This article originally appeared in Sesi’s Summer 2020 issue. Subscribe here to stay up on our current editions.
Since 45’s election nearly four years ago, our country has experienced an increase in racism, hate crimes, and injustices. We are met with a constant barrage of videos displaying police brutality, “Karen-ing,” and other examples of discrimination toward people who look like us. It’s practically the norm. But this year, we have a chance to turn the tide before the flood of fascism swallows us whole. Here’s how you can help.
GET HIP TO THE ISSUES
Educating yourself is forever relevant. There’s so much knowledge around you, and it’s up to you to seek it. Before you can find solutions to a problem or contribute to a cause, you’ve got to understand the issues surrounding it. True, politics can be intimidating sometimes, but as Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communication in African and African-American studies at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore reminds us, take it one step at a time.
“You don’t have to have solutions for everything,” she says. “You don’t even have to know about every single issue. Choose a few. Start small because when you start small, you have more of a chance of being committed to the long haul.”
Maybe you want to investigate issues surrounding funding for school systems or art programs in your area. Or, maybe you want to dig deeper into topics including climate change and voter suppression. Whatever it is, start with a quick online search for sources that will lead you to a better understanding of the issues you choose. And keep up with trusted news sources on the regular. This can include watching videos, reading articles, and even following your fave, reputable journalists on social media; just stay engaged.
“Don’t just read the sides of the argument that you agree with [either], but read the ones that don’t agree with you, so you can understand where the other side is coming from,” Dr. Whitehead says. “It will also strengthen your argument and your discussion points.”
Identify your interests and find out how they connect with government. What extracurricular activities or hobbies do you enjoy? What are your favorite subjects in school? Take a look at your day-to-day activities or the issues that impact your family to help you get started.
Even if you’re not old enough to vote in this year’s presidential election, still take the time to educate yourself on the basics, as well as issues that matter most to you. “[Teens like you] will be voters very shortly, and the issues that matter today, like the environment, reproductive justice, and criminal justice reform, will matter tomorrow,” says Dr. Niambi Carter, assistant professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “These issues won’t go away. Although other people are controlling what happens today, [young people] will be the ones living with those consequences and will hopefully be steering the ship in the future.”
CHOP IT UP
Whether you are or aren’t of voting age, you have the power to influence others. Encourage your parents to vote. Encourage your siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, and cousins to vote. Keep it real and tell them what issues matter to you and why. By initiating these conversations, you can catch your immediate network up on how they can make a difference.
“They can push their parents into voting. They can raise the issues to the front. They can put their bodies on the line,” says Dr. Whitehead. “Talk to [your parents] about the candidates they’re supporting. Talk to them about the issues that you think are important.”
Simply talking about the importance of the upcoming election can lead to a domino effect, potentially causing one person and then another and then another to head to the polls or to vote differently. What’s more, these discussions allow you to practice using your voice, an essential part of a true democracy — one we’re still trying to build.
“This nation prevented African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, and the incarcerated from voting in this country,” Dr. Carter says. “We have never had a truly representative democracy in this country. We need to turn our attention to trying to reach some semblance of representation. I think if we do that, with a mind for those who are most marginalized in our society, we may have a shot at creating a more robust democracy for all … This will require both activism and voting for our interests.”
RIDE A WAVE OR CREATE ONE
To be the change you want to see, you’ll need to squad up with like-minded people. Not sure where to begin? Start with your neighborhood, school, or campus. Ask your friends, virtual and otherwise, what causes and organizations they support. If you feel comfortable, your teachers, mentors, counselors, and coaches may be able to lead you in the right direction.
“It’s the club around gun control. It’s the club around what’s happening with #BlackLivesMatter,” Dr. Whitehead says. “Find a club and engage with it.”
There are also larger organizations, such as Black Girls Vote, the Rep Us Project, and Youth Service America that work to amplify teen voices. Once you figure out your stance on issues important to you, it’ll be easier to decide which movements you get down with heaviest.
“There was never a time that existed where there’s been issues and Black folks have not been actively engaged and actively leaned in, sometimes even if it would put their own lives at risk,” says Dr. Whitehead, who has been a part of movements since she was 13 years old during the OG Civil Rights struggle. “We’ve never relented.”
As you ride this wave, you’ll not only learn from those around you, but you’ll also be able to get hands-on experience with civic engagement. And if you find a void, don’t be afraid to get out there and fill it.
WRITE, POST, SHARE
This one is probably the easiest of all — so easy, you don’t even have to leave home. Once you know your position on topics, you can begin to spread political messages: Post on social media, write your elected officials, start a podcast, or even pitch Op-Eds to your local and school papers. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. As long as you can back up your arguments, ride for them.
