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Teen Vogue's #TeenVote2020 Brought Diverse Voices to Election Coverage

This is part of our Rep Us Practitioner Series, in which partners in this field share their experiences running or participating in programs in which young people's voices inform public conversations.

By Madeline McGee, CIRCLE Diverse Democracy Fellow

In 2020, Teen Vogue selected a politically and demographically diverse group of young people to act as a sounding board on issues related to the presidential election. The #TeenVote2020 voter committee, as it was dubbed, sought to amplify the experiences and concerns of young people in a campaign climate that spoke often about the importance of the youth vote without really listening to youth.

CIRCLE caught up with four of the committee members—Ava, Hanna, Ilhan, and Kiden —who shared with us their thoughts about youth voices in the media, the representation (or lack thereof) of marginalized young people, and how youth can act as agents of political and social change.

About the Participants

Ava Johnson is a 19-year-old student at the University of Florida, where she is majoring in political science with a minor in international development and humanitarian assistance. She is a Fellow at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and a Research Fellow in the UF Political Science Department; this summer, she has won a research grant to study China-Africa relations with the Center for African Studies. She is an avid political activist and has worked with the Bernie Sanders Campaign and various nonprofits to advance environmental protection, racial justice, and LGBTQ+ equality.

Hanna Askarpour is an 18-year-old rising freshman at Barnard College in New York. She is currently working on a political Instagram account, is involved with the Columbia Political Union, and ran diversity and inclusion affairs at her high school.

Ilhan Adan is a 19-year-old Somali-American Muslim student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She is involved with the Muslim Student Association and Association of Pan-African Unity.

Kiden-Aloyse Smith is a 19-year-old sophomore at Jackson State University, where she’s double-majoring in mass communications and psychology. Originally from St. Louis, she’s currently living in Connecticut and is involved in the National Association for Black Journalists.

Please describe the work you did as a member of the TeenVote2020 voter committee. Why was this work important to you?

Ava: As a member of the TeenVote2020 voter committee, I contributed to articles on a range of topics in response to central issues of the 2020 United States presidential election, aiming to give readers across the country a sense of the youth’s voice and civic engagement in the political process. As the youth push for progress on existential problems that plague our country such as climate change, rising economic inequality, and social equality—problems which often disproportionately impact future generations—it is important that media seek to represent and accurately reflect the youth voice. My contribution to a committee that sought to do just this was thus incredibly important to my overall goal of amplifying the progressive new wave of young civic participants.

Kiden: As a committee member, I would provide my commentary about various political happenings. The work was important because as a young Black woman, my whole life is politicized. Many policies made disproportionately impact Black folks so it's imperative I’m involved. I also felt like I was able to provide a voice for young Black girls who grew up in similar environments as me, who want people to work for media or political activities.

What is the value of amplifying diverse young voices and acknowledging diverse youth experiences in media?

Hanna: As a young, queer woman of color and a child of immigrants from the Global South, I often feel as though I am spoken over and that my voice is devalued. If I had seen myself and my experience represented in the media, I know I would have grown into a more confident and happy adult. Being able to express my opinions and share my experiences to a large audience not only affected my self-perception, but it surely affected many other people with similar values or experiences to my own. If more people like and unlike me were given the opportunity to speak for themselves, I truly believe that young people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, low-income people, and religious minorities would be more empowered to engage in politics and to be more confident in their opinions in any setting.

Ava: As the only representative of Middle Eastern heritage on the TeenVote2020 voter committee, I felt a significant responsibility to accurately represent my identity with a constant personal acknowledgement that I too often cannot. Amplifying diverse young voices and experiences in the media is paramount, but the effort must not merely amount to tokenism. One voice cannot speak for all. However, I may have been the first young Iranian voice that someone in the rural Midwest might have ever heard, and I felt a duty to ensure that I wielded this power effectively. As a member of the committee, I had the opportunity to publish an op-ed in Teen Vogue’s political section discussing the history of American intervention in Iran and the impacts of imperialist beliefs and attitudes of moral supremacy on Iranians and Iranian Americans. The extensive social reach of Teen Vogue gave my words immense weight, and I was sure to choose them carefully.

Ilhan: In order to progress as a collective in society, we must amplify young voices, especially marginalized voices. Growing up, I never saw an openly Black and also Muslim voice in my local media fighting for important issues that matter to me and lots of people. Now we are making baby steps with amplifying young voices like the great Greta Thunberg, but at the same time, we have yet to amplify and give that platform to voices of color, with the same popularity as Greta. When we do that, we are alienating voices that need the exposure the most given that white supremacy is embedded in the country, especially when it comes to issues such as racism, environmentalism, LGBT discrimination and so much more.

Kiden: It is extremely valuable to amplify diverse young voices and acknowledge it in the media. The youth is the future, the majority of the choices being made by the government will ultimately impact us the most.  I never saw myself in many political activities or media activities because Black women are neglected all too often. Or, there is a token Black person who is expected to represent the entire Black community.  Something I appreciated about TeenVote2020 is that not only were the members racially and ethnically diverse; we all provided something different. We offered different opinions, different political stances and different backgrounds. We were only expected to speak as ourselves, not as our communities. Although we generally agreed on the same things, there was always a differing viewpoint to provide both sides.

