A few weeks ago, in my American Government class, my teacher asked, “Who plans to vote when they turn eighteen?” I watched as only half of the class raised their hands. Many who did not plan to vote claimed confidently that their voices did not matter. This apathy toward civic engagement is not unique, and while I used to be shocked when my classmates or friends felt so unequivocally that politics was not “for them,” I’m now only sad, not surprised. For many of my teenage peers, politics and government are not opportunities to create change but abstract systems too complicated to understand, much less to engage with.
This winter, while helping to plan Beyond the Vote: Youth Civic Participation from Classroom to Community in celebration of Civic Learning Week, I questioned the origin of this reality. Working with high school students from across New York State to plan this webinar, I wondered what made civic engagement so exciting to us but so unreachable and overwhelming for many of our classmates.
During the panel, Chelsea Miller, an activist and co-founder of Freedom March NYC, noted that Gen Z's withdrawal from policy and politics may have stemmed from the lack of “a culture that encourages young people to be involved in the democratic process and take action on the issues that matter to them.”
To me, this rings true.
Why do I engage with my community? My most meaningful motivation to continue working to better my neighborhood and city comes from the smallest victories, the reminders that my work has a real impact: when a candidate I have volunteered for won their election by mere hundreds of votes, or a bill I have called my representatives about passed the state legislature. The idea that my voice has made even the slightest difference reinforces my commitment to my community. But for many of my peers, even beginning to engage feels out-of-reach.
“If we empower our students more… the community will get more involved with the school, and the school will therefore get more involved in the community,” said Salamanca High School teacher Justin Hubbard at Beyond the Vote. I believe that schools must offer us the opportunities to create real change in order to empower students in the ways Hubbard hopes.
When I spoke during the webinar to New York City Council Member Christopher Marte and Gabriel Lewenstein, Chief of Staff to Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, they shared how empowered they felt at the prospect of "keep[ing] every issue local" to create greater impact.
For students, what is more local than their schools?
From curriculum development to school budget allocation, there are opportunities for civic learning in every aspect of school policy. “For young people today," said Chelsea Miller, "it is especially important to show up where policy-making decisions are made."
When it comes to engaging in school policy, youth change-making can have reverberating effects beyond a single school — whether it is through holding leadership positions on school boards or advising members of the Department of Education or Board of Regents — and give students a window into the inner workings of government and public policy. These important opportunities should be afforded to youth across New York and around the country.
Reflecting further on my questions of why young people feel so detached from civic engagement and how this issue can be remedied, I understand better now that student power is key. By including student voices everywhere education decisions are made, young people will learn the value of our opinions and prepare for a future of meaningful civic engagement.
As Chancellor of the Board of Regents Lester Young emphasized during Beyond the Vote, New York City is the largest school district in the country, and New York State has almost 2.5 million elementary, middle, and high school students. If student involvement in policymaking was emphasized statewide, millions of students would have the opportunity to become civic leaders, empowered to better their communities.