Jake Lowen

Redefining Civic Engagement

I remember very clearly the last time I sat in a principal's office, being yelled at for acting "irresponsibly." This had happened to me many times growing up, but I didn't expect to have the experience again at the age of 24.

I am a community organizer working with inner-city youth in Wichita's predominantly low-income northeast side. Those youth had recently fought the Wichita school district's disproportionate minority suspension rate and had publicly forced concessions from Kansas' largest school district. At one moment in the campaign, before a crowd of over 250 supporters, one of the youth leaders presented a list of demands and forced the superintendent, the deputy superintendent and several school board members to answer yes or no to each one. The mostly white school officials, already visibly uneasy sitting in front of a room of angry black faces and unable to resort to their long-winded we-are-experts speeches, squirmed.

Later that month, I found myself sitting in the superintendent's office with five top school officials. They were pissed. Copies of the numerous articles our campaign generated in the press were spread out on the table. "How dare you put us on the spot like that?" they yelled. "You know there was no way that we could say no to your demands in front of all those people!"

"Yeah," I replied, "that's kind of the point."

They accused me of "corrupting" the youth and setting a bad example, insisting, "radical '60s-style power tactics are not appropriate now." As the officials continued to yell, it occurred to me that this was the first time in their long careers that they had ever seen youth effectively assert themselves and demand -- not ask -- for solutions to their problems. And they were scared. This kind of social change was not what they taught in civics class. It wasn't pretty. It required more than going to a voting booth and checking a box. Here were youth who did not fit the reliable pattern of disengagement and complacency. Here were youth who had found their voice.

Before finding my way into community organizing, I held jobs that ran the gamut of the different models of political and social change. I worked for a U.S. senator and became disillusioned with the ability of electoral politics to even begin to address the problems I saw around me. I watched a visiting family get turned away while trying to meet with their elected representative. As they left disappointed, Bill Gates and his entourage strolled right in and held an hour-long closed-door session with the senator.

I realize that my journey into organizing was a simultaneous quest for efficacy (to really address root problems and achieve real results) and a full commitment to my own radical value of self-determination. Once I began to work with youth, I realized that the disillusionment I felt with the ability of traditional means of civic engagement to accomplish anything was not unique to me, but one of the defining characteristics of the post-X generation.

Among all traditional indicators of civic engagement, including youth voting rates, statistics paint a disturbing picture of youth nonengagement, causing many to question the civic health of youth in America. There is, however, one indicator in which youth excel. Today's 15- to-25-year-olds post the highest rates of volunteerism. Forty percent have given time to a group in the past year, compared to 32 percent of "Xers" (21-to 35-year-olds) and "Boomers" (36-to 54-year-olds) and just 22 percent of "Matures" (55-to 69-year-olds).* The fact that youth voter turnout is at historically low levels while civic participation and volunteerism among the same demographic are at all-time highs presents an interesting duality and is actually indicative of a healthier, self-determined vision of democracy among today's youth.

But such a strong decline in voting rates over the last three decades among my generation is symptomatic of our widespread disillusionment with electoral politics. The debacle of the 2000 presidential election undoubtedly still resonates strongly with 18-to-21-year-old voters who will be eligible to vote in their first presidential election in 2004. "The 2000 election changed a lot of youth's views on voting," Alicia Lowery, 17, explains, "because it was the first time we got to observe and understand an election, and when we see the stuff that happened in Florida, with votes not being counted, I think that when it's my turn to vote, someone's going to mess with it anyway and change it up. So why should I vote if my opinion doesn't matter in the first place? A stolen election was a very bad example for us."

The disempowering effects of the last election, combined with an already cynical view of the electoral system, have produced a generation that is quick to write off voting as a potential mechanism for social change and political expression. Corrinda Calhoun, 17, states, "The important thing about voting is limits placed on who we get a chance to vote for in the first place. It's all about connections, how big your bankroll is, or where you're from. Not a single one of my friends or I realistically believe that we would ever have a shot at winning an important office." Ti'Juana Hardwell, 16, adds, "They won't let people without money be president, because people who live the way we live, live in the ghetto and have the struggles we do, they're going to want to get in office and they are going to want to do something and that's dangerous to the people in power. That's why it takes so much money to run for office."

Youth voting rates are dwindling not because youth are lazy or self-centered, but because of epidemic disenfranchisement and disempowerment. The remarkable thing about the youth I interviewed is that their attitudes are not those of disengaged, civically ignorant slackers, as most adults are eager to describe their generation. Alicia, Corrinda and Ti'Juana are a few of the many youth leaders of Hope Street Youth Development, a youth organization in Wichita, Kansas, which, in its fifth year of youth organizing, has stretched the boundaries of youth civic engagement, tallying an impressive list of victories. Hope Street youth have successfully pressured the city to install new streetlights in dimly lit, high-crime areas; won a three-year campaign for more summer job opportunities, resulting in training and job placement for many Wichita youth; engaged local police to reduce harassment of youth in Wichita; testified before the U.S. Senate on the needed Workforce Investment Act and on Department of Labor reforms and before the House of Representatives on crime and safety issues; and recently won an agreement from the largest school district in Kansas to reduce the racial disparity in suspension rates.

According to Corrinda, "We volunteer and work in our community because the payoff is higher. You put a lot in and you get a lot out of it. It doesn't seem to me like the payoff is the same for voting."

This do-it-yourself mentality presents a more self-determined approach than voting. Another 17-year-old Hope Street member, Lakeldra Hardwell, agrees: "Just because you take 15 minutes to vote every two to four years does not mean you are doing more for your community than us. When we volunteer, we go out in the community, see what is really going on and we spend hundreds of hours fixing the problems ourselves. When you vote, all you do is check off a box and ask someone to fix your problems for you. We are the ones who care and we do it ourselves -- we actually make a change."

Organizing asserts the right of youth to stand up, find their own voice, speak for themselves and force solutions to complex societal problems. It's a revolutionary process, not only in the results it achieves but in the dramatic transformation it makes in the lives of youth. When youth become aware of their own power to create change, they become more confident, self-determined and socially responsible. They become insistent about sitting at the table when decisions that affect them are made. In short, they become the very essence of democracy. I've seen this every day in my work at Hope Street Youth Development. I've sat with youth during high-level negotiations with intimidating public officials, making choices for their community. At Hope Street, youth speak for themselves. They decide what issues affect them, and they go out and find solutions to those problems. Their tactics aren't always nice -- they agitate, they don't take no for an answer and sometimes they are confrontational. But democracy isn't always nice.

Those who would condemn youth because of their low voter rates are aware of only half the story. Today's youth have a broader definition of democratic involvement than merely turning up to vote. This greater awareness, combined with a growing alienation from the current electoral system, forces youth to take a more self-determined and healthy role in shaping their lives and building communities than any previous generation. What remains to be seen is if we can capitalize on the new youth mentality to strengthen democracy in America by supporting youth organizing. Contrary to popular perception, the future of democracy could not be in better hands.

*The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, "The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait," www.puaf.umd.edu/CIRCLE/research/products/Civic_and_Political_Health.pdf

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