The importance of youth engagement in the democratic system, and ways that those who are not yet able to vote can still engage in civics.
Our Issues, Our Voices, Our Votes: Youth Civic Participation Today, presented by Suffolk University’s Political Science and Legal Studies Department and Ford Hall Forum, The Washington Center, and GBH Forum Network, moderated by Katie Lannan.
This series of panel discussions amongst experts in the field of civic activism focuses on the problems facing youth in the United States, and the barriers they face when trying to participate in the democratic process. Guest speakers from different backgrounds shared their opinions on how to best engage the next generation, despite the current trend of backsliding and partisanship plaguing the nation. The aim of this conversation was to understand what gets young people motivated to participate in civics; while discussing what challenges they face in this endeavor, and how these issues can be remedied.
Why are young people important to democracy?:
These groups are the next wave of change makers and leaders. Panelist and Director of Institute for Democracy & Higher Education Tufts University, Nancy Thomas described Millennials and Gen Z as a, “fired up group that does not need empowering-” from older generations, they just need the resources and knowledge to be passed down to them, and for their interest in civic engagement to be fostered at an early age. The decline of civic education in school settings leads to a gap in knowledge, and for those who fall behind resources to help catch up are often polarized opinions rather than impartial, factual data and accessible legislation.
Civic engagement should be as important as all other subjects in schools and should be taught at all levels.
Everyone is affected by our democratic system in some form, regardless of age; the more education that youth are provided early on, will help them become more informed citizens, and eventually voters. Waiting to provide youth education about civics until they are close to the voting age perpetuates the feeling amongst these groups that they have no real power until they are a number in a ballot box. Generation Citizen program associate Milo Gringas commented that, “the strength of our democracy starts in the classroom-”, and providing more education will help build a stronger democratic system by furthering interest in civic engagement and creating a well informed body of future constituents.
How are young people engaged?:
Young people look at civic engagement differently. Panelists described them as mainly issue activists, taking special interest in areas of importance to them, and engaging in civics in order to further these movements. We have seen these cases of issue activism surrounding topics such as climate change, gun control, and student loan relief; all movements spearheaded by young activists who are taking action because they are being directly impacted.
What do all of these movements have in common? They are led by fired up young people who are taking action because activism is their only outlet until they are old enough to vote or run for office themselves.
What are some of the barriers to civic engagement?:
-Young people are often told to wait their turn.
-Young people have limited platforms for their voices and concerns to be heard.
-The government often disregards this group, or is inaccessible to them.
Although they are directly impacted by certain issues, young people have no place to create change if they are unable to vote yet, other than through activism and talking to their elected officials. Student Syeeda Raman noted that young people start out strongly on movements such as gun violence and climate change when looking to engage, but give up or don’t see a point in furthering their advocacy, voting, or talking to officials because this age group is often told to just wait to vote.
Elected officials cater more to their constituents, those who can cast a ballot to re-elect them, than to youth movement groups who are not able to hold their representatives accountable at the polls. For example, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, many young people felt as though their concerns were being unheard by their officials, and that the government was being unresponsive to their needs; adding again to the trend of governmental ignorance to those who cannot vote on these issues, regardless of personal impact.
How can we get more engagement?
Give them more access and resources and they will show up!
In a world of misinformation, it is often hard for young people wanting to educate themselves on issues to find reliable sources, or know where to look for information in the first place. Student, and Yvote youth facilitator, Mia Payne highlighted the importance of “Adult Allies” for youth organizers, and how older generations should help those finding their way access resources and platforms where they can make change, despite their age. While many young people may not be eligible to vote yet, they can take action by getting involved in issues they care about, as well as finding resources to further their civic education outside the classroom.
Promote local politics and accessible politicians!
Some ways for young people to get involved is to participate in local politics, where a smaller scale can lead to more access to officials, as well as more attention to their concerns despite age. Places like school board committees, city or town councils, and state representatives tend to have more time and stake in listening to young people in their districts, and have open meetings or office hours where youth organizers can get much needed facetime to voice their opinions. While national politics is also important when trying to engage youth participants, the discouragement of having to wait to be 18 years old to have any real power in the democratic process makes the appeal of local and off season civic engagement greater because it can be more effective.
Lower the voting age!
The panelists’ conversations concluded with remarks about the movement to lower the voting age, which has been proposed by many states, and was supported by the panel as a positive way to allow for more participation. Many youth movements argue that being directly impacted by issues that do not affect older generations, such as gun violence in schools, or the future of climate change, should allow them the authority to vote on these matters. Many elected officials do not understand the impact these issues have on young people, and are unwilling or unavailable to listen, therefore it only seems fair for those with the most knowledge on these areas to have a say in their legislation.
Comparable to no taxation without representation; where is the representation for young people looking to participate in democracy that are being barred by age, accessibility, lack of civic education, and no accountability from the government that is supposed to take care of them as well as eligible voters?
Photo by “https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske