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Guest Post – The Local Chapter: A Model for Civic Engagement

By: Liana Wang, High School Democrats of America

This guest post is the second in a series about whether and how youth electoral engagement can have broader goals, including connections to civic life and democracy more generally

Since 2005, the completely student-run High School Democrats of America (HSDA) has engaged thousands of high school students in progressive politics. This success can be attributed to its 500 local chapters nationwide, typically based in schools, which bring opportunities for civic engagement directly to youth. The unique ability of local chapters to reach a key population cohort counters both the narrative of politically disinterested youth and the barriers to student political participation. Along with long-term advancements in political participation, the connection between education settings and political structures fosters immediate expansion in the volume and diversity of voices represented in our electoral system.

The local chapter model provides a unique intersection between education and partisan political involvement. Because HSDA members and leaders are students, they have the opportunity, ability, and legal right to organize local chapters in public schools. The Equal Access Act of 1984 specifies that all federally funded schools allowing non-curriculum clubs to meet during non-instructional time cannot restrict any such group regardless of “religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.”[1] For example, the formation of Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) is legally protected under this clause.[2] Unlike other model government or single-issue clubs, however, HSDA local chapters directly involve students in the political process by offering opportunities for engagement, from campaign internships to partisan discussions and voter registration drives. These chapters create an often otherwise inaccessible space for discussion of charged ideas, promotion of issue advocacy, and introduction of campaign activism.

The HSDA national structure oversees state chapters, which in turn connect local chapters to national initiatives, state projects, and valuable resources. However, local chapters are the primary agents of activism under the HSDA model. Given a high degree of latitude and flexibility, they adapt activities to the context of their high school and community, facilitating grassroots organizing directed specifically toward youth. Research shows that the years between ages 14 and 24 are the “most formative” part of a person’s life for determining long-term political ideology.[3] How students perceive politics impacts the voting patterns of a generation. For this reason, chapters are crucial in establishing political engagement as a valued habit in high school. This normalization of the political process is key to reducing apathy and introducing issues of lasting importance to first-time and future voters.

Cheshire High School of Connecticut, which was awarded the 2015 HSDA Local Chapter of the Year Award by U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, exemplifies this model’s success. Political opportunities not only helped members to fulfill community service graduation requirements—members volunteered over 800 hours in the past year alone—they allowed students to have hands-on civic experiences. Cheshire chapter members attended Governor Dan Malloy’s inauguration, hosted a rally featuring U.S. Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty and Connecticut Democratic Party Chair Nick Balletto, and connected students with numerous campaigns and elected officials. As students heard from speakers, worked on elections, and registered voters, they learned firsthand how integral political participation is to true democracy.

Local chapters nationwide fulfill the same unique capacity to engage high school students through peer-to-peer activism—with the same successful impacts. Chapter leaders at Jordan High School in Utah made national headlines with a gender equality bake sale, charging female students 77 cents and male students a full dollar to highlight persistent pay gap inequalities.[4] When Michigan’s state legislature introduced a bill to lower the minimum wage for young workers, local chapters statewide gathered to show solidarity against the proposed law.[5] Through booths and circulation of an online petition, students raised awareness in Michigan schools, making it clear that politics have a real-world impact on youth.

At Lincoln High School in South Dakota, chapter members planned protests against a recent “bathroom bill” in their state legislature which discriminated against transgender youth.[6] Youth realized political participation makes history; with over 100 people protesting at one local legislative coffee, they mounted increasing public pressure that ultimately concluded in the Governor’s veto.[7][8][9] During the third annual HSDA Voter Registration Week of Action in September 2015, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., registered more than 400 voters. As local chapters register high school voters year after year, a culture that prizes voting as a civic duty is built.

During this 2016 election cycle, outreach to a new wave of young voters, volunteers, and activists is even more essential to campaigns, political parties, and the vitality of our representative system itself. Most political organizations seek and hope for youth participation. Many students are interested and willing to get involved. Local chapters align the aims of each, redefining for students their oft-distorted image of politics while ensuring the oft-ignored voice of students reaches politicians. This creates cyclical reinforcement, strengthening the relationship between students and politics.

Additional research and support of local student-led opportunities will engage more youth in the electoral process. In the face of voter apathy, the HSDA local chapter model amplifies the voice of active youth to reach their school communities. Public education cuts, environmental justice, and a host of other issues most directly affect young people in the present and future. Ensuring youth are represented in current policy decisions on these issues at the ballot box, and through sustained civic engagement, is critical to equitable and effective governance.

To learn more about HSDA and chapter engagement, please visit