Success hasn’t come easy for Elijah Rusk. Born in South Phoenix, Rusk was rescued from an unhealthy family situation by his grandparents.
But now the teen is making an impact in Arizona. The 17-year-old Youngker High School senior —who is taking dual-enrollment classes through Estrella Mountain Community College—hopes to go beyond that.
“Gen Z, you’re either with us or you’re against us,” he said. “We’re going to create positive change no matter what. If what you’re saying aligns with what we’re saying, then you can join us in our (mission). If it doesn’t, then get out of our way. But almost never—at least currently—does party play into that. Party shouldn’t play into it.”
Rusk’s recent efforts include working with State Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai (D-AZ) on formulating a bipartisan bill that, if enacted, would effectuate recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in lieu of Columbus Day in Arizona.
“The objective of the proposal is to officially celebrate, honor, as well as commemorate the profound contributions made by indigenous people to our state and nation, on a date that has been customarily utilized for something that predominately counters and negates such.
“My associates and I founded an initiative that is the principal third-party entity progressing the bill. I am the initiative’s vice president.”
Rusk got his start with the Buckeye Youth Council, after meeting the city’s mayor, Jackie Meck, through a poetry competition.
After failing to make the baseball team, Rusk didn’t balk and soon looked forward to his next opportunity: Buckeye Elementary School District’s poetry slam. Students were asked to recite one of their favorite poems along with one they wrote in front of Buckeye community leaders including Meck. Rusk was quick to raise his hand to go first.
He walked up to the mic and it wasn’t working. Despite that, Rusk perfectly recited “Fiddle Dee Dee” by Eugene Field, and then his poem, “Me and My Tree,” both from memory.
“It all started out with the poetry,” Rusk said.
Rusk left an impression on Meck and other community leaders.
“Elijah is an exceptional young man,” Meck said. “He is dedicated to his community at the city, state and national level. While serving on the Buckeye Youth Council, he represented the city at the National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., in 2017, and was part of the team that took second place in ASU’s DemocraSeed Showcase in 2018. He has a great future ahead of him and our community will benefit from his drive and dedication.”
Last year, Rusk spent his summer break completing the Valley Leadership Youth 2019 program, an innovative and experiential workshop series designed to allow youth to gain a deep understanding of the significance of philanthropy and empower them to lead.
“As part of the program, our participant collective watched presentations given by local nonprofit organizations that provide services for Arizona’s immigrants, refugees, as well as Latinx peoples,” he said.
“Our cohort was then allotted $6,000 to divide between the organizations. I advocated for and spearheaded the $2,000 grant to Living United for Change in Arizona and the Arizona Center for Empowerment, associated organizations that were initially going to receive far less. A few fellow participants and I presented a giant check for $2,000 to LUCHA and ACE at the program’s conclusion ceremony.”
Rusk is passionate about preventing opioid abuse. As a two-term member of the state’s Governor’s Youth Commission, he served on its substance abuse commission. During his second term, he established a major partnership between the substance abuse committee and ASU involving public service announcements about addiction. He specifically focuses on opioids and drop-off points.
“Unused opioids can cause former addicts to relapse just at the sight of something like that,” he said.
Rusk met with ASU officials, who agreed to provide unlimited funding for the series of PSAs.
“As a youth, it’s very rare to have people take you seriously,” he said. “ASU took our commission seriously from the start. Dr. James Rund added to each idea. It was an experience that stuck with me. It was one of my first serious business meetings.”
Dr. Karen Moses, who is the director of ASU Wellness and Health Promotion, and a member of the ASU Health Services’ executive team, raved about Rusk.
“Elijah Rusk is dedicated to preventing the suffering caused through prescription drug and subsequent opioid abuse,” Moses said.
“His focus is on raising awareness of the harms of substance use, on education, and on preventing substance abuse. Elijah’s energy to end the opioid epidemic is contagious.”
Rusk continued to work with ASU last summer as part of its Civic Leadership Institute, a one-week, intensive residential seminar for rising sophomores, juniors and seniors hosted by ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.
He focused on Abraham Lincoln and American Principles so he could explore the fundamental American principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, such as liberty, equality, constitutionalism and democracy.
Finding a place
His grandparents raised him and helped him through problems he had with his parents. A big part of Rusk’s life is his grandfather, Carl Snodgrass.
“I was adopted by my grandparents,” he said. “Now I live with them and they’re upper-middle class. I’ve seen poverty, too, though, with my mom. I can form opinions that are educated because I have this home, but I have these other personal connections.”
Rusk’s dream is to attend an Ivy League school, ASU or the University of Chicago.
“I’ve already achieved local, statewide and national programs, I’ll be going out for a couple of international positions with the help of a couple of my mentors. I’m trying to step up my game, so it doesn’t look like I’ve faded in terms of my involvement.”