Every election cycle, we hear a familiar story: a good portion of the country wasn't interested in voting, and young people especially weren't interested in voting. We've heard it time and again, and it's always said with an air of inevitability -- the implication that it won't change. It's bold, it's crazy, but we want to do something to change that.
Last summer, Michael was working as a field director for local and state campaigns during the 2014 election cycle in Butler County, Ohio. At the same time, Rebekah, a native of Butler County, was working to empower youth as the USA Chairperson of the International Youth Council. We were working on different parts of the same issue, but we both saw a disconnect with how people interacted with the political process in the communities where we lived and worked.
This election wasn't devastating simply because whoever our preferred candidates might be didn't win -- it was about much more than that. This was an election in which 78% of our peers didn't show up to the voting booth. Think about what that means for issues we care about: climate change, student debt, and more. Should it be surprising that we don't see as much change on these issues if most of the people who care about them stay at home on Election Day?
We've been told over and over how this is just how it is. Young people just don't care. We refuse to believe that's true.
To us, it's very apparent that young people do care, about so many things. Not only do they care, but they're working to create change by getting involved with organizations, starting social enterprises, and building movements. Our generation is more likely to donate and volunteer than any generation before us. When it comes to politics, however, they've been shut out. Rarely are their needs directly addressed. And even rarer are they directly engaged in dialogue with our leaders, whether it's at the federal or local level.
In January, during the President's State of the Union address, we had the amazing opportunity to engage in dialogue on politics with young people through the HuffPostTeen Twitter chat focusing on the State of the Union and young people. We worked together to analyze the thoughts and opinions of the youth we interacted with to respond to the address from a youth perspective. We discovered that young people do care about the issues that affect them and their peers, but they don't get involved in politics for two simple reasons:
1. Young people no longer see politics as a platform for change.
2. Even if youth see how politics affects change, they don't see a place for themselves in politics.
During our dialogue we found that young people are incredible, motivated, and passionate leaders. After that, we were inspired. If this kind of online dialogue had sparked such a huge response, imagine what bringing these conversations to our own community could do.
From there, we began to plan the first annual A Seat At the Table summit. Originally, the plan was to dedicate one day a year to bringing together young people from around our community together in a way that actually excited them about the political process. We wanted to accomplish this by featuring inspiring youth leaders, building engaging workshops that connect civic participation to the social change millennials advocate for, and, of course, bribing them with free food and music. But, in the same way that our State of the Union chat brought about an unforeseen response, once we laid the foundation, A Seat At the Table took on a life of it's own.
Now, working with local high schools, we're developing hands-on civic education programs that bring together students to address the issues they see in their community. While volunteers will be working to guide the students through a core curriculum, the programs themselves are entirely student-led. Each group will identify an issue affecting young people in their community, brainstorm solutions, and connect with local leaders in order to implement their project, while exploring the role young people have played and continue to play in politics on local and national levels. With the support of local high schools and organizations, we will launch the first five programs this fall with plans to be in over thirty schools in our first three years.
While we recognize that this is a complex issue and it's going to take a lot of work to empower youth across the country to be active and participating in our government system, we believe that by giving young people the opportunity to create change on the local level, they will feel more invested in their community and that will translate to how they participate in the political process on every scale. We recognize that young people are the leaders of today and we're working to empower them to see that too. We've got a lot of work to do, but this is a good place to start.
Get involved, stay up to date, and help give youth a seat at the table over at our Facebook page.