Why It's Important for Teens to Get Involved

On a cold afternoon in January 2009, I sat in front of a screen set up in my elementary school’s all-purpose room and watched Barack Hussein Obama take the presidential oath of office, the first person of color ever to do so. Even as a first-grader, I felt immense pride for my country, and I felt immense pride that the adults of my country had made it happen.

Flash forward seven and a half years. I watched helplessly on November 9, 2016, as Donald Trump, a man whose hateful rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, and members of the LGBTQ+ community had stung my friends and me repeatedly, was pronounced president-elect. It was then I realized that trusting the adults of the United States to show up and vote for progressive candidates was an inherently flawed strategy.

At a camp I attended, Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, I had already learned the tools of activism, but I knew I had to translate those skills into politics. I began to write fervently for my school newspaper and to persuade people to vote for progressive candidates at the ballot box. Then, I found Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization I could work with to make real, progressive change happen.  

Teenagers under the age of 18 are the only people in the United States who are legitimately denied the right to vote. Unfortunately, this robs us of a source of political power in this country, and we are not allowed to choose those who will fight on our behalf in Congress.  For too long, I let the fact that I could not vote dissuade me from political action. In this day and age, it is imperative that young people move beyond this. A great example I use to explain that voting isn’t the sole source of political power is this: A representative democracy is based upon the following principle: we vote for people to vote for us in Congress. Our representatives are, however, accountable to us, and even though citizens cannot vote in the House of Representatives, we can lobby, call, and write our Congresspeople to vote a certain way. The same is true for elections for these members of Congress. Even though teenagers like me cannot vote, we can have enormous influence. This is something teenagers like me need to internalize.

The movement to advocate for sensible gun legislation is a prime example of a political battle where youth are leading the charge. Teens such as Jaclyn Corin, Emma Gonzalez, and David Hogg started the Never Again organization and helped organize the national March for Our Lives this past March. They have succeeded in weakening the NRA and getting a Fox News host off the air. They are now crisscrossing the country to help get out the vote in the midterm elections.

So, how can we get involved? Young people can have an enormous impact on issues through protest, as this quote shows:

“As a child, Clara Luper attended many meetings of the NAACP Youth Council in Oklahoma City because her mother, Marilyn, was the leader of this group. She remembers, “We were having an NAACP Youth Council meeting, and I was eight years old at that time. That’s how I can remember that I was not ten years old. And I – we were talking about our experiences and our negotiation – and I suggested, made a motion that we would go down to Katz Drug Store and just sit, just sit and sit until they served us.” This protest led to the desegregation of the drug store’s lunch counter in Oklahoma City.”

Organizing a protest is quite the undertaking, but participating in grassroots activism is vital. Canvassing and participating in getting out the vote initiatives can help sway elections. Protesting can get issues into the national spotlight. Another great way to get involved is to write letters to the editor of a local newspaper, so people who can vote and have more power can be inspired by your ideas. Personally, going to marches is a favorite of mine because I can go with friends and form strong bonds with them while fighting for change. I also like to challenge myself and call my representatives at least once every two weeks. As someone who gets nervous over the phone, it is hard sometimes to speak well after someone says something as official as “You’ve reached (X Senator)’s office. However, once I hang up, I am filled with a rush of self-satisfaction.

Lobbying legislators is a fantastic way to make political change. Although we cannot vote, our parents can, and legislators are well aware of that fact. Calling legislators and explaining your point of view or raising a concern about an issue is a great way to create change. Pressure on legislators can definitely build up and cause a certain legislator to vote one way or another. More pressure can be put on senators by teenagers, as their six-year terms often put them up for re-election sometime during or after the first time we’re allowed to cast our votes. Calling members of government is easy, and don’t worry, you generally won’t have the representative pick up the phone. An intern will likely answer and record your response to give to your representative. The more people call about an issue, the more likely you are to receive a response.

Teen political involvement is an important antidote to the poisonous climate right now. We have immense power, we just have to yield it. The young people will win, as they say, but first, we have to get in the game.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors.

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