This guest post is the fourth in a series about whether and how youth electoral engagement can have broader goals, including connections to civic life and democracy more generally. Please read the first, second, and third posts as well. Join us on Twitter and Facebook to discuss the content and implications, and keep an eye out for future posts and a culminating event for this series.
By Jill Bass & Meghan Goldenstein, Mikva Challenge
Want to know what democracy looks like? Imagine more than 200 young people from a plethora of backgrounds across the country convening in Iowa weeks before this year’s presidential primaries. Imagine them attending candidate rallies, door knocking in subzero temperatures, making thousands of calls to voters, and having late-night political discussions. Imagine a Youth Issues Summit where they talked together about the issues that they believe are most pressing in their own communities, inspiring a new sense of empowerment they could take home with them.
This experience is exactly what Mikva Challenge created for three days in Des Moines for 200 high school students (and nearly 60 chaperones) from Chicago and its suburbs, central Illinois, Washington D.C., California, Texas, Wisconsin and Iowa. We believe experiences like these help build a healthy and vibrant democracy, and should be commonplace for students everywhere. Here’s what we saw:
- Youth are not apathetic, they are uninvited. Young people care deeply about the issues that impact their lives, but all too often adults forget to bring them into political conversation and action around these issues. When given an opportunity to participate—whether through the electoral process or through local advocacy and organizing—young people have great insight, passion, enthusiasm, and expertise. Engaging them in campaigning is just one way to activate their potential.
- Civic discourse across diverse backgrounds is increasingly rare but crucially important. By and large, we live in segregated and homogeneous communities and schools, and these separations pose a real challenge to a vibrant democracy. Trips like the one we organized give young people the chance to share ideas in diverse groups. In a survey afterwards, many of the students referenced this connection as their favorite part of the trip, saying that it made them more patient, challenged preconceived ideas, and humanized those with whom they disagree.
“As an independent who slightly leans left, it was absolutely wonderful to meet with unabashed liberals and proud conservatives alike,” one student wrote. “No matter your views, I admire those who are passionate about what they believe.” Teachers also appreciated the direct engagement with other viewpoints and came away feeling challenged to reflect on their own biases and on how to bring this diversity of views into their classrooms.
- Politics is not for “others,” it’s for all. While many youth, especially youth of color, understandably see the political process as distant from their own lives, campaigning pulls back the curtain to reveal the work that goes on behind the scenes—and how much is done by young people just like them. That’s incredibly empowering: two thirds of students on the trip had never campaigned before, yet at the end 95% agreed that “this experience made me want to continue to participate in elections in the future,” and 58% said it made them want to run for office.
- The best way to learn ABOUT democracy is to DO democracy. The students discovered that actually knocking doors and making calls is entirely different than just talking about it. Engaging voters reveals young people’s persuasive skills, gives them confidence in their own voices, and allows them to see the impact of their work first-hand. “[Talking to voters] made me feel like I have become a part of a movement that is extremely significant, and that I, too, can have an influence on the outcome of the election through my campaigning,” one student wrote.
- There is power in numbers. For youth who typically feel alone in their passion for issues or interest in politics, meeting others like them can be a game-changing experience. As one student wrote, “…the passion and energy of my peers was inspiring and far beyond the scope of what I expected.” It also made students feel like a part of something bigger than themselves. “The most important thing I learned was that people with the same ambitions, goals, and values can always come together for something greater than themselves no matter what color, language, background, or place they come from,” wrote another.
- You do not need to be eligible to vote to make your voice heard. Youth are powerful connectors and catalysts to engage family and friends. During the trip, 83% of the students used social media to share their experiences, and our digital scavenger hunt resulted in nearly 400 instagram posts and more than 1,100 tweets with the trip’s hashtag: #ImprezUS. The participants returned home with plans to convince friends and family to register and vote, to use social media to promote candidates, to campaign, to engage in voter education at school, and to continue to stay educated on candidates and issues.
- Every day is Election Day. While campaigning can be a spark that lights a fire of engagement, Election Day need not – and should not! – put it out. Whether their candidates win or lose, students who participate in trips like these come away in possession of new advocacy skills that they can continue to put to use in service of issues they care about and part of new networks of people and organizations (including Mikva Challenge) that will remind them the work is not done when polls close. Even once candidates assume office, students can remain engaged by holding them accountable for campaign promises, lobbying them to pay attention to new issues previously ignored, and/or working to help their opponents gain traction and prepare for the next election cycle.
At Mikva Challenge, we’ve seen these lessons in action for the past 15 years, fueling our commitment to the work and our confidence that engaging youth directly is a powerful way to strengthen our democracy.