Marcelas Owens seemed like a typical 10-year-old boy back in 2010. He was good at school and obsessed with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). He had WWE action figures and tickets to a WWE match at Key Arena.
But he didn’t go, because Marcelas Owens wasn’t really a typical 10-year-old boy. He gave the tickets to a friend because he was needed in Washington, D.C. Activists were converging on the capitol to rally, as lawmakers were on the cusp of passing the Affordable Care Act, which would expand Medicaid to people who did not have health care.
Since 2007, Owens has been an activist calling for health care reform through the Washington Community Action Network (or Washington CAN). Owens became an activist after his unemployed and uninsured mother, Tifanny, died of complications related to pulmonary hypertension.
Owens’ story took off in D.C. He had more than 100 interviews with television, radio, online and print news outlets to share his story and send the message that no child should go through what he and his two younger sisters did, losing their mother at a young age because she had no health care.
The story resonated with the media and eventually reached the White House. Soon after the Affordable Care Act passed, White House staff called Owens and his grandmother, Gina, to come out for the signing. While Obama used a series of commemorative pens to sign the bill into law, Owens was standing right there in a shirt and tie.
The story of the Affordable Care Act reached beyond President Obama and a divisive Congress. It started years before Obama took office with activists like Owens. So it’s only appropriate that when Obama signed the bill into law five years ago, Owens became the face of health care reform and a living memorial to his mother, who had also advocated for health care reform before she died.
When Owens was little, he and his mother were homeless for a time, living off wages from a fast-food job and struggling to get by. Today he’s 16, excelling in school and fresh off a job as a page in the Washington State Legislature, supporting Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.
The Washington Legislature brings on hundreds of pages every year. They are ages 14 to 16 and serve week-long stints supporting lawmakers in Olympia. They deliver documentation around the state capitol building and surrounding offices and are the only people other than lawmakers allowed on the House and Senate floor during hearings.
Jayapal said she was thrilled to bring Owens to Olympia. She has been familiar with his activism for years and was eager to bring him on. Owens took to activism quickly and at a young age, which impressed Jayapal.
“He was young and yet he was just doing something we hope everybody, no matter what age you are does, which is fighting for what you believe in,” Jayapal said.
Mauricio Ayon, political director at Washington CAN, helped Owens apply for the position based on his experience as a community activist — and the fact that this is the last year Owens is eligible to join.
“He’s a 16-year-old boy that has interests: girls, math, computer science,” Ayon said. “He also grew up in the movement, so he understands the elements of social justice and racial equity.”
An activist is born
Owens became interested in activism after seeing a photo of his mother, who died at age 27 in 2007. Gina was showing him pictures of Tifanny during the memorial service.
Owens saw a photo of Tifanny wearing a dark tan shirt and sitting at a table with a microphone in front of her at a hearing room in Olympia.
“At first I was just interested in what was happening,” Owens said. “It seemed like she was an important person.”
That’s when he learned that Tifanny had spent years working with Washington can on health care reform. As a manager of a fast-food restaurant, she received health care benefits but her employees didn’t, which she thought was wrong.
In 2006, Tifanny became sick. She would become nauseated and vomit, often coughing up blood. She couldn’t make it to work and lost her job, and therefore her health insurance, due to the absences.
Owens was inspired and went to his grandmother.
“He said, ‘Grandma, I think mom would want me to finish her work,’” Gina said. “He doesn’t want to see any other kids lose their parents because they don’t have health care.”
By 2009, Owens had been speaking at events and rallies, sharing his story. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, heard his story at a Mothers Day march for health care reform in Seattle. She shared the story on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C.
Owens visited Washington, D.C., twice in 2010: First to rally for the passage of the Affordable Care Act and again to watch President Barack Obama sign the bill into law.
Owens and Gina took a red-eye flight to D.C. for the signing. They left his shirt and tie behind, so White House staffers bought him a new one.
Stepping out of the spotlight
Owens spent a lot of time in the spotlight. This March he was interviewed by msnbc to discuss the five-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
Owens wants to keep up that work with Washington CAN, but he said other people have stories to tell now, and it’s their turn at the microphone.
“I could go out and speak out on things,” Owens said. “I think it’s better to have someone directly affected by it lead that.”
In the meantime, he’s focused on school and spends his spare time writing down rap lyrics in a notebook. Like anything Owens does, it all goes back to social justice.
“I have some songs about people accepting themselves, being cool with themselves in their own mind,” Owens said. “I think that’s a big part of everything.”
It’s not just words on paper, but the way Owens has lived out the last eight years of his life.
Marcelas Owens' Chronology
1999: Marcelas Owens is born
2000: Tifanny secures job in fast food
2005: Tifanny starts advocacy for health care for everyone. She receives health care benefits as a manager at a fast food chain but her employees do not.
2006: Tifanny becomes sick.
2006: Tifanny is let go from her job in November because she cannot make it into work due to the illness.
2007: Tifanny dies due to complications from pulmonary hypertension.
2007: Marcelas tells his grandmother that he wants to continue Tifanny's advocacy work.
2008: President Barack Obama is elected.
2009: Mothers Day March in Seattle for affordable health care. Marcelas meets Senator Patty Murray and she share Marcelas' story on the Senate floor.
2010: Marcelas and his grandmother visit Washington, D.C. for a last push to pass the Affordable Care Act. Marcelas has more than 100 interviews with news outlets.
2010: Marcelas stands beside President Barack Obama as he signed ACA into law.