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Bringing Youth into the Political Process: Turning 18 in 2018

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

 "Democracy needs to be reborn in each generation," John Dewey wrote, "and education is its midwife." In this era, youth voter turnout in the U.S. provides a critical -- and actionable -- example.

Seventy percent percent of registered voters over 70 years old turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election. But of those under 25, only 43 percent went to the polls. "If youth had turned out in larger numbers, the results would likely have been different," notes Sanda Balaban, who formerly directed Strategic Learning Initiatives for Facing History and Ourselves.

Aiming to tackle that generational gap for the 2018 midterm elections and beyond, Balaban and other educators and activists have launched YVote (as a subsidiary of Civics Unplugged). Its New York City pilot this summer drew over 50 diverse youth from more than 20 public high schools to probe, understand, and actively engage in the political process.

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"Why vote?"

Bringing youth together from different schools across the city has fostered a collective power, as this disparate group works together across economic, racial, and political differences. Their growing sense of commonality, camaraderie, and agency evidences a key goal of the program, the founders say. Participants often have conflicting views, and they say their classroom teachers often steer clear of hot topics. An out-of-school learning organization like YVote can offer a context, a catalyst, and a scaffold as students wrestle with how to build a better future.

In small groups, they explore the question of "why vote?" in relation to contentious issues that roil their world -- inequality, immigration, policing, the poverty-to-prison pipeline, college affordability. Anxious about their present-day situations, they are seeking concrete actions that can make a positive difference in their communities and beyond.

This cohort is analyzing the successes and limitations of historic voting rights and engagement movements, including poring over the history of Freedom Summer 1964. They also delve into the 2016 election, studying a regional analysis as they consider what did and didn't seem to drive voter behavior. All the while, noted Balaban, they must think through "why voting matters, who today's voters are, what motivates young voters across the political spectrum, and how to engage them -- at the voting booth, and beyond."

Toward a national civic ecosystem for youth

An out-of-school organization like YVote can create a powerful civic action space for participating youth. But this startup also aims to help a youth civic ecosystem emerge nationally, by creating and curating civic engagement curricula and tools that others working with youth can adapt to fit their contexts. Assiduously cross-partisan, YVote aims to equip young people with a "post-polarization" consciousness. To facilitate the skill of consensus building, for example, students practice making the case for an opinion from "the other side"--whichever that other side might be.

In school or out, civic action grows more powerful when organizations create alliances. Last week, the Action Civics Initiative convened its growing nonpartisan network of 35 organizations at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. In their different ways, each calls on four core strategies, which -- taken together -- support students as they engage in civic life at various levels:

  • Youth voice, through which young people choose a topic or focus area they find meaningful.
  • Deliberative discourse, which supports youth in peer-to-peer and other deliberative discussion, which bridges disagreement, builds consensus, and leads to taking action.
  • Informed action, which supports youth in planning and carrying out meaningful civic work in their schools or communities.
  • Support for instructors and educators, in the form of materials, professional
    development or training, and policies that facilitate the work of action civics.

Such "action civics" organizations, of course, readily align with long-standing practices such as service learning and project-based curriculum, which seek to bring alive the concepts students read about in social studies classes. They also reinforce the civic mission typically included as a central tenet of U.S. schools, but often marginalized. Once, most of the nation's schools required courses in civics or "problems of democracy." But in recent decades, testing priorities have elbowed such subjects aside.

Productive struggle in the political context

Meanwhile, these New York City students are realizing that struggle itself has an important role in building consensus. And they are thinking hard about why young people do, or do not, vote.

Michelle, for example, expressed her frustration that, in the 2016 election, people she knew had voted for a third-party presidential candidate. "It then becomes ironic," she said, "that the person most of them did not want for their president indeed becomes the president of the United States. I do not want to live my life regretting decisions that could potentially affect not only my future, but the community I live in."

Hear, hear.

Photograph by Justin Cohen.

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