Recent graduate Elijah Braswell serving as Valley Park alderman while eyeing law school

Elijah Braswell stands in front of Valley Park City Hall

Elijah Braswell has been serving as a member of the Valley Park Board of Alderman since his election in April. He graduated from UMSL with a bachelor’s degree in history in May. (Photo courtesy of Elijah Braswell)

Elijah Braswell has been using much of his free time since graduating from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in May to study for the LSAT with the hope of being accepted and enrolling in law school in the spring semester.

Braswell’s also been helping make laws as the youngest alderman in his hometown of Valley Park, Missouri, in at least 60 years.

The 24-year-old was elected to the eight-person Board of Aldermen in April, just over a month before he completed his bachelor’s degree in history at UMSL. He’s one of two representatives of Ward 4 and has been serving on the Police Committee and Public Works Committee.

“It’s been very interesting,” Braswell said of his brief time in public service. “It’s as interesting on the inside as it is just watching from the seats. It’s fun. It’s not as formal as it seems when everybody’s sitting up at the dais. The mayor is friendly with everybody. The other aldermen – they casually debate and casually talk about all the different issues.

“I said this going in that I may not have the most experience on all the issues, but that’s not why I ran. My goal was simply to represent 1/8 of the people, as one of eight aldermen, and figure out what those people who voted for me want.”

Braswell’s interest in municipal government began when he was still a high school student and was tasked with discussing the importance of local government for a speech and debate competition. As part of his preparation, he began attending meetings of the Board of Aldermen.

Speech and debate was one of the activities Braswell found to participate in while homeschooled because of the accessibility challenges he faced with kyphosis, a spinal disorder he was born with that leads to an excessive curve of the spine, which creates an abnormal rounding of the upper back. He used a wheelchair for a while when he was younger, though he’s undergone 20 surgeries to straighten his spine and help stretch the muscles in his body so that he can stand and walk. He’ll soon undergo another surgery intended to straighten his hips.

Braswell joined a StoaUSA, a national high school and junior high speech and debate organization serving homeschooling families. He competed in Lincoln-Douglas style debates around the country, in places such as Tennessee and California, and qualified for a national competition.

“I wasn’t very politically interested until I started speech and debate,” Braswell said. “I loved learning about politics, learning about history. I loved using historical facts and historical events to reinforce speech and debate points. I just loved debating values like justice against life and all these different concepts, and we had some really unique and interesting resolutions.

“Sometimes they would be very modern and about modern issues. Other times, they would be more abstract and open-ended – like freedom of speech versus community moral standards.”

It became a passion for Braswell, though he wasn’t sure where it would lead him when he completed high school and enrolled at St. Louis Community College–Meramec to pursue his associate degree.

Affordability had pushed him to start at Meramec, and it was also a big factor when he made the decision to transfer to UMSL to complete his bachelor’s degree.

“It was the best option economically,” he said. “I really enjoyed the UMSL campus. I had initially intended to go with a communications degree after graduating with a general transfer degree from Meramec, but I decided the history degree was more aligned with my interests from speech and debate.”

He’d also started considering the possibility of law school and thought it would give him a good base of knowledge with which to pursue that path.

Braswell found the faculty members in the Department of History to be very welcoming when he attended a meet-and-greet for prospective students, and that feeling only deepened when he joined the department.

Among his favorite courses was “Reacting to the Past,” taught by Associate Professor Priscilla Dowden-White, which aims to cover periods of history in which important ideas were fiercely debated. In it, each student adopts the persona of a historical figure who lived during the era and is tasked with debating the issues and defending the stances as that figure did during the period. They’re even encouraged to wear period dress to enhance the experience.

Braswell represented Founding Father James Madison in the class and took care to create his costume. At the same time, he applied for an internship in the history department’s office and was given the chance to interview for the position right after the class ended one day. He showed up to meet with  Laura Westhoff, professor and department chair, while looking like the fourth president of the United States. Perhaps it was no surprise he got the job.

In addition to working in the history department office, Braswell became actively involved in the History Club and looked forward to participating in events such as historical baking contests.

“All the history department events were great,” Braswell said. “Every week or every two during the school year, they had a coffee meet-and-greet with the faculty. Since it’s such a small, tight-knit group, that was pretty great. We just talked about anything and everything historical.”

Like many of his peers at UMSL, he maintained his strong interest in contemporary civic issues as well. The university has traditionally scored highly in the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement conducted by Tufts University and has been recognized as a “Voter Friendly Campus.”

Earlier this year, Braswell made the decision to do more than vote and put his name on the local ballot in Valley Park. He wound up winning his race with nearly 55% of the vote.

“It wasn’t a highly contested position, but I also believed there was a lot the city could do better,” said Braswell, who aims to modernize Valley Park’s website and ensure it’s updated more regularly. “Another reason I ran is I wanted to be more representative. I want and I have been taking polls and trying to be a pure representative for any major issues, rather than voting in the meetings just on a basis of what I want or what I think is best.”

Braswell’s short time in municipal government might influence his future academic pursuits. He’s long been interested in constitutional law but is now also thinking about focusing on municipal or contract law in law school.

He encourages other students to pay attention to local government.

“Consider going to meetings, vote for sure in every election they can and consider running,” he said. “Consider the different positions that are open. Consider the elected and unelected positions and how they’re nominated because there’s a lot of opportunity there that people assume you have to be older for or assume you have to have been part of your whole life. That’s not necessarily true. There’s a lot of need for younger people in it.”

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