When It Comes to Civic Engagement, Young People Know Better Than to Hit It and Quit It on Election Day!

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Written by Andrew Jenkins for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

After months of political ads, voter registration drives, presidential debates, and the circus that is an election cycle, we’re finally approaching the big day. And although this is a new year and a new election, some things never seem to change. Erroneous claims of voter apathy. Widespread fear that young people won’t show up to the polls. The ‘knight in shining armor’ complex masqueraded as a legitimate way to engage Millennials. But don’t sweat it. Because while everyone else continues to treat us as a politically expedient resource to be tapped into, dried up, and dumped when our usefulness is gone, young people will be doing the real work.

We’ll be doing the work that matters.

While everyone else is analyzing polls and auctioning tired theories about our propensity to vote, we’ll be talking about the issues that are relevant to our lived experiences and ultimately the well-being of our generation. While political pundits and campaign talking heads continue to avoid the issues that matter most to Millennials, we’ll be centralizing them and leveraging a message that actually inspires young people to get out and vote.

Most importantly, we’ll be engaging our peers because we have a vested interest in building the collective power of our generation. No ulterior motives. No strings attached. And in a parasitic political culture that values young people solely for their short-term utility in swinging elections, intentions matter, and it’s imperative that we lead the charge in mobilizing our generation. The key to unlocking the youth vote will not be found in hollow rhetoric, after-thoughts, or short-term investments. And it certainly won’t be found in pejorative tropes about young people.

In fact, they make matters worse. When we buy into the notion that Millennials are apathetic, self-absorbed, and disengaged, we’re doing the status quo a favor. We’re alienating young people. And despite the political expedience that comes with blaming youth voter turn-out for every problem ever, power structures actually rely on this false narrative to make us feel powerless and ultimately drive young people away from the political process altogether.

The false narrative of youth apathy is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The key to unlocking the youth vote is prioritizing our issues, centralizing our voices, and strategically investing in our generation before, during, and after the election.

Make no doubt about it. Young people are watching, and we’ll be voting in this election.

You see, we’re voting in this election because we care about the future of our country and we’re eager to play a role in shaping that future. Some of us are voting for the environment and education. Some of us are voting for reproductive rights and marriage equality. The issues that carry us to the polls may vary, but it is our steadfast commitment to change — to progress — that inspires us to show up and vote. And we do it — time and time again — even in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Even when the odds are stacked up against us, we fight back. Sound apathetic to you?

Not a chance.

At the University of Pittsburgh, students are collaborating in a non-partisan vote coalition to turn out thousands of voters on their campus. At the University of Texas El Paso, a group of six students were able to register 800 young people to vote in just one day. On National Voter Registration Day, young people registered over 277,000 new voters across the country. And while everyone else continues to sing the tune of voter apathy, youth-led and youth-focused organizations like Choice USA, Young People For, and the Generational Alliance are investing in young leaders. And what’s especially unique about this work is that it’s focused on planting the seeds for sustainable, long-term change.

When it comes to civic engagement, Millennials know better than to hit it and quit it.

Sexual innuendos aside, student activists are actually the ones driving other young people to the polls with messages that resonate: vote like your [sex] life depends on it. Because it does.

This election isn’t just about two presidential candidates. It isn’t just about who controls the Senate, and it certainly isn’t about party line victories. This election, like so many others, is about having the right to control our own bodies and subsequently determine the outcome of our lives. This election is about our future. And our future – our collective destiny – starts with the ability to make healthy and informed decisions about our own bodies. Yes, that means access to birth control and medically accurate and evidenced-based sex education. It means affordable and accessible education. It means justice for undocumented immigrants and LGBT youth.

But it also means structural and paradigmatic change. This election, and the political moment that transcends it, is about forging the connection between our personal lives — our sexual lives — and systems of oppression. It’s about exposing the power structures that seek to benefit from our alienation, and building the collective power we need to uproot them.

And you know what? We’re going to win.

We are the most diverse and progressive thinking generation in history. We’re also the most powerful electoral force in the country and we have the talent, passion, and sense of justice that is so desperately needed to do the work our predecessors couldn’t. We’re resilient, and our methodologies for change are as dynamic, complex, and multifaceted as the diverse communities that make up our generation.

You see, for Millennials, voting is only one aspect of political engagement. Albeit an incredibly important aspect, it isn’t the defining symbol of our generation’s activism. And if voting has become the litmus test for political engagement, I fear that we’ve lost sight of what’s truly important about democracy. For young people, the morning after is what really counts. We’re tired of the cyclical abandonment of our generation after every election and we’re done playing a political game that serves everyone’s interests except our own.

That’s why we aren’t just voting in this election.

We aren’t just turning out voters for the sake of voting. We’re mobilizing young people to vote with a collective purpose and vision. In the end — whatever the outcome — we’re building sustainable progressive change and we’re making sure that our brand of political engagement doesn’t come with an expiration date.

Photo: “irrezolut” (Joseph Nicolia) licensed by Creative Commons

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