Not About Us, Without Us: An Argument for Youth Engagement

Why should I wait until I turn 18? Why is that a magic number for responsibility, for leadership, for empowerment among youth… I’m ready now.”

Standing at a podium before hundreds of attendees at the U.S. Department of Education’s ED Youth Voices event last month, 16-year-old Dawnya Johnson showed no hesitation in declaring her political potency, despite the deflating reality that she cannot register to vote. Her words reflect a struggle that every generation has faced from pre-Revolution America to today: what kind of engagement, if any, should youth voices have in our democracy?

I use the term “youth” because it includes a broader category of young people, not just the disenfranchised under-18 crowd. America has long held contradictory stereotypes about its youth. We are seen as rebellious iconoclasts, whose actions reflect the angst and supposed ‘fight the system’ attitude of youth; yet young people are somehow simultaneously characterized as apathetic, uninformed and electorally worthless, a mass of Americans who don’t need to care about politics (nor politics about them) because they don’t pay taxes yet.

All stereotypes possess an element of truth, and those regarding youth are no exception. The 1960s anti-war activists offer a prime example of a youth movement up in arms, rebelling against society with a clear objective. More recently, the Occupy movement brought crowds of young people to the streets to protest what they viewed as growing systemic inequalities in American society. There also exists significant evidence that the “youth vote” helped propel Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, and some analyses indicate that youth participation actually increased in the 2012 election despite political pundits’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet few could deny that many our age do not care, and even I question my sense of civic responsibility every now and then. As students busy themselves with getting through school, learning to deal with the world’s adults and often just finding the next party, we’ve begun to lose sight of the broader need for our civic engagement. “Not about us, without us,” a fellow organizer once told me.  In other words, if we don’t speak for ourselves, who will?

As a 17-year old high school student working on the campaign trail in 2012, I was constantly asked: “Why do you care?” My answer was always that my generation arguably had the most at stake in the election. This next cycle of leaders will determine the fate of our health care options, our ability to afford college, our future job market, the education system our kids will enter someday and whether Social Security will even exist when we turn 65 (or 67…or 70).

Today’s decisions will have a long-lasting effect on the future of American society, so why do the children and young adults most affected not have a voice in the policy discussion? Our voices are constantly drowned out by those of older, richer, and generally more organized voters. Unions’ demands take precedence over student coalitions’. Medicare receives spending increases while expansions for Medicaid, government health insurance for the poor and disabled that largely covers children, fall by the wayside in many states.

When it comes to money and networking, youth activists are clearly fighting an uphill battle. Yet we’ve seen young voices compel entire states to enact significant policy changes when they care enough to fight for them—marriage equality in Rhode Island anyone? And in both of Obama’s presidential victories, young people harnessed a seemingly unstoppable energy and enthusiasm that blew youth turnout expectations out of the water. Given these and other movements, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to ask why we can’t lend our voices to more causes worthy of our attention.

The interest rates on our student loans are going up, and American college students on their summer breaks have hardly even noticed. Don’t want to pay an extra $1000 for your education? Then make some noise, rally college students from coast to coast and do something about it. Young people in the United States have grown accustomed to being told what we’re supposed to care about, and when we’re supposed to care. Presidential elections are important, we hear from CNN, but off-year elections for state and local positions, like school boards, aren’t worth our time. I bet more high school and college students know that Cory Monteith is dead than know about the extra student loan debt they’re being forced to take on.

We need to stop sitting on the sidelines and stop embracing our second, less glamorous stereotype when it comes to policies that affect us. Institutional barriers may be demoralizing, but we can’t keep waiting on the world to change. As the post-Obama era looms, youth will need to find new causes and candidates to rally around, and most importantly, we need to learn to engage ourselves more broadly in American society, not just when it’s well-publicized and convenient.

Age does not dictate the strength of one’s voice in government. So let’s make ours count, and work to engage the rest of our age group to do the same. We need to vote, mobilize, campaign, and advocate for ourselves and for those, like Dawnya, who still are too young to vote, but who deserve to have a voice.

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