Some of you reading this may not be old enough to vote, a barrier that can cause great nihilism, but do not despair. Being currently unable to vote is not synonymous with having no influence or role in elections. And it would be a mistake to assume that the inability to vote endows you with immunity from the consequences of the policies passed by those who can wield the power of the ballot.
Some of you may be eligible to vote but uncertain about the process or becoming involved. As the generation of the future, you will inherit the world adults have passed down to you, and that makes it critical to cultivate your civic engagement now to start shaping that future.
The first step in civic activation requires you to recognize the possibilities of power and engagement. One myth to dispel is that older generations are supposed to enact progress on your behalf. Most of the images from the history of American civics presented to students depict progress as an act of wisdom that is only incurred with age. Put differently, young people are made to believe that they should sit idly while their parents, grandparents or elders endure the arduous task of enacting social change. But on the contrary, young people can be a force for change in the present. As you engage in the struggle of democracy, remember that young people have always made history.
As an adult and a former educator, I know how heavy of an ask it is to be called to change a world with which you have yet to become fully involved as a citizen. I also know that American society has used the paucity of your experience in the world to assure you that you possess an ignorance about the mechanisms that facilitate “adult” life. But you must counter that view and see your age as a gift and not a hindrance.
I say youth is a gift because it unlocks your greatest strength: inquiry. The practice of inquiry ensures that you have not deadened your perceptions of your surroundings and become inured to the way society is reproduced in the classroom, the workplace and in social settings. For example, you might not be taught to ask why the tenets of “law and order” are the same principles by which school discipline in the United States functions. But as you look around, it is important to begin questioning why this is—to ask why being confronted by a school’s discipline policies can yield the same results as police encounters in society, or why Black Americans receive harsher sentencing in court and Black students, similarly, are suspended and expelled at higher rates.
By asking questions, you build the experience needed to recognize the moral and political inconsistencies of a country that was founded on the premise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—yet has continued to fail to apply those principles equally.
Growing up, I had no way to access the world beyond what my eyes could see in my neighborhood or what was presented to me in a textbook or by the media. Many of you have the world at your fingertips, which equips you with the ability to generate an ensemble of questions about the world that I could never have conjured at your age. For example, in my middle school years, I might have asked why people in my neighborhood were poor, but I could not have inquired about national poverty and where my community stood in relation to it. And because I could not ask those questions, I fell into the trap that snatches the curiosity of a lot of youth: I thought the conditions of my neighborhood were “just the way it is.” Problems in cities or rural areas, in districts and schools don’t happen by coincidence. They are the results of voting and elections—and once you recognize that the power of the ballot box extends into your classroom and affects your daily life at school, you will understand that it is necessary to begin the process of civic engagement now to prepare to overcome the obstacles in American democracy.
The next step is to understand that although you have been told that voting in America is a “right,” you must not assume it is a right that is granted, instead of fought for and taken. Black Americans had to endure “Black Codes” and violent voter suppression campaigns before (and while) rebelling against the government for suffrage. You are part of that legacy. Between January 1 and May 29, 2023, at least 11 states enacted 13 restrictive voting laws. To vote, you will have to conquer the litany of hurdles required to vote in your state. Because each state is different, it is necessary that you understand the requirements to vote in your state. And you will recognize, too, the deliberate methods used in some states to limit and suppress voter participation.
Because we are working with the understanding that the youth vote is of the utmost importance for progress, we must also know that this means some political forces will work to hinder your ability to participate in democracy. You may face strict voter ID requirements for voter registration and restrictions to mail-in voting eligibility.
And because we know the classroom is a place where you can pose questions about our society, perhaps it would be useful to ask, “How can I help register another classmate to vote?” Or, for even greater impact: “What initiatives can the student body support to register every student who is eligible?”
Consider canvassing your surroundings to identify consistent inconsistencies and problems—and recognize that they do not exist by happenstance. Once you have engaged in this level of inquiry, you will also discover that the tactics that activists employ to address poverty, police brutality and wealth inequality are the same methods that you can use inside your classroom or in your neighborhood. The walkouts, sit-ins, marches and boycotts that you learned about in the context of civil rights protests—which youth have always been an important part of, too—are tools you can use within other realms of civic life.
If there is a policy your community needs, do not wait for my generation to legislate it. While it is important to engage in political discourse with your neighbors, attend political rallies and understand the processes required to vote, it is also vital to know that civic engagement has no age requirement. If you have a political demand, you do not need older generations to make it for you. If you have the desire to participate in democracy, you must move on it.
Tips for Becoming Involved and Encouraging Others to Vote:
- If you are eligible, register to vote! You can find laws specific to your state here.
- Learn about and engage in local elections, including those for school board, city council, mayor and state legislature.
- Talk to your friends and family about the importance of voting and the local races and issues that concern them. Start with discussions of the concerns in your community and find out where candidates stand on issues that are of concern.
- Attend town hall meetings and rallies to listen to and speak with political candidates. Encourage your friends and family to go with you to meetings.
- Become involved by volunteering to register voters.
- Create a local election calendar to remind friends and family about upcoming elections.
- Encourage and help your family, friends and other community members to participate on Election Day.
- Register to become a poll worker. Find your state’s requirements here.
- Not 18 years old? Some states allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote! Check your state’s policy here.
- College student? Check out Campus Vote Project for resources on voting in your state.