On one of my first nights at college, my new friends and I gathered in the common area, playing board games while CSPAN blared on the grainy, old TV in the background. During lulls in the game, we would watch as legislation made its way through Congress. I couldn’t help but notice that none of the people on the screen looked like us. Amongst other things, they were old, and that sort of age gap makes it easy to leave youth interests out of their decisions. On top of that, many of us weren’t even old enough to vote yet, so we couldn’t even let these representatives know what we want from them.
In that moment, I truly believed my voice did not matter. For starters, voting is abstract. How can marking choices on a form possibly be important enough to determine who is going to represent me and my views in the future? And how could that be guaranteed? (It can’t.) On top of that, are young people who can’t vote simply powerless, since they are incapable of doing the one small thing that connects us to our democratic society?
This last question sounds disheartening, but it ended up energizing me. Here’s what I mean: Voting is a crucial part of our jobs as citizens, but voting is the bare minimum that we can do. And for those of us who cannot vote yet, this means that we aren’t helpless when it comes to civic participation.
Think of these notable examples: #BlackLivesMatter movement on social media, the Freedom Riders, who were an indispensable part of the Civil Rights Movement and the students who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. All of these youth groups helped shape history outside of the polling place or ballot boxes. Their actions made a difference.
Now, the question is this: How can you do the same? Here are three ideas to get you started.
Social Media Campaigns
From #MeToo to #MAGA, hashtags have become their own form of activism, allowing a topic to reach audiences never reached before, sparking discussions among folks with a range of viewpoints and bringing more attention to an issue.
This is particularly pertinent when it comes to getting youth involved, because we are so active on social media platforms. In fact, 34% of Americans are a part of a social media group that addresses an issue that is important to them, and 32% have encouraged others to become involved in issues that are important to them. Hashtag use goes up in response to major news events-- evidence of both its societal impact and how much impact people think it has.
Here’s how to get started:
Focus on a specific issue. What is important to you? What are you trying to tell other people? What are you trying to get people to talk about?
Here’s a personal example: I noticed there were a lot of clubs at my school that emphasized technological progress. But I couldn’t help but think: who is that progress really helping? How can I make sure that technological progress can lead to social progress as well? That was the inspiration for the club I created called Conscious and Responsible Engineering and Science. It combined a community I was already a part of (students involved with technology and engineering) and an issue I care a lot about (making sure already disenfranchised communities don’t get left behind with the rapid, profit-driven technological innovations).
What is your call to action? Be intentional about what you want your outcome to be. With social media, especially with its wide reach, you have to be careful about not having your message misconstrued, and the only way to do that is to know the issue you want to focus on and what you want to outcome to be. Better yet, include that in the title of your movement.
When the students in Parkland, Florida, organized around stopping gun violence, they went right to the point: March for Our Lives. This name says exactly why they are passionate advocates for change.
Create a plan and make it happen!
Build your team. It’s useful to be able to bounce ideas off of others when you’re getting started.
Brainstorm and create a specific plan of action. What’s the timeline for this project? What impact do you want it to have, and by when? What goals do you want to accomplish?
Assign roles and responsibilities to your group members. Who needs to do what for your project to run smoothly?
At set times, check in on everyone’s progress (including your own). Is everything going to plan? If it is, then great job! If it’s not, then reconvene and talk about what’s not going right, and then re-adjust your timelines.
Reflect and repeat
At the end of your project, meet up with your team and have one last meeting to decide how well this project went. How many people did it reach? How can it reach more people? What went well, and what didn’t? How can different aspects be improved?
Great job! You’ve organized and carried out a social media campaign, perhaps the form of youth activism that has highest potential to reach other youth and other audiences. For a deeper dive into youth organizing, check out this toolkit from Advocates for Youth. And, if you’re looking for another form of activism that has a more direct impact, then perhaps joining a grassroots organization is another option.
Joining a Grassroots Organization
Grassroots organizations, like grass, sprout from the ground up. This means that they, unlike larger organizations, are formed for community members by community members. They come together to make a change, prioritizing the needs of the local community.
Getting involved with grassroots is also a great way to get the most out of your efforts. According to this study by the Congressional Management Foundation, “direct constituent interactions” are effective, perhaps more than any other advocacy strategy because lawmakers are more able to connect their decisions with the lives that they’ll impact. Over the past decade, over 90% of undecided lawmakers have said that direct citizen contact influences their decisions. Youth experiences have as much impact and are as valid as the experiences of older adults, and our policies should reflect that. Grassroots organizations make sure that local stories are heard and used to form future policies. This is good news, because getting involved is easy.
Think about an issue you want to change close to home, then search online for organizations that advocate for your issue.
Sign up to volunteer. Often, there’s a form right on the website.
If not, visit their office and ask! Many grassroots organizations are small and appreciate any help they can get.
Working in your community is a way to get a firsthand feel of local needs, and volunteering directly helps a cause you care about. However, if you’d like to expand your reach a little more, calling local representatives may be the right option for you.
Contacting Your Representatives
If you want to make sure your views are heard by the people in charge, what better way than to contact your representatives?
Not sure who to call? Find your representatives using these websites:
The best way to make a difference is to call an elected official, rather than write or email them. According to this New York Times article, calling is the most effective way to bring an important issue to your representative’s mind. Emails can be easily ignored. Phone calls, on the other hand, are more personal. There’s also a better chance of being heard by the right person.
It’s not easy to just pick up the phone and talk about the issues with your mayor, Congressperson or even their political aides, so I’ve included a phone call template (created by the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley and used tirelessly by students across many student organizations to protest or support policies). Feel free to edit and adjust to your needs.
“Hello, my name is ________ and I am a constituent in the member’s jurisdiction. My zip code is [ZIP CODE]. I am calling to express my support/opposition to [BILL NAME/POLICY]. I hope that the member (congressperson/assembly member/councilman/senator) will support/oppose this policy.”
These are just a few of the ways the youth can be civically engaged aside from voting. Keep in mind that these projects all follow the same general pattern: identify an issue, find out what you can do about it, create a plan for how you can proceed and then carry it out. The possibilities are endless!
Youth voices matter, and it’s up to us to make sure we’re being heard.
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