When it comes to understanding youth political engagement, it’s critical to look at both data and dynamics on the ground. As a result, to supplement CIRCLE’s primary and caucus analyses, we are also asking practitioners to provide reflections on their work with youth in a given state. These reflections come from different types of organizations—from news media, to schools, to nonprofits— since building sustainable opportunities for youth engagement requires engagement from multiple sectors using multiple strategies.
Below are reflections from those who worked to engage youth in the 2016 New Hampshire primary. While they reflect their perspectives and experiences, not necessarily those of CIRCLE, we want to highlight the important work being done to include young people in the decisions we make as a nation.
On the cold morning of Saturday, February 4, 25 Tufts students boarded a bus, hoping to catch several candidates as they prepared for the all-important New Hampshire primary. The trip was organized by CIVIC, a Tufts student organization that aims to promote nonpartisan, civil dialogue, and funded by the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, which promotes civic learning and engagement at Tufts. Students were able to attend a Chris Christie rally in Bedford, NH, where they saw the governors of Maryland and Massachusetts stump for Christie. Following the endorsements of the two governors, the students were treated to a classic Chris Christie speech filled with swagger, straight talk, and the occasional self-deprecating fat joke. As an added bonus, several students were interviewed by members of the media, including a journalist from the British paper The Guardian and the host of Fox Business’ Kennedy.
The other stop during the trip was with the Kasich campaign at its Manchester headquarters. As they exited the bus, the students were handed Kasich signs and instructed to chant pro-Kasich slogans as the campaign bus rolled in. However, when the candidate stepped out of the bus, there was no speaker system, and most had to strain to hear what Kasich was saying. Although the event only consisted of a brief speech and a few picture requests, the students were given a valuable lesson regarding the daily grind of a presidential campaign. Overall, the day was an excellent opportunity for politically minded Tufts students to not only see the candidates up close, but also to examine the not-so-publicized aspects of a campaign.
Yong Jung Cho, campaign coordinator at 350Action
For 7 months, 350 Action in New Hampshire has been training and organizing young people to challenge presidential candidates to have a climate plan that keeps fossil fuels in the ground and ensures a just transition to a renewable energy economy. To highlight the deep connection between the fossil fuel industry and some politicians, hundreds of students and young people have pranked climate denying presidential candidates with “I’m with climate denier tshirts” or presented them with awards and fake checks from the Koch brothers. With the next generation at risk of not living on a sustainable planet and the youth vote up for grabs, the media reported on the pranks too. It’s unacceptable to be running for president and a climate denier.
At the same time, we saw Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton reject the Keystone XL pipeline, say no to Arctic and offshore drilling and promise no new leases for fossil fuel companies on public lands. Young people have powerfully and relentlessly called out climate deniers and pushed those that want to be climate champions to be better. Through verbal interruptions, banner drops, photo bombs and simple questions in the town hall and on the rope line, young people have shifted candidates (particularly Hillary Clinton) and defined what climate leadership means to them. Elections do not need to be about one candidate vs another; there are more ways to engage in our democracy and people can show candidates how to earn their vote. With climate being a top issue for most young people, youth and students have shown incredible leadership thus far and I imagine climate will continue to be one of the top issues in the 2016 election.
Politics is a learned behavior and learning is best done by doing – actively engaging in real-world, public experiences. Too often we adults tell young people that they should be engaged citizens when they turn 18, as if the voting age is some magical point of demarcation. How can we expect young people to be engaged and informed citizens when we don’t allow them to practice authentic participation now? As an extension of my AP U.S. Government & Politics class, I, with the help of colleagues, took 115 of my students to the NH primary for 3 nights and 4 days.
Eighty-nine students volunteered for 3 different campaigns – Sanders, Clinton, and Rubio. They engaged in GOTV, e.g. phone banking and canvassing, as well as attended many candidate-sponsored events (lots of selfies). These volunteers also maintained a teacher-produced journal, which included questions connecting content/concepts with their on-the-ground experiences. Volunteers also updated their fellow students and the wider community about the campaign by posting on shared Instagram and Twitter accounts. In addition, my colleague headed up a 21-student journalism team that reported on seven different candidates. These student journalists were responsible for studying their respective candidate, attending candidate events, asking questions of the candidates, and filing their stories by 7:00 p.m. A five-student videography team rounded out the experience by documenting students’ experiences as they engaged, questioned, and participated in the NH Primary.
As one parent wrote me tonight, “I cannot remember when I have seen my son so engaged, enthusiastic and excited as he has been these last four days.” But it wasn’t just parents responding this way. One student wrote, “Over dinner tonight with my family, I spoke with enthusiasm about the NH primary trip and how it opened my eyes to how our electoral process works and will enable me to make a more educated decision for my for first presidential election in 2016.”
The American Democracy Project (ADP) is a non-partisan network of more than 260 public colleges and universities that are members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) focused on preparing students to be informed, engaged citizens for our democracy. ADP campuses are committed to advancing non-partisan student political engagement. This commitment has manifested itself in a number of national and campus-specific efforts to engage students in the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primaries. In particular, in partnership with Keene State College (KSC), ADP has offered AASCU campuses nationwide the opportunity to participate in live-streamed town hall meetings with presidential candidates visiting KSC, including Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and Republicans Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Twelve Rhode Island College students enrolled in a campaign course taught by campus ADP co-chairs traveled to the primaries to follow a particular candidate and to share their observations, photos, and videos from NH with the social media audience of Rhode Island’s NBC10 station.
New Hampshire Public Television coordinates a New Hampshire primary mock election for students every four years. This mock election allows students in grades K-12 the chance to research and vote for candidates a week before the New Hampshire Primary. This project is part of New Hampshire Public Television’s participation in the National Student/Parent Mock Election. Schools and classes are free to hold their elections in any way they like. We provide them with web-based resources and learning resources as well as candidate profiles.