Surprising Voter Participation by HS Students

The D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland is the only municipality in the country that recently lowered the voting age.  Even in the off-year election, a stunning 44 percent of 16 and 17-year-old registered voters cast their ballots. Overall turnout was a meager 11 percent which is the norm with only one write-in challenger for mayor and uncontested elections for six city council seats.

One of these new voters was Camille Kirsch who spoke at hearings last April. She testified that 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote “because people who care about this community should have a voice.”

Councilmember Tim Male, sponsor of the legislation, cites research by professors in Austria and Norway about the political maturity and participation of younger voters.

Extending suffrage is no guarantee for strong turnout in the future but what is certain is there are plenty of folks who want to drown out the voices of young people, not only at the polls. This pathetic, racist comment in response to a Governing magazine article about the November 5, 2013 election in Takoma Park captures this mindset: “So our future will be decided by illiterate, illegal immigrant children who have never been anywhere or done anything or learned any “life lessons,” probably never had a job or paid taxes, and basically don’t know jack.”

What arguments can you offer to those who are outraged at the thought of letting high school students vote?

5 Youth-Led Accomplishments in 5 Days!

I’m really proud and inspired by these entirely youth-initiated efforts with our international program called School Girls Unite.

  •  Seventeen-year-old Julia Fine, co-president of a School Girls Unite club, entered a national CNN essay contest: Why Malala’s bravery inspires us.  Out of hundreds of submissions, 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai herself chose Julia’s essay. When Julia met this fearless Pakistani activist in NYC, Malala said this high school senior’s record of activism was the reason she selected her essay.
  • Bintou Soumaoro, who served four years as president of our sister organization in Mali, participated in the One Young World Summit in Johannesburg. She was selected to be one of the speakers at the opening plenary session. Her passion is evident as she addressed an audience of 1,300 in English demanding that Now it is time for world leaders to approach the Mali government and urge them to meet the Millennium Development Goals for education. Watch her five-minute speech which begins 44 minutes into this video.
  • Hanna Batlan, a high school sophomore with School Girls Unite, reacted to Bintou’s speech in her blog posted by the Global Campaign for Education. She offers a perspective of her educational opportunities and Hanna embraces Bintou’s call to action:  Bintou’s reference to education as an “international disaster” is not an exaggeration, as the world’s lack of education should be treated with as much intensity and focus as a devastating flood, damaging nuclear spill, or dilapidating war.
  • Polite persistent activists with School Girls Unite at Hammond Middle School pestered the White House Council on Women and Girls since last April with their request for a Presidential Proclamation for the UN International Day of the Girl. Barack Obama did not issue an official declaration on 10.11.12—the first ever girls’ rights day—and the government shutdown put the process in jeopardy. Here is the correspondence and the 2013 presidential proclamation.
  • School Girls Unite led the successful national campaign to mobilize U.S. support to establish the United Nations International Day of the Girl. On the designated day which is October 11, our Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School club in the DC area planned every single detail of its Day of the Girls Arts and Actions Night. Over 200 people of all ages turned out, listening to speakers, musicians, spoken word poets, and participating in interactive booths on issues ranging from Title IX, STEM to advocating against child marriage. Here’s their promo video for this brilliant “arts and actions” combination.

My hope is these examples will inspire others and also further demonstrate the intelligence and ingenuity of the rising generation.

Best Practice: HS Students Comprise Over 50% of Organization’s Paid Staff

Youth Empowered Solutions, headquartered in Raleigh, celebrated its 5th Anniversary on September 12, 2013. I saw firsthand why YES! is on a growth trajectory. This innovative nonprofit with three offices across North Carolina provides best practices for any organization attempting to change community norms and achieve systems change. In one single year YES! achieved 38 policies on four adolescent health initiatives impacting an estimated 10 million people. YES! youth staffer Shevanique Winston says, “I’m proud to say that I have sat at the table with many legislators and lawmakers and I have changed policies that affect my generation.”

YES! is a gem that any organization–especially youth-serving ones–can learn from and strengthen its mission and methodology.

  • Unlike many organizations that boast about youth-adult partnerships, intergenerational power-sharing at YES! is a reality, not a slogan.
  • Genuine youth infusion exists every day of the week. A whopping 66% of YES staff are paid high school students. Equally stunning: 76% of the young people that YES employs and trains are youