My friend Rob Wilson-Black, the chief executive of Sojourners, often says “Government is just a word we use to mean that which we choose to do together.” But “we” only have a say in government if we organize––if we demand that say.
As the 2016 primary season has heated up, so too have discussions about the unrealized potential of the youth vote. Indeed, in 2014, we saw the lowest youth turnout on record.
True, young people could have far more political power than we are exercising. However, through our voices and our votes, we have been forcing our country to address critical issues of social, racial, and economic justice. Activists across the country are raising essential conversations about structural racism and demanding accountability from their institutions – from universities to governments. Gay marriage is the law of the land in no small part due to young activists and organizers. On the electoral level, young people are helping to reset the terms of debate and challenging the establishment on both sides of the aisle.
Yet it is also true that there are too few of us who believe we can improve our communities through activism. That’s why Generation Citizen’s (GC) work to empower students to take action in their own community is so important. GC is teaching a generation of students to demand better from their communities and our society and to be leaders who empower others to raise their voices for social justice.
GC not only has the power to change policy, but it also has the power to change lives by teaching students to take ownership in their communities and of their education. I saw that power first hand as a Democracy Coach. The moment was so impactful that I still remember it as if it were today.
At Civics Day in December 2014, I watched one of my students give a perfect presentation to one of the judges about our group’s project to bring information about student employment opportunities into Providence’s classrooms. He delivered our class’ message with such simplicity, based on his personal experience, and without a single “um” or “er” or look at his note card. I remember him saying, “We need to bring job information to schools because we need to support our families. Right now, my mom is my mom and my dad, and I need to help her.”
As I got goosebumps hearing him present, his classroom teacher leaned over and asked me: “Do you know that his individual education project focused on correcting for the fact that he never spoke up in class. He was never an advocate for himself and was picked on because of it?”
What the regular classroom agenda could not do, GC’s action civics managed to do – at least for one student.
Sam Gilman is a former Generation Citizen Democracy Coach from Brown University. Sam is co-founder of Common Sense Action (CSA). 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.