Keagan Roberts can’t remember if his town has a stoplight or not. “It's a pretty small town,” he says of South Berwick, a tiny hamlet of 7,000 people located at Maine’s southernmost tip. “I know they’ve been trying to get a stoplight downtown for as long as I can remember.”
Roberts describes South Berwick rougly the same way everyone from a small town does, saying it’s the kind of place where “everyone knows everyone.” But while communities like his have a reputation for being places LGBTQ+ people escape to find acceptance in a big city, the 19-year-old says it has been “such a great place to grow up” as a young gay person. After coming out in a Facebook post during middle school, he says the town was largely supportive and affirming.
“My school was super understanding,” he tells Out magazine. “I really didn't face too much bullying, at least to my face, which was nice. I also have a twin brother who's gay, so that kind of made high school a little bit easier. It’s amazing. I wouldn't trade it for the world.”
The teenager will have the chance to give back to his community after winning a seat on his city council. Despite running as a write-in candidate, Roberts took home the second largest number of votes in the race, winning 20.5 percent of the overall vote. He and John Kareckas — the top-vote getter — will both earn seats on the South Berwick Town Council after all votes are certified.
Roberts, who had been at the polls for 12 hours that day, says he was speechless when the results came in. “I didn't realize my message had touched so many people,” he says. “I was just really proud of what I was able to do and just what I was able to accomplish.”
After he is sworn in, Roberts will become the youngest city council member in South Berwick’s history, as well as one of the youngest elected officials in the entire United States. When Jeremy Yamaguchi earned a spot on the Placentia City Council in Orange County, California in 2008, he was the town’s youngest council member in 21 years. Last year Eric Harmon and Raheem T. Pierce, both 19, were elected to the Uhrichsville City Council in Ohio and the Iberville Parish Council in Louisiana, respectively.
Roberts says that he ran to give young people in South Berwick a voice. Because no one his age has ever served in local government, he says “there's a whole demographic that not really being completely spoken for because you don't really have anyone [his] age speaking.”
But of the many compelling aspects of Roberts’ victory, one of the most striking is that he didn’t even declare his candidacy until last month. He officially announced he would be entering the South Berwick Town Council race October 8. That means he had exactly four weeks to get out the vote before ballots were cast, not a lot of time for an upstart candidate who had never run before.
However, Roberts had a bit of help behind the scenes. His mother, Tiffany Roberts-Lovell, is the local representative in the Maine House of Representatives, where she has served since 2018. She was also a late entrant into the District 6 race, Roberts recalls, but still won by almost 16 points.
Roberts says her win showed him that a candidacy like his would be possible. “Seeing how she was able to hit the ground running and how she was able to inspire people really inspired me,” he says.
However, Roberts’ mother wasn’t just a source of inspiration. He says she taught him everything she knew about running a grassroots campaign — from how to talk to voters to conducting yourself on social media. She particularly advocated the importance of speaking directly to voters, and he says he would visit dozens of houses a day in between shifts at Ulta Beauty, where he works as a prestige beauty advisor.
“My mom definitely had to coach me through, and some days were better than others,” he says. “I also work, so it'd be like, ‘Let's go knock on 100 doors and then you can go work your shift.’ Some days I'd ask, ‘Mom, do we have to do this?’ And she said, ‘Yep, you have to do this. This is how we get votes.’”
While Roberts is reticent to take too much of the credit for himself, part of the reason he was able to cover so much ground in such a short amount of time is that he’s already a seasoned advocate. In high school, he served on the administrative board for the Students for Safe Schools Leadership Team with GLSEN and worked with his GSA to push for a gender-neutral bathroom on campus. After graduation, he spent four months doing service work at an orphanage in Bolivia.
Roberts says his desire to help people comes from the same place as what motivated his campaign to serve in public office.
“Coming from a marginalized group, I know what it feels like to not feel like my voice is being heard or to feel oppression,” he says. “I really want to ensure that people don't have to feel that way. I want to do my best to ensure that everyone’s equal, everyone feels heard, and that the world is just a better place.
Roberts will officially be seated on the South Berwick Town Council on November 12 — just five days from now — and he plans to focus on furthering the local green economy, building more community centers in the area, and creating an environment that encourages young people to settle in South Maine instead of moving away for college or their career. But he also plans to spend some time sitting back and listening while he learns the ropes of municipal politics.
After a hard-fought victory, Roberts feels like he’s up to the task. He just hopes that his accomplishment will inspire the next generation of young people in South Berwick to know that they can get involved and make a difference in their community.
“I hope that it doesn't matter how young you are, it doesn't matter how you identify, you can do whatever you put your mind to,” he says.