What do you think media organizations should do to more effectively uplift young voices and encourage youth participation in the democratic process?

Hanna: Many young people who abstain from voting do so out of a fear that they don’t know enough. I personally believe that this fear is fostered by the formality and exclusivity of major media outlets when discussing politics. Information about political issues does not have to be presented through big fancy words or massive paragraphs. The voter committee did a great job with this through our live chat articles written in a casual voice taken directly from conversations between voter committee members. Big issues presented as casual commentary rather than complex think-pieces are more appealing, and therefore more effective, to a younger audience. The idea that young people, especially young women, are uninformed and uninterested in politics is extremely incorrect and harmful. Instead of peddling this view and disenfranchising young people, we must shift to new forms of providing information. 

Ilhan: Media organizations need to make the best effort to reach out to diverse young voices. There is no excuse at all anymore. Now more than ever, we are trending on every social media site, we are voicing our beliefs and we are at the frontlines marching for what we value the most. They also need to be intersectional and include/amplify ALL voices, not just the straight, cis male ones and try to reach out to us. I believe that if we include us, the less of a stigma there would when it comes to youth political participation. 

Ava: The media’s presentation of the youth’s voice is often cliché-ridden, crafted and spun by writers generations apart from youth. Thus, popular narratives about Generation Z and our ideals are often divorced from reality. To combat this subjectivity, media organizations must uplift young voices by providing them a platform to share their ideas. If young people see their beliefs being represented nationally, listened to, and published, they may feel more encouraged to participate in the democratic process. The despondency, desensitization, and cynicism that plagues young voters must not devolve to apathy; it must drive forth a renewed will for progress.

Do you feel that your participation in TeenVote2020 helped you see the news, the American democratic process, your community, or yourself in a different light?

Hanna: Totally. Through the committee, I was able to see firsthand the importance of diverse young voices speaking on political issues. For the first time in my life, I was able to engage in political conversations without feeling isolated as a woman of color, and I was able to read political opinions from my fellow committee members that I felt reflected my own voice. I know I am not the only person who saw the value in this work either - reading the Instagram comments on posts about the committee and hearing from friends my age about their thoughts on the articles showed me that more people care about politics than I thought. The issue is not that young people don’t care, as I had believed for years; rather, it is that they don’t feel included. The response to TeenVote2020 in my community and beyond showed me how much young people of all walks of life care about political issues when they are presented in an accessible and relatable manner.

Kiden: My participation made me pay more attention to politics for sure. I was always sure to pay attention to what was happening in the government, however, during the Trump Administration; I became so accustomed to tuning politics out because it became exhausting. It became exhausting to hear another statement said against your existence or politicians debate on whether your life matters and try to toggle with human lives. It became more important than ever for me to pay attention, especially because it was my first time voting. Not only was I able to vote, this was an important election.

What is your perspective on the role of young people as political participants and agents of change? How did you see this role play out in TeenVote2020?

Ilhan: Young people, especially Gen Z, now more than ever, are agents of political and social change. They are the ones who are participating and contributing immensely to the biggest movements, they are the ones trending on every social site and reaching out to tons of people. It is imperative that politicians and leaders try to reach out and engage young people because we are the ones who will be and produce the changemakers.

Hanna: There is a stigma surrounding youth involvement in politics and activism: that young people are too idealistic to understand the nature of the world and therefore are unable to participate in real political discourse or action. Though I agree that young people are often more idealistic than their older counterparts, I think that this idealism is necessary. While idealism breeds compassion and creativity, the cynicism branded as realism by those who criticize youth involvement in politics only keeps stagnancy. Young people are able to look past the barriers presented to them and come up with new ways to make change rather than becoming resigned to those barriers and accepting an avoidable fate. Many of the youth-led movements we’ve seen in the past 60 or so years—be it anti-war, civil rights, or climate change—have had a further impact on pushing society forward than anything else. By uplifting the voices of young, idealistic people like those who participated in TeenVote2020, we are making room for youth-led movements to gain traction.

Kiden: Young people belong in politics. I was thoroughly impressed and inspired by what my fellow members were involved with prior to TeenVote 2020. In my own hometown, I had participated in what sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, which was spear-headed by young people. Young people have the energy to incite change. With all the information we need at our fingertips, we are able to learn from our elders and proceed to take those teachings one step forward. I was able to see committee members, along with myself, not only talk, but play active roles in their community. We were all committed to what we talked about.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about the role of young people as citizens or the inclusion of diverse young voices in media? 

Ava: Not all representation is good representation. Perfunctory diversity inclusion for the sake of appearances amounts merely to tokenism, not faithful representation. Thus, in our endeavor to ensure inclusion of diverse young voices in the media, we must acknowledge the diversity of voices and perspectives within underrepresented groups in the same way in which we acknowledge this same diversity in historically represented groups.

Ilhan: It is important to embrace intersectionality in every major industry, especially media and politics. People need to feel like they are welcome and acknowledged for them to participate and engage. By including diverse young voices, people will see and learn from a variety of views and beliefs, resulting in important thought-provoking conversations and discussions. The more people can listen and learn from each other, the more they are able to progress.