Generation Citizen empowers underrepresented youth to be active participants in the democratic process. Find more information about them here: www.generationcitizen.org. Follow them on Twitter at @Gencitizen and Facebook at facebook.com/generationcitizen.
This post was written by Gillian Pressman, Greater Boston Program Manager for Generation Citizen
As part of Rock the Vote’s Democracy Day 2012, I visited one of our fantastic Generation Citizen classes at the Another Course to College high school in the Brighton community of Boston. The students, a group of seniors and juniors, had identified as their focus issue the lack of community service options for students in their school, and had decided to institute a Community Service Day for all students in their school. “Students here want to do more community service,” they said, “and it needs to be stuff that actually makes a difference.”
Generously, the students took a break from their project work to let me step in and do a quick lesson fromDemocracy Class. The lesson, a “Mock Election,” had two students square off as candidates for a new Class Representative position. After the candidates made quick speeches (pictured) and everyone got ready to vote, I threw them a curveball: I randomly picked half of the students to go the back of the room and told them that they couldn’t vote because they hadn’t registered. Then, I gave the candidates each three pieces of candy and told them that they could hand these out as “gifts” to any student they wanted prior to the election. Unsurprisingly, none of the “unregistered” students received any candy from the candidates.
After we actually went through with the election, we talked about what happened. What did it feel like for the disenfranchised students to not be able to participate? “I felt unequal.” “I felt like an immigrant who is not allowed to be part of this country.” “I felt like I didn’t have a choice.” “I felt useless.”
We also talked about the significance of those candy gifts. Students recognized that those “gifts” could represent money, jobs, support, or publicity that candidates give out as ways to win votes, and that those gifts are only going to people who vote. I shared the statistic that only about 50% of youth vote in elections, compared to about 75% of older Americans. If I were a candidate looking to get votes, I certainly wouldn’t try to secure youth jobs or support youth-related causes when I knew that their turnout was so low.
Through Generation Citizen, youth experience the value of participating in democracy. While our definition of democratic participation goes beyond voting –we help youth discover how they can effect change by lobbying elected officials, mobilizing local decision makers, and attracting media attention– motivation to register and to vote is part of the key outcomes we hold ourselves accountable to as a program. Why do we think it’s important to improve voting motivation in our mission to empower youth? In the words of one Another Course to College student: reflecting on the activity: “If you register to vote and you actually vote, you won’t feel useless.”
Thank you to Rock the Vote, Elise, our Mentor from Northeastern. and Mr. Howland, our partner teacher at Another Course to College, for making the activity possible.