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Voices of the future: Students engage in politics

By Suvia Li Nov. 3, 2021

Kailey Hu Art


While mainstream politics is primarily occupied by adults, students have been finding ways to become more politically active, such as directly participating in political groups and programs as well as advocating for issues in society.


Young people have traditionally generated low voter turnout. A report by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that only 39 percent of eligible young voters aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2016 presidential election and 48 percent voted in 2020. By choosing not to involve themselves in voting and politics, young people forfeited their own role in the government. In a survey about reasons for low political engagement conducted by Hamilton College, 33.6 percent of survey respondents stated that politicians did not pay enough attention to the concerns of young people and 32.1 percent reported that negative campaigning deterred them from politics.


However, student involvement in politics has been steadily increasing in recent years due to the rise in accessible political information through social media peer influence. A survey conducted in 2018 by Education Week Research Center showed that 40 percent of first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 19 became more politically involved in the two years prior to the survey. The respondents highlighted reaching voting age, the Parkland school shootings and the presidential administration at the time as influences for their newfound political involvement.


Some politically active individuals label indifferent people as ignorant bystanders. On the other hand, those who are not caught up with political issues may see politically-involved people as extreme or irritating, furthering their avoidance for politics. In particular, performative activism—the act of blindly supporting an issue for attention and support—has shed a negative light on those who are politically engaged. It is especially prevalent amongst adolescents because of widespread access to technology and social media, making it convenient to share popular political opinions. One notable event of performative activism was “Blackout Tuesday” in June 2020, where many Instagram users posted a black square tagged with #blackouttuesday to “stand in solidarity” with the Black community. However, it was met with backlash for making the hashtag overflow with black squares instead of useful information, as it defeated the purpose of educating people about Black experiences and systemic racism. The intention behind performative activism is not necessarily devotion to the political cause—unlike true political engagement—which can make all political engagement lack sincerity. Instead, people can go beyond surface-level advocacy in a variety of methods, such as participating in political programs and keeping up with current political situations.


For adolescents, joining young political programs is an accessible way to explore politics. Founded in 1959, one of the first youth political organizations in the U.S. was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which aimed to transform society into a system where the people—rather than only the social elite—would control social policy. With branches in numerous colleges including Auburn College and the University of Washington, SDS held public protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, including a national march on Washington D.C. in April 1965. Although the organization terminated in 1969, it spearheaded the formation of many other young political organizations.


Over time, many other youth political organizations—of various political views—were created. Originally founded in 1969 by students at Vanderbilt University, Young America’s Foundation (YAF) is a conservative youth organization that aims to spread conservative ideas among the youth by hosting seminars and conferences about topics such as individual freedom, a strong national defense and free enterprise. YAF caused the passage of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Campus Access Act in 1995, which cut off funding from taxpayers to universities with anti-military policies. Additionally, the foundation has acquired the National Journalism Center, which trains young journalists with their ideals.


Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) is the youth section of the Democratic Socialists of America, a political group that spreads democratic socialist ideals, including social justice, anti-capitalism and democracy. The group spreads its ideas on high school and college campuses through campaigns, endorsements and strikes. The advocacy of YDSA contributed to the passing of the Student Debt Cancellation Act of 2019, which required the department of education to cancel the debt of student loans.


Students at the school are also involved with politics in a variety of ways. Senior Karina Haddad is the national development director of State of the Students and Junior Eunwoo Kim co-leads their Calif. chapter. State of the Students is a youth-led organization that aims to bridge the gap between high schoolers and elected officials by promoting student engagement in civic processes. It provides opportunities for its members to host town halls, make political media and interview politicians, including Congresswoman Katherine Clark and Assemblymember Laura Friedman.


“Student involvement in politics is immensely important because the current youth are soon going to be the ones discussing issues, voting on legislation, and even creating policies. It is imperative that we prepare for that responsibility now, in order to build an informed and engaged population,” Kim said.


Senior Karin Liu is the director of media in the San Jose chapter of GENup, a student-led social justice organization, which aims to advocate for education through the power of youth voices. In GENup, Liu combines her existing passion for education and equality with political involvement and currently makes promotional materials like social media posts for GENup’s events, including campaigns for education policy reform. This year, nineteen bills on GENups’s policy slate were signed into law, including Assembly Bill 101, which mandates ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement that requires ethnic studies at school and Assembly Bill 824, which allows students to serve on the County and Charter School Board of Education.


Some students also directly engage in local politics. Junior Alexander Lee is the president of San Jose’s District 10 Youth Leadership Coalition, an organization that supports and fosters youth engagement in local politics through summits and councils. The group has advocated for safe and secure neighborhoods and improved urban services in San Jose.


“Our organization is split into groups that work on different aspects of youth involvement in our local government. If we are going to try to use what we know to make a difference, we have to start by getting a feel for how our government works,” Lee said.


Senior Hailey Pham is the Outreach and Onboarding Lead and the Vietnamese Ethnic Outreach lead intern for Matt Mahan, San Jose City Council’s District 10 Councilmember. Pham utilizes her existing experience in political campaigns to contribute ideas to policy, fundraising, managing and outreach areas of the campaign to elect Mahan as mayor of San Jose. Pham’s passion for politics has inspired her to pursue a political science degree after high school.


“I have been into politics since I was young, so it was natural for me to fall down a path I was so passionate about. Politics is the one area in which young people can help make a direct difference and impact,” Pham said.


By staying informed about politics and becoming activists in areas of policy that they are passionate about, students are taking their first steps towards building a politically engaged generation of the future.

 

About the Contributors

Suvia Li

Staff Writer

Suvia Li is a sophomore at Leland High school. She is a staff writer and artist for The Charger Account. During her free time, she enjoys cooking, eating, and listening to music.


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