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Engaging the Youth Vote – TheHumanist.com

Engaging the Youth Vote – TheHumanist.com
Engaging the Youth Vote – TheHumanist.com

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The future of democracy depends on young voters, but the narratives we hear about youth engagement are often dismissive in an unfair way. Every generation has their “kids these days” stereotypes, which I won’t repeat here. I can’t help but think the people who espouse them haven’t spent enough time around kids—or they are spreading false notions in order to discourage them.

One of the reasons I found this so hard to write about is that it came at a moment when I was immersed in watching the young people I’m close to in South Carolina learn to participate in the legislative process only to be cast aside and ignored. Teenagers are already coming to terms with a world that is unjust in so many ways, and they sometimes see those injustices in a sharper focus than their elders. It has been heartbreaking to see trans youth and their immediate families here plead for their lives and be disappointed that their pleas fall on bigoted ears. But their tenacity and courage—complimented by the very men who would strip them of rights—gives me enormous hope for the future. This year, I saw so many young people step up in so many ways, and now that they know how, I’m positive that they’ll continue to advocate for themselves and others.

Gen Z, which comprises people age 12-27, actually shows great signs of voter engagement, higher than Millennials or Gen X when they were 18-24. But it’s up to us to support and maintain that engagement. If we want youth to feel that voting is a worthwhile endeavor and that their perspectives matter, we must reflect that in our attitudes and approaches to them in childhood and young adulthood. If we want to combat whatever hopelessness or powerlessness might exist among young people we are probably well-served by first examining our own attitudes towards the young people in our lives and considering how we communicate our confidence in their abilities, judgment, and leadership.

For starters, I think we need to challenge folks to acknowledge both that there are genuine struggles facing this generation that are different from past struggles (economic issues, visibly broken systems, and lingering pandemic impacts on social lives, education, and physical and mental health) and that they need us to be encouraging and empowering.

So what can we do to cultivate our youngest voting bloc? For starters, we can help a newly eligible voter set expectations surrounding the experience of voting. By laying out the process and guiding them through the experience ahead of time, we can overcome many of the obstacles to voting for youth. We can show them where to find rules and deadlines, help them register, show them how to preview their ballot, explain how we decide on the issues and candidates, and actually take them to vote and do something enjoyable alongside that event (a celebratory meal or activity). It’s also really important not to downplay it as an easy or straightforward process. Empathize with how intimidating it might feel to go through steps that feel routine to experienced voters. Quite literally there are people working every day to try to prevent young folks from voting. We should be working just as hard, and instilling the young people in our lives with a sense that their ideas and opinions matter. Taking an interest in the things young people care about, even beyond political issues, is important because it communicates that who they are and what they think matters in a world that may feel indifferent.

This is a generation suffering from a lot of isolation and the impacts of our own poor management of their relationships with technology. The solution is in genuine connection and caring about what’s happening in their lives. A lot of bonding can occur with a young person when you validate their experiences of existing in a system that is poorly designed to support them, or when you can make them feel positively about themselves or the world.

Research shows that if you can get someone to vote once they are significantly more likely to vote again. If you get a young person to vote the first time they are eligible, you also increase the chances they will become a lifelong voter. If you have young people in your life, it would go a long way to personally support them.

We should be thinking about the extent to which young voter disengagement and apathy is valid and honestly be a little proud of these young folks for being less disengaged than the generations before them, given the circumstances. Older people can take action with our time and money to support causes that address systemic issues like electoral reform (these kids saw Trump get elected without winning the popular vote) and organizations that are seeking to close the gap in terms of racial disparities.

We can all use the reminder that young people have often been at the forefront of revolutionary change, including the founders of our country and leaders of every significant civil rights movement in our nation’s history. I’ve seen it on the ground here; when people started banning books, youth groups began holding banned book clubs, which transformed into well-oiled advocacy machines with the help of a few knowledgeable advisors. Young people in my life advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, access to curricula and stories about Black history, and for reproductive justice. But voting on the one side and showing up to give testimony on the other are not the only two ways to be a good advocate (although they are both very good ways).

Modeling the kinds of behaviors we want to see can be a big paradigm shift for a teen. We can meet them where their interests lie and get creative, which serves elder-led advocacy just as well. Some might be best at finding research: they can look up and contextualize statistics to support an argument. Some might be best at crafting a heartfelt narrative, and maybe it’s not the same person who excels at delivering it. Some might be able to read the ever-increasing stack of banned subject matter and focus a group’s attention on relevant points faster than every individual separately reading can (although we should all read banned books). Some might be experts at web design, video editing, or graphic design, or they might be eager to learn. Some might be masterful classroom ambassadors to a cause, building enthusiasm among their peers. Some might be emerging event planners and can throw a party, coordinate an event, or organize a protest. Some might be skilled support people who can recognize the need for decompression and find a qualified counselor or learn to become one. There’s a job for everyone, and important political decisions that change young lives can take place at every level, from a school or library district up to the national. Once you’ve experienced one piece of the process, it lowers the barriers to participation at other levels too.

Building coalitions is a learned skill, and advocacy work is exhausting. Here in the Bible belt, it’s not often a race you win, but a never-ending relay in which you must be able to pass the baton and create rest and joy until you recharge for the next leg of the race. That’s a learned skill too, and practicing it in front of young people can be really impactful.

Summer camp brings a feeling of belonging, and can be a source of that essential joy and recharging energy. But it also can be a microcosm of what kind of world is possible when like-minded people get together and share ideas. It is an enormous, matchless privilege to be a part of those magical experiences for a new generation.

And those experiences, while rare in adulthood, can be cultivated in volunteering too. It’s never too late to find your community, learn, and build your skills–and then share what you’ve learned with the young people in your life.

Freethought is the future, but is not a core identity factor for most young people. I’m a first-generation atheist, and it’s fascinating to me to see camp leadership who have been involved with Camp Quest since childhood and raised in explicitly secular families. The kind of head start that could have given me! But kids in these intentionally secular families don’t always share the kinds of experiences that many of us older people have of “coming out” as nonreligious and finding acceptance in structured and intentional humanism. They do sometimes have those experiences in coming out on the LGBTQ+ continuum, and for those kids, activism can be incredibly affirming and empowering. At a recent youth-centered event near me, one presenter emphasized, “Advocacy is essential to LGBTQ+ youth; it’s like the air they breathe.” And even before they can vote, these youth advocates are doing amazing work in the face of extreme adversity. With our guidance, help, and support, we can give young people the tools to create meaningful change—just by showing them how and taking their concerns seriously.

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