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Give Youth Both Knowledge and Personal Connections to Politics

This essay is part of CIRCLE's 2021 Youth Expertise Series, in which young people share ideas, based on their experiences, for how to fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment.

By Sydney Ward

As a junior in high school, I invited my state legislators to meet with students in my school before our state’s legislative session. The school choir room filled with students one afternoon and we saw our state lawmakers talk a lot about taxes and legal jargon, but also how those things applied directly to us and our school. Laws determining extracurricular activities, school funding, and more were decided by the representatives speaking to us, and we had an opportunity to share our experiences with them.

Civic learning opportunities like this town hall event that involved my local political community have made me realize politics isn’t as distant as I realized. That perceived distance was rooted in a lack of personal connection to politics and to those who represented me. The connections that developed as a result of events like this gave me the foundation of political knowledge and personal experience to know how to participate in democracy.

Young people in the U.S. have a unique opportunity to vote just as they begin adulthood. Schools have a responsibility to prepare students to actively engage with their political communities— both textbook knowledge and real-world experience.

Having representatives listen to my very real concerns made me realize I could turn to them to find solutions in my community. I knew I cared about school funding; the schools just north of me had much better technology and teacher salaries, and those to the south had much worse. But there wasn’t a pathway to share my perspective on that issue, at least, not one I learned in my government classes. In sharing those concerns with my representatives, they responded with the active steps they were taking to address those issues at the state legislature.

The town hall event at my school humanized candidates and politicians. After talking with them in our community, I felt empowered to continue reaching out about issues in my school. When a bill went through the state legislature to expand student involvement in school-based mental health services, I reached out to those same representatives and let them know I supported the bill. Many students attended the town hall because of teachers prompting them, but the opportunity to talk with real elected officials encouraged many of my peers to pre-register to vote after the event. To me, this is just one example of how building communities within local politics can motivate young people to be civically engaged.

How do we ensure young people in the US not only have the political knowledge, but also the personal connection to participate in democracy?

Some existing civic education methods only serve to further isolate young people from government. Making Young Voters, a book detailing studies on youth voting habits, explains that the existing emphasis on facts and memorization “may have also created counterproductive expectations about what citizens should know to be qualified to vote.” The lack of emphasis placed on how to connect with one's political community leaves young people without the necessary tools to begin acting in the civic arena. Instead, they are given a list of presidents and court cases that are held as thresholds of readiness to vote.

Ideally, civic education should ground young people in their lived experience and communities as an avenue for participation, rather than creating knowledge benchmarks. Developing skills of inquiry, rather than of memorization, is essential.

Project-based assignments are a catalyst for long-term civic involvement and overall school achievement. This action civics approach goes beyond our existing perceptions of how to prepare someone to vote in the United States. In my experience, I had to memorize the 26th Amendment, but was not given the opportunity to register to vote in my government class. Simple Q&As with local representatives like the one hosted at my high school, voter registration drives, and mock elections are just a few ways that schools can help young people develop real civic skills.

Further, young people need to have the opportunity to interact with elected officials, so they are prepared to participate when elections come. As a first time voter, I realized that voting for a candidate becomes a lot more real once you know they will make decisions that have tangible effects on you. I want to have the political knowledge and confidence in myself as a voter to reach out and talk to those candidates. Candidates should not ignore young people as a voting bloc, but the confidence that youth can gain from participating in a political community while in school—by registering to vote, talking to representatives, and discussing real local issues as a student cohort—could help to bridge that gap.

My lived experience of our education system and the issues I saw there impact how I approach the ballot now. That concern for my community lasts beyond graduation, and the skills I learned in my government class do too. As schools partner with local governments to strengthen civic education, young people can develop the relationships, personal connection, and dedication to government and democracy that drive them to action.

The skills civic education teaches are a basic need in America—civil communication, media literacy, empathy—and schools are the only institution designed to reach young people in a comprehensive way. Similarly to how school-based mental health services, school lunch programs, and other basic needs are best provided by schools because of their ability to reach all youth, there are few other opportunities to offer equitable access to civic education the way public schools can. A commitment to equitable civic education could help to even the playing field created by racial and gender hierarchies, economic inequalities, and access to social capital, and give more young people the tools to participate from the beginning of their civic careers. To ensure all communities have access to civic information and skillbuilding, and particularly those most marginalized by legislation to restrict voting rights, schools must act as equitable incubators for the civic arena.

In a country where national politics is the stage for angry politicians and stalemate-driven legislation, local politics offer a civic arena to see real impact and offer schools the easiest access. Attending a school board meeting and testifying in support of a curriculum adjustment can alter the course offerings for a whole district. Having a conversation with a state representative could change their vote on a vital school funding bill. That political impact can happen without sparking partisan debate and divisiveness, which so often pushes people away from politics.

Students should work with teachers and administration, and alongside local representatives, to co-create learning experiences. When schools partner with local governments to create opportunities for active civic education, young people will be equipped with lived experience to drive lifelong civic engagement.


Sydney Ward is a sophomore at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, studying public relations. She works as the marketing coordinator at Student Voice and hopes to continue a career in advocacy and communications.