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Respect the Innovative Hustle that Drove Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Campaign

By S. Craig Watkins

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at SXSW 2019
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at SXSW 2019. Photo credit: nrkbeta

When the media covered New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in Congress, they focused on the demographics of her voter base. That’s part of the picture. Other complex details of her grassroots campaign were at play—mainly the way she leveraged such digital platforms as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to connect with the public. She’s part of the trend of millennials who are building a creative, entrepreneurial, and civically engaged innovation economy. S. Craig Watkins outlines her rise in this excerpt from his book Don’t Knock the Hustle: Young Creatives, Tech Ingenuity, and the Making of a New Innovation Economy.


For more than a year Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had been waiting for this precise moment: 8:59 p.m., June 26, 2018. That was when the polls in her Democratic Party primary contest against incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s Fourteenth District would start to close and the final votes would be tallied. Ocasio-Cortez had campaigned for ten months to win an election that virtually nobody thought she could win. That morning her staff still did not know where they would hold her watch party. It was yet another sign of what a long shot her campaign was. They finally settled on a billiards hall in the Bronx.

On the way to the watch party Ocasio-Cortez was so nervous that she did something out of character for a twenty-eight-year-old: she turned off her phone, refusing to check any of the polls or social media chatter. “Everybody in the car we were in was so nervous,” she said later. “We were just like, ‘Don’t check it, don’t check.’”

Ocasio-Cortez had already convinced herself that even if she lost the election, she and the legion of supporters her campaign had ignited to get involved had already won. In order to force a primary, they’d needed 1,250 signatures. She and her supporters easily exceeded that figure, generating more than 5,000 signatures in the cold and snow of wintertime in New York City to force the Fourteenth District’s first primary in fourteen years. On the day of the election, she thanked her supporters via her primary communication platform, Twitter (@Ocasio2018): “No matter who the vote is for, every single vote cast today is ours—because we made this election happen.”

The young self-described “girl from the Bronx” was not just challenging Crowley. She was practically taking on New York’s entire Democratic Party machine. During the campaign her opponent outspent her thirteen-to-one and received endorsements from New York State power brokers like US senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo. “Lots of these folks were mad that I didn’t ask for permission to run, that I also was not using the traditional structures of power in New York City to try to run,” she said. “In my opinion, if women and gender-expanding people want to run for office, we can’t knock on anybody’s doors. We have to build our own house.”

As her car pulled up to the watch party, she noticed a few reporters rushing into the billiards hall. She did not know what was happening, but she sensed something was going on. When she saw one reporter running—“a big dude,” she recalled—Ocasio-Cortez rushed out of the car. “I just started running,” she said. “I literally ran and I busted through the doors.”

The energy was high inside the billiards hall. A young female reporter from NY1, a local cable news station, grabbed the candidate for a quick interview. As Ocasio-Cortez was talking with her, she looked up at a television monitor. Suddenly, her eyes opened wide, and she let out an uncontrolled scream, covering her mouth with both her hands to conceal what can only be described as equal parts shock and elation. The results were in. She had beaten the incumbent and one of the most connected politicians in New York. In true social media fashion, the video went viral via Twitter, Facebook, and several online news outlets the next day marked with the caption “The Moment You Realize You Just Won.”

The Rise of Young Creatives and the New Innovation Economy

Ocasio-Cortez reflects the rise of young creatives—artists, designers, media makers, techies, educators, civic leaders, political activists, social entrepreneurs—who are building a new innovation economy in the face of unprecedented social, technological, and economic change. The new innovation economy is a dynamic sphere of creative, entrepreneurial, and civic activity that expands how we think about innovation in three important ways. First, it expands whom we think of as innovators. Whereas innovation hubs like Silicon Valley tend to be homogeneous—that is, white and male—women, African Americans, and activists in sectors like tech and education are among the principal actors in the new innovation economy.

