month.

He and his supporters are also taking steps toward forming a nonprofit to focus on reversing the trend of abysmal youth voter turnout at local elections. Recruiting “the most engaged and passionate” high school and college-aged people to run for office, such as school boards, would also be a priority for the new group. 

“We want to energize those new voters around candidates their own age,” Mann says.

“We’re the future, but we are also the present,” he continues. “And if we want to create the best future for our generation and generations to come then we have to have young folks at the table.”

Mann, an Atlanta native and Atlanta Public Schools graduate, turned 20 five days before Election Day on Nov. 2. He took the semester off from Emory to focus on his campaign but is resuming classes in the spring.

Talking to voters and participating in forums were energizing and educational, Mann says. The experience continues an already impressive journey of social and political activism. 

In 2016, as Black Lives Matters protesters marched in cities across the country, a video of Mann performing his slam poem “White Boy Privilege” went viral. He was 14, an eighth grader at The Paideia School, and was inspired to write the piece after taking a course called “Class, Race and Gender.”

“Dear everyone who isn’t a middle or upper-class white boy, I’m sorry,” he says in the piece. “I have started life on the top of the ladder while you were born on the first rung.” 

The poem led to invitations to speak at conferences and serve on panels across the country, including an invitation to the Obama Foundation Summit.

He met numerous accomplished organizers and political leaders who gave him confidence in his voice to spur change. He realized he and other young people could have an impact on their communities and the world.

“The biggest lie that adults have been telling us isn't about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny,” Mann says. “It's that we have to wait to have political power and to really make change. 

“If I could have any sort of impact with my words, then the possibilities were endless if I would put my actions behind them.”

Advocating for change

Mann soon told his family he was done with private school. He wanted to finish his high school years at Grady High School.

“He was very specific about why he wanted to do so — it was about diversity,” says his mother, Sheri Mann Stewart.

But Mann wasn’t prepared for the segregation he saw when he entered the Midtown school. Despite the school’s diversity, it was as if there were two different schools under one roof, most visible in the cafeteria during lunchtime, he says. 

“I simultaneously fell in love with APS and fell desperately into this sense of feeling a responsibility to try and fix the things I saw,” Mann says.

He became involved in student government, started a chapter of Amnesty International and was appointed by the principal to be the student member of the local school governance panel.

He helped lead the student movement to successfully rename Grady High School to what is now Midtown High School. He was a lead organizer of the Atlanta March for Our Lives rally. 

Mann interned with the Board of Education and was appointed to the school district’s LGBTQ+ task force. He became heavily invested in finding a way to get APS student representation on the Board of Education and was also part of Georgia’s high-profile U.S. Senate races as co-founder of Students for Ossoff and Warnock.

‘A model of what’s possible’

Mann was not sure what college he wanted to attend and had offers from other universities across the country. He chose to stay in his hometown and go to Emory to study political science after being awarded the university’s prestigious Woodruff Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship

The bonus — as an Emory student, he knew he would run for a seat on the Atlanta Board of Education on a platform of ending segregation, ensuring equity for all students and prioritizing culturally relevant curriculum.

Mann garnered nearly 10,000 votes in the election. He finished fourth out of a field of five for the open, citywide seat. Turnout was disappointing, he acknowledges. But he says many young people reached out to him to tell him they were inspired by his campaign.

He hasn’t ruled out a future run for public office but is not sure politics is the direction he wants to take after he graduates from Emory. The values of community service and civic engagement are traits his parents have instilled in him, no matter what career path he may pursue, he explains. 

“I'm definitely interested in the advocacy side of things and doing work with different nonprofit groups,” he says.

Public education is likely to remain a passion and teaching is a possibility. It’s in public schools where he sees the best opportunities to address society’s inequities.

“Education is … the great equalizer,’” he says, quoting Horace Mann (no relation), the politician and education reformer who advocated for American public education in the 1800s.

“And it can be, but when we have students coming into the same school from really diverse parts of the city and then we continue to uphold these inequities by segregating students across racial and economic lines, it’s clearly not being the great equalizer.”

Michael Leo Owens, associate professor of political science, taught Mann in his Political Science 367 Urban Politics course. The student’s election loss was not surprising, Owens says, because voters tend to be biased against young people and running a citywide campaign is difficult for even the most experienced politicians. 

But Mann’s knowledge of and involvement in local politics is a rarity among undergraduates. When Mann announced over Zoom during class this spring that he was running for school board, Owens says he and the other students were unsure at first if he was serious. 

“But, yes, he was for real,” Owens says. “Most undergraduates don't pay any attention to local politics. So to have a young adult make it very plain that they're serious about running for local office makes them an outlier.” 

Edmund Goode is Mann’s primary academic advisor as part of the Emory College Woodruff Scholars Program. 

“The fact that he chose Emory is actually important because I think Atlanta really matters to him,” Goode says. “It is a theme that just sort of threads its way through everything he does.” 

He knows Mann is disappointed he didn’t win the election, but as an educator, Goode believes Mann’s willingness to put himself out there will contribute to his success and will impress upon his peers that they can also become involved to make change.

“The courageousness of what he did, the boldness, this is what we saw in Royce,” Goode says. “He is a model of what's possible. He is part of this program’s legacy of creating a better community.”

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