“We need to have more people of color who are at the table to challenge, and not to conform, to what’s being said,” Dr. Whitehead says. “Don’t go in that door just so you can become one of them. You remain one of us, and you’re at the table representing us.”
As human beings, we bring our own set of perspectives and experiences to the table that are based on several factors, including age, race, and gender, so when the seats at these metaphorical tables are missing certain voices, decisions are then being made by people who do not understand your community’s specific needs. By claiming your spot and advocating for people who look like you, you can ensure your voice is heard going forward, which is the key to enacting any sort of change.
“I think what we’ve seen under Donald Trump is that we are in grave danger of losing the rights that we have fought for in this country,” says Dr. Whitehead. “We are in the midst of a very contentious season, where white nationalism and neo-Nazism and white supremacy is becoming normalized.”
With 45 in office, our rights and our voices are at constant risk, so it’s important to put them to use as often as we can. And that most definitely includes voting if you’re of age.
ROCK THE VOTE
Will you be at least 18 come November 3? Hit. Up. The. Polls. And don’t stop with the presidential election; head to the local ones, as well. Don’t ever get it twisted — your vote does count.
“It is important to vote because it is your right. I think of the personal sacrifice of people like my grandparents who were denied the right to vote for much of their lives. I vote out of respect for them,” says Dr. Carter. “My motivations, however, may not be yours. If, for no other reason, voting is one of the ways that you can make your preferences known.”
Not of voting age? Your voice still matters, and there are other things you can be voting on. For example, you can participate in elections at your school or in student organizations. Get in the habit now of exercising your rights so, when it’s finally time to cast your first ballot, you’ll be ready.
“If you don’t like the direction your state is taking on the disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated, the funding for state universities, [or] procedures to reopen during COVID-19, then you need to vote your interests at the state level,” Dr. Carter says. “You need to vote again in the midterms if you don’t like what your senators and representatives are doing in Washington. You can also advocate for yourself at the local level. Go to your commission meetings, your school board meetings, and your zoning commission meetings. Even better, become the representative you want. At the local level, there are a number of political offices that young people can compete for, like school boards and city councils, which have a great deal of sway over their everyday lives.”
Can’t physically make it to the polls? Don’t sweat it. Check out your state’s rules regarding absentee and early voting. As of now, only two-thirds of states greenlight absentee voting without providing an excuse. You may be required to complete and send in an application to receive a mail-in ballot, and each state has its own rules regarding absentee ballot deadlines. Vote.org is a great starting point, but it’s best to confirm directly with your state.
What Black Teen Girls Like You are Saying About the Election
“Voting is an important right; we should not take it for granted. We must vote for people who will serve our communities … Those who can vote, I ask that you please do me a favor: VOTE like our futures depend on it because [they do]. Be an upstander! It is also important that nonvoting teens like me get informed and share our ideas with our caregivers and the adults around us. Let them know the things that matter to you, so they can vote with you in mind.” – Marley Dias, 15
“Teens can get involved with politics by learning! Political education is the most powerful tool we have to enact change. Learn about how the world works, so you can work with others and change it.” – Elsa Mengistu, 18
“Voting means you have a voice in the world you live in … all of our voices can work for the greater good. As teenagers, it’s important to pay attention to politics now, so we can learn what to do and what not to do when we are the ones in power. Also, it’s important because most revolutions have started by young people questioning authority and the way things are.” – Hannah Lucas, 18
“I really believe that it’s important to vote, and while it seems that there are many obstacles or reasons that support not voting, I’m excited to know that I [will choose] to vote on behalf of my nation’s betterment and its people … Youth voices, thoughts, and opinions are often not taken seriously or even considered, while a lot of decisions that are made influence us tremendously. We have to make sure that we’re heard and putting ourselves out there on every platform we can, so that we can advocate for other youth and better our nation.”
– Jordan Walker, 17 (will be 18 by election day)
“I believe that liberation will be achieved when we are able to begin to prioritize justice and equity on all levels. That being said, I do not believe that we will liberate our communities only by showing up to cast a ballot, but I do believe that voting can be a tool. It is important that we show up to put people in office who will do the work of pushing for change, and not just talk about it.” – Zyahna Bryant, 19
*Photos courtesy of subjects (Marley Dias, Elsa Mengistu, and Jordan Walker); Hannah Lucas photo by Brianna Moné; Zyahna Bryant photo by Nay Nichelle; Gifs via Giphy
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