Do teens care about politics and civic life?
By Mina Yuan
Though they know of current events, students see themselves as less active in making change than previous generations
WHEN THE BELL RINGS at Wayzata High School, Syed Hasan is just another high school junior, rushing out of the classroom with his phone in hand and friends in tow.
But rather than checking Twitter or Snapchat, Hasan reads campaign updates. Instead of discussing weekend plans with friends, he champions the virtues of Napoleon Bonaparte’s policies. Whether debating political ideologies in class or watching campaign debates at home, Hasan constantly immerses himself in politics.
“It’s important to know as much as one can in politics to ensure the formation of valid opinions,” he said. “I won’t be able to vote in the 2016 election, unfortunately, but I would most likely vote (if I could).”
Hasan described himself as “apathetic to the whole process” until an eye-opening freshman civics class. A combination of excellent teachers and politically involved peers inspired him to pay closer attention to his community’s policies. His classmates say it is now impossible to talk with him without mentioning politics.
However, most teenagers are not as civically engaged as Hasan. Some don’t associate day-to-day problems with politics, and others feel discouraged when adults ignore their opinions, they say. Yet both view teenagers as not as politically active as they once were.
“I’m not going to say any of us are too familiar with (politics),” said Contessa Bostic, a senior at Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul.
A Ramsey County voting sign sits outside of a polliing location at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 2015. Some say young people are not as civically and politically active as they once were. (Photo courtesy of the Twin Cities Daily Planet)
WHAT TEENS SAY
Mary Takgbajouah, a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall, said few of her peers “are very aware of what’s going on.”
“I mean, I hear a lot of people talking about Donald Trump ... but sometimes me and my friends are reading about (the Syrian refugee crisis) or trying to have conversations about it with other people, and they won’t even know where Syria is on a map,” Takgbajouah said.
With the 2016 presidential elections coming up, Takgbajouah fears that her peers who can vote will do so simply because they can, rather than because they truly care about changing their community.
Karimah Tongrit-Green, a junior at Twin Cities Academy High School, said, “Our generation was force-fed. Take tests, take tests. Politics is something that’s just so abstract, it’s not something that really gets into schools.”
For some students, an absence of politics in schools has caused a misconception about what constitutes politics. One student said she cares more about “things that affect me more directly,” like police brutality and teenage deaths, than what she calls politics. Yet, according to Augsburg College Professor Harry Boyte, issues such as those also qualify as political problems.
“Young people today, if you ask them what they think of politics, they say they hate it,” Boyte said. “But they think politics is what politicians do. It’s not things that (young people) do.”
TRACING POLITICAL ROOTS
This mental separation of citizen and partisan politics is ironic, considering the word “politics” is derived from the Greek word for citizen, “politēs.” From the time of the Greeks through the late 20th century, citizen movements, not politicians, comprised politics’ core.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s particularly stands out as “a different kind of politics,” one in which youth played a huge role, according to Boyte.
As the son of a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff executive committee member, Boyte grew up in a politically charged environment. His parents were part of a small group of Southern whites promoting integration in schools.
Harry Boyte, a professor at Augsburg College. (Mina Yuan/ThreeSixty Journalism)
Boyte remembers himself as a 12-year-old, lying in a sleeping bag on his father’s hotel room floor as he listened to Martin Luther King, Jr., rehearse his “I Have A Dream” speech the night before the March on Washington.
Boyte then started working for an SCLC program to establish citizenship schools for potential voters. He was assigned to work in a predominantly Ku Klux Klan community.
“That’s really puzzling to young people today,” Boyte said. “Like ‘What, did (King) want you to be a spy or something? Sabotage them?’ No, he actually felt, as did a lot of people in (the) SCLC, that there were probably common things you could find.”
Understanding the principles of compromise and negotiation in politics makes all the difference in teen interest in politics, Boyte said, especially when combined with family influence.
Both Tongrit-Green and Takgbajouah credited their families for stimulating their interests in politics. Tongrit-Green’s mother emigrated from Nigeria at age 18 and brought her daughter to the voting polls in 2008. Takgbajouah’s father is from Liberia. Both students said they care about immigration policies because of their parents’ perspectives.
‘FREE SPACES’ TO TALK POLITICS
Open family and classroom environments for discussion are necessary to encourage youth to engage with their communities, according to Boyte.
Until the summer after his junior year in high school, when he attended a camp in Philadelphia, Boyte had not discussed politics with his peers.
“There were kids from all across the country (at camp), and it was so amazing to talk about ideas I had never had before with my peers. It was really exhilarating,” he said. “So I came to name those types of places ‘free spaces,’ where young people, or people of any age, have space to explore, to take initiative, to be learners.”
More than a decade later, Boyte surveyed more than 300 teenagers and discovered that while most had a plethora of relevant issues, not one surveyed teenager had ever been asked to contribute opinions or solutions.
In 1990, Boyte established Public Achievement, a student-led program that helps youth contribute to their communities.
In St. Paul, several generations of elementary school students worked through Public Achievement to build a playground in a neighborhood adults deemed too dangerous due to suspected gang activity. They learned to communicate effectively, raise money and negotiate zoning changes with the city of St. Paul. Their perseverance earned them a playground and a standing ovation from the state legislature.
Public Achievement has since expanded to South Africa, Japan, Turkey, Gaza, Poland and other countries.
ADULTS SHUTTING OUT TEENS
Programs such as Public Achievement can do only so much. A major contributor to lack of youth involvement in politics is adults shutting out teenagers, according to Tongrit-Green.
“When you’re a 16-year-old kid talking about presidential candidates you can’t vote for, adults are not going to listen to you,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating when you’re a teenager, because you’re growing out of that phase where you think adults are always right.”
Said Boyte: “(Teenagers are) seen as immature or juvenile or just wanting to be taken care of or protected. I don’t think that’s true. It’s just that young people don’t get opportunities to deal with conflicts or work through things.”
Boyte hopes to see a shift back toward civil rights-era citizen politics and the reappearance of a strong youth political identity. Both Tongrit-Green and Takgbajouah shared this sentiment.
“You can’t expect us to become adults if you don’t let us grow into that mold of adults,” said Tongrit- Green. “And I just hope that youth aren’t afraid to grow into that.”