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4 ways to boost youth civic engagement

Greg Nash

The number of Americans who plan to vote in the November election is at an all-time high, and record numbers have already shown up to the polls or voted by mail. For young people, those numbers are already exponentially higher than in 2016.

Historically, older Americans have made up a disproportionate share of the voting public. And while that’s likely to continue this cycle, we’re seeing younger generations close that gap as they are increasingly engaged and plan to vote. This is a good thing — not just because it means decisions are made by the many rather than the few, but also because it creates an opportunity for increased intergenerational engagement, which ultimately makes communities stronger. 

No matter what happens in the aftermath of November 3, we as a society need to do everything we can to maintain this growing civic engagement among young people. Here are four ways we can start to do that. 

1. Improve civic literacy. In a recent report, the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences called for not only reinvigorating civic education in the K-12 system, but also continuing education for adults. We owe it to the next generation of voters in particular to share how government at all levels affects their lives and can improve it for the better. 

While ideally this would be championed by school districts and state and federal legislators, nonprofits can help fill the gap while more robust plans are made. Organizations such as Civic Spirit are augmenting civic education in schools. This is also an opportunity to engage older volunteers and staff who have been engaged in community-building work to share both real-life experiences and long-term perspectives, connecting the past to the present with personal stories. 

2. Let younger voices lead. We’ve seen sustained dedication among young people to issues such as gun safety and climate change. How can we seek their perspectives at all levels of government? Youth councils already exist in cities across the country, but they are often in practice little more than leadership development programs than actual advisory bodies. 

We need to create additional, meaningful opportunities for youth and young adults to engage in civic life. Instead of placing them on separate youth councils, how can their perspectives play a role on other advisory bodies? Municipalities could create student seats on school boards, youth seats on planning commissions or youth-driven programming in public spaces. Integrating young voices more fully into public discussions shows respect for their positions and demonstrates their value to the broader community.

3. Strengthen our institutions and reduce roadblocks. One of the most common reasons young people choose not to vote is because they don’t believe their vote matters. This sentiment correlates with low news consumption, making it challenging for anything but the biggest stories to break through — often political scandals or stalemates, with few instances of positive stories of governmental accomplishments. To combat this apathy, people need to trust that their government is actually working on their behalf. Creating more transparency within government and strengthening accountability within public institutions will create more public trust.

Voter apathy also stems from a sense that voting is too hard, and in many communities it is. The prospect of waiting in line for ten hours to cast a ballot is a deterrent to someone who is on the fence about voting to begin with, especially if work schedules or transportation poses additional challenges. State and local governments must work toward a more equitable system that reduces the roadblocks to voting, particularly in areas with large populations of color. This year’s increase in early and mail-in voting opportunities should provide positive case studies of how these methods can securely increase turnout, and state and local governments should look closely at how these can be further implemented in future elections.

4. Increase opportunities for generations to interact. Increased engagement is negated if our society maintains our individualistic, me-first mindset. If older and younger people understand each other’s perspectives better, they’ll also understand each other’s needs better and approach policy ideas with more of an open mind and a preference for the greater good. 

There are intergenerational opportunities within each of the earlier points. Civic education necessarily involves adults teaching children and youth about our government and the importance of everyone’s participation, but programs can go deeper with personal storytelling from older adults. And as we work to engage young leaders more meaningfully in government, they will learn from more experienced leaders, and vice versa. Finally, combating voter apathy is an opportunity to create intergenerational conversations around the importance of current events and how that connects to what’s on the ballot.

We need to work toward a culture where every voice is valued as a part of a greater whole. When we create opportunities for people to feel meaningfully engaged in their community, they feel more responsible for its collective well-being. Breaking down generational silos will go a long way toward that goal.

Trent Stamp is CEO of The Eisner Foundation, the only U.S. funder investing exclusively in intergenerational solutions.

Tags 2020 election Civic engagement Community building Community organizing Demographics Intergenerationality Millennials voter apathy

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