Charles Adkins ‘20 is not your average college student. At 22, he has been deeply involved in politics since 2014, when he worked as an intern for the city of Mukilteo. Since then he has worked on political campaigns, racked up three years of lobbying experience, and helped pass several significant bills through the state legislature. Now he is the vice president of federal affairs for the Washington Student Association. But getting where he is today has not been easy.
A member of the Yurok Tribe, Adkins grew up watching his community’s land leased to lumber companies by the federal government—a consequence of the Dawes Act of 1887. This, along with stories he heard from his grandfather, inspired him to get involved in politics.
“He would always talk about how great FDR was, how things used to be so much better under the New Deal, and how they actually cared about Native American tribes,” said Adkins. “I got involved learning about that stuff.”
While the desire to make a difference was instilled in him at a young age, hardships Adkins faced as a teen made that difficult. This began when his parents sent him to boarding school for ninth grade. The school was one of the few remaining institutions established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the late 19th century to assimilate Native American children.
“It really felt like prison at times, never mind the feeling of being at a location that had been used by the federal government to commit cultural genocide,” said Adkins. “That was very frustrating to go through.”
When he returned home for the summer, Adkins was determined not to return to the school. But after a family argument ended with his father being arrested, his parents demanded that he do so. “I decided I would rather be homeless than go back,” he said.
Adkins spent the next few months bouncing between friends’ houses before making his way to the Cocoon House, a youth homeless shelter in Everett, Washington. After that he spent a year and a half moving again between friends’ homes. Nevertheless, he was named vice president of the Washington State High School Democrats in 2015, volunteered with the Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016, and was selected to be a national delegate that summer.
By the time he entered college, Adkins had a clear idea of what he wanted in a school. “I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to go a school where I was going to be one of 200 in a classroom having a lecture about political science,” he said.
Adkins found what he was looking for at Evergreen. He wasted no time getting involved on campus, becoming the director of legislative affairs for the Geoduck Student Union in his first year. He would hold that position for two additional years, serving as the school’s primary student lobbyist and amassing a wealth of legislative experience in the process.
“I learned far more about the legislative process from my first year than I think I ever would have at a traditional four-year university,” said Adkins. “It’s entirely different when you hear about how a bill becomes a law versus having to push a bill to be a law.”
During his time as a lobbyist, much of Adkins’ work has focused on helping young people escape from poverty and homelessness. “A lot of the time it’s not that they don’t succeed because they don’t want it enough. It’s that they don’t succeed because there are not enough tools out there,” he said.
On a wall in his bedroom, Adkins keeps pictures from bill signings. One such photograph, taken in May, shows Governor Jay Inslee signing Senate Bill 5800. That bill, which Adkins helped draft in 2017, establishes a pilot program at four Washington colleges which will provide important resources to homeless students and students who were in foster care when they graduated high school.
“Standing next to the governor and getting a pen from him that he signed it with, those are really great experiences to see how you can so easily make changes in your world, even coming from a disadvantaged background like myself,” said Adkins.
Of all the bills he’s been involved with, Adkins is perhaps most proud of his work on House Bill 2158, a major higher-education bill passed earlier this year. He worked personally to ensure that the bill allowed native tribes to contribute to the Washington State Opportunities Scholarship. He believes this will be “a major gamechanger for tribes,” since it essentially doubles the money available to them for scholarships.
Adkins dreams of one day being a state representative and hopes to become a role model for young people by proving to them that it is indeed possible to enact positive change in the world.
“I think a large part of it is needing to realize that you have power,” said Adkins. “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s really about who shows up and does these things.”