M E M O R A N D U M
TO: Mayor Bill de Blasio
CC: Carmen Fariña
RE: Youth Civic Engagement
On behalf of youth-serving organizations from across New York City, we would like to congratulate you on your resounding victory to become the city’s mayor. It is clear that your progressive message, focusing on the importance of increasing economic and social equality for all New Yorkers, has resonated with all demographics, including young people – 72% of 18- to 30-year-olds cast their vote for you.
We urge you to use your recent election as a catalytic moment to advocate forcefully for measures that will increase youth political participation and civic engagement in New York City. Specifically, we urge that you use your bully pulpit to focus on the importance of increasing youth political participation, ensure that civics education is further incorporated into school curricula, advocate lowering the voting age to 17 in local elections, support legislation allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to serve on community boards, and promote voter pre-registration legislation.
Despite youth interest in the election, we are sure you are aware that this election saw only 24% of eligible voters participate, the lowest turnout in over 50 years. While some of this was surely due to your overwhelming lead in the polls, it is clear that New Yorkers are part of a nationwide trend of decreasing political participation. While we may trace much of this to fallout from the gridlock and dysfunction of Washington, D.C., it is also clear that even on a municipal level, the Bloomberg administration did not productively engage citizens in the political process throughout its three terms. This is especially pronounced amongst young people: millennials, or 18- to 29-year-olds, accounted for only 11% of voters in 2013. Low-income and minority youth are even further disenfranchised from politics, not taught or encouraged to effectively voice their opinions and thus ignored by decision-makers concerned with supporting their most vocal constituents. A more just and equitable community, the one that you and your administration have envisioned, demands not only economic equality, but also political equality.
Representing a wide variety of youth-serving organizations, from civics education to policy advocacy, we care deeply about addressing this problem by engaging young people in the political process and promoting active citizenship among our youth. As someone who was politically active from a young age, you know both the value of civic engagement and the limited number of young people who are so inclined. We aim to work with you to help create a government that both advocates for the needs of young people while simultaneously valuing their input. We believe that youth voice can serve a vital role in helping you and your administration determine and accomplish policy priorities.
Part of the problem is that we are not prioritizing youth civic engagement and education; we are not educating our young people toward becoming effective participants in our democracy. In our country, youth can get a driver’s license at 16. In the years prior, they receive a permit, take driver education classes, and ultimately, take a road test to earn their license. They are given the opportunity to learn, practice, and refine their skills. Conversely, when young people turn 18, they are told to participate in our democracy by casting ballots, but we are not adequately teaching them beforehand why meaningful engagement with the political process is necessary, or what engagement looks like beyond the voting booth. You can help us ensure that every young person in New York City receives a comprehensive, useful citizenship preparation course – a driver’s ed for politics, so that by the time they turn 18, they are prepared to get behind the wheel of our democracy.
To that end, we have developed a set of five concrete policy proposals specifically designed to increase youth political participation:
1) Use your Authority and Influence to Focus on the Importance of Increasing Youth Political Participation
You can use your position as mayor to make the case for the importance of youth political participation. As a former community organizer, you are keenly aware of the importance of citizen involvement in the political process. You can focus an early mayoral speech on the importance of youth political participation, ensuring that your education focus is not solely on preparing youth to become career- and college-ready, but also citizen-ready. Drive home the point that in order for your administration to be successful, you need citizens to participate. And not just to further your agenda, but to provide valuable insight into the overall political process.
On the City Level:
2) Ensure that Civics Education is Further Incorporated into School Curricula
Civics education should serve as a great equalizer, equipping all students with the knowledge and skills to effectively participate in their communities. As of now, this is not the case. As you and NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña consider your priorities for reforming the city’s education system, you should make civics education a priority. Currently, NYC students are required to take a one-semester Participation in Government class. The class is widely underutilized: it is most commonly offered in 12th grade, when many students are checked-out of material not directly related to their post-graduate lives, and teachers often lack the training and resources to effectively bolster course content with real-world applications.
You can make civics education a priority by promoting civic content in 8th grade social studies courses and reinforcing the importance of the current Participation in Government class, by ensuring that students are assessed on their civic knowledge and skills, by providing resources for professional development for teachers in civics education, and by providing city funds to effective non-profit organizations that help teach civics.
3) Support Lowering the Voting Age to 17 in Local Elections
The town of Takoma Park, Maryland, recent lowered the voting age to 16 for local elections. This act ensured that young people would be educated about voting, and encouraged to vote, while they were still in school, whereas most young people have graduated (or dropped out) from high school by the time they are of voting age. The act resulted in 44% of registered 16- to 17-year-olds voting in the recent local elections, compared with 11% of the overall town electorate.
Supporting lowering the NYC voting age would demonstrate your commitment to youth political engagement and undoubtedly stimulate a national conversation on the topic. While controversial, this would be an extremely powerful statement.
On the State Level:
4) Advocate for a Bill Allowing 16- and 17-Year-Olds to Serve on Community Boards
Throughout New York City, community boards allow everyday citizens to participate in and help guide the political process, addressing zoning issues and other neighborhood concerns. The State Assembly and State Senate are considering bills that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve on their local boards. This would allow young people to make their voices heard in the city, while also giving youth ownership over local issues. It would benefit communities by incorporating the voice of a large percentage of local residents, by affording boards a direct outlet to advertise initiatives to young people, and by training the next generation of community leaders and advocates from an early age. You can lend your support to this legislation and help ensure that this powerful opportunity will be made available for young people and their communities.
5) Support Pre-Registration Legislation
The New York State Assembly is considering legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year olds to preregister to vote, following the efforts of over a dozen states that have successfully passed similar bills. With only 46% of eligible voters between 18 and 24 years of age registered to vote as of the 2010 census, this change would ensure that more young people become both registered and educated in schools on the importance of voting, before they graduate. You can support these efforts and urge the Assembly to pass this legislation.
While there is no silver-bullet solution to increase youth civic engagement, we are hopeful that you can play a leading role in helping to ensure that young people are a valued and respected demographic, and are taught and given the opportunity to take responsibility for their communities. We look forward to working with you on this critical initiative.
Arab American Association of New York
Community Services with Faith, Hope, and Charity
Council for Unity
Operation Exodus from Inner City, Inc.
Resilience Advocacy Project
Rockaway Youth Task Force
Sadie Nash Leadership Project
The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network
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.