Second, the new innovation economy expands what is defined as innovation. This economy is embodied by enterprises to, for example, design better STEM learning opportunities for low-opportunity youth, mobilize new modes of political activism through savvy engagement with social media, make independently produced games, or create new forms of television and film that reflect sensibilities traditionally ignored by Hollywood.

Third, in this economy young creatives expand innovation into unconventional spaces. The new innovation economy is active in the underserved neighborhoods of Detroit, despite the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history and a downtown-based gentrification machine that neglects the city’s Black residents. Innovation is happening in old buildings that offer cheap rent and plenty of opportunities for young creatives to connect, collaborate, and make things. The new innovation economy is also thriving across digital platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and SoundCloud. These physical and virtual spaces make up what I call “the innovation labs of tomorrow.”

Ocasio-Cortez took full advantage of such unconventional spaces during her campaign. Two months before the primary election date, she was still holding fundraisers on Facebook Live to raise money to find space for her campaign staff. Her team used her tiny apartment while also sharing a back room with a livery cab company to conduct her campaign for the US House of Representatives.

Ocasio-Cortez’s story is powerful not because it is unique but because it is universal and parallels the story of many young creatives nowadays. Her run for Congress was a classic side hustle. She was pursuing her passion project—political office—with very few traditional resources and alongside a string of gigs that paid her bills.

“I started this race, nine, ten months ago. I was working in education, and I was working in a restaurant, and I started this race out of a paper bag. I had fliers and clipboards, and it really was nonstop knocking doors and talking to the community,” Ocasio-Cortez told Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe the day after her primary victory.

The political neophyte had no money or name recognition. She did not come from a political dynasty. She had no paid staff. Ocasio-Cortez did not even have money to run any media advertisements. After bartending shifts, she would attend meetings, small gatherings in the homes of her constituents, and modest fundraising parties as part of her bare-bones campaign.

Like so many young creatives, rather than focus on what she did not have, Ocasio-Cortez focused on what she did have. And that was tenacity, tech savvy, a vibrant social network, and the recognition that people like her have to build the world they want to live in. Faced with an economy in which long-term employment and a secure economic future is less than certain, many young people are electing to pursue a different and more creative entrepreneurial path. Among the young creatives I have met, the goal is not to pursue wealth or celebrity but rather dignity and opportunity. A generation ago, choosing to build your own future would have felt unnecessarily risky, but not for today’s young creatives.

This was certainly the case with Ocasio-Cortez. For her and many other young people, the 2016 presidential election was a turning point. She launched a GoFundMe campaign on December 18, 2016, to raise money to drive to Standing Rock to support activists on the ground. The $1,000 she raised was used to offer Standing Rock activists supplies, such as bundles of wood, cots, and subzero sleeping bags. She and two friends hopped in an old Subaru and drove more than 1,600 miles to the heartland. Along the way, they stopped and spoke with people in Ohio and Indiana. They also visited Flint, Michigan, the site of one of the worst water crises in US history. Eventually, they made their way to Standing Rock.

The journey was a personal transformation for Ocasio-Cortez. Each of these states and their respective struggles were unique, but they had something in common: they comprised everyday working-class people who were fighting valiantly just to be treated with dignity in the face of powerful corporate and political interests. Ocasio-Cortez found resolve in the face of daunting circumstances. “I felt like at this point we have nothing to lose. And even in a race that just seemed impossible . . . Even on long odds, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” she recalled.

Her reflections remind me of the many young creatives I met during the course of my research for this book. In the face of dwindling employment prospects, economic uncertainty, and widening inequality, many have decided to pursue a side hustle, entrepreneurial ambition, or civic endeavor. Many have arrived at a similar conclusion: building their own future is not nearly as risky as it may have once been. Like Ocasio-Cortez, they feel they have nothing to lose.


About the Author 

S. Craig Watkins studies young people’s social and digital media behaviors. He is a Professor at the University of Texas, Austin and the author of three books, including The Young and the Digital: What Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future and Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Watkins is a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network, where he continues his research about young people and dynamic innovation ecologies. He lives in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @scraigwatkins