As someone who works to empower youth voice and encourage them to get civically involved, I recently had great occasion to celebrate. As this linked press release shows, nearly 100 youth from all corners had turned out at the San Francisco Board of Education meeting to express their passionate arguments as to why they should be given the right to vote – in this case, in municipal elections – also known as the Vote16SF initiative.
The initiative, which is on track to be voted on by the San Francisco voters this November, would lower the voting age in local elections to 16. It’s part of GC’s national Vote16USA efforts to lower the voting age as a way to spur youth political participation and effective civics education.
The arguments and counter-arguments each seemed to be addressed by the time the line of 40+ people finished giving public comment. From “too young or irresponsible”, to “too easily influenced by their parents”, to “not informed enough about the issues”, and on, and on…
For every point, students gave compelling reasons – if not actual research, evidence or personal experiences – as to why each of those arguments just didn’t hold up. Were you to give some credence to the idea that each student in that cramped chamber was representative of some greater number of youth out in the community, you quickly realized that youth in general just aren’t given the credit and credibility they justly deserve.
Of course, many that night were also apt to acknowledge youth aren’t perfect – they have much to learn and have their stereotypical “teenager” moments. But the overwhelming sentiment – and what we saw from each student that got up to speak – was that there are significant numbers of youth that are just as invested, opinionated or informed on issues that impact their daily lives, as might be compared to the adults that surround them. (And to add insult to injury, not only do we know that many adults are actually woefully uninformed citizens, but worse, they don’t even exercise their right to vote…and yet here we’re telling 16 and 17 years old who do care and are informed and want to vote that they’re not able to.) Better than any adult could say, we were able to hear dozens of articulate arguments about why enfranchising 16- and 17-year olds is in fact the just, equitable thing to do.
Going into the meeting, the expectation was that of the seven Commissioners, four – at best five – were on board in supporting the Vote16 initiative. The youth had organized and staged a training area before the meeting to help people crystalize their arguments and personal statements. Walking in to the room you saw tables and chairs rearranged, posters and index cards and photocopies plastering the room, everyone’s bags in the corner – overshadowed only by huge towers of pizza boxes (one of the first rules of getting people to show up to community events!).
By the evening’s end – after hearing remarkable stories from children of incarcerated parents, of undocumented parents, from evicted families, from single-parent homes where mom works two jobs and barely has time to spend time with her kids, much less vote, but the child so desperately wants to get involved, and so much more – the board came to give unanimous support from all seven Commissioners.
Now, of course political pressure (i.e. a room packed full of youth and their friends and family, news cameras, and more) has its place in all this, but each Commissioner that had until that point been undecided – or even leaned opposed – was able to articulate for themselves why they could now see the virtues of extending the franchise to these impassioned community members.
After the vote came through, we adjourned to the lobby, sweaty and spent, but still eager to embrace each other and offer congratulations all around. Ready to head home, we remembered…those towers of now mostly-empty pizza boxes, organizing supplies, workbags, and more to do upstairs. Like those pesky all-too-influential parents once taught us, “Always put things back how you found them”. And just as it is with all social justice movements, the work is never done. We eventually cleaned up and headed home, gratified by an evening spent surrounded by active, engaged citizens that anyone in society could be proud of.
And now today, it’s back to work, giving continued voice to our amazing next generation of voters!
– David Moren, Generation Citizen Bay Area Site Director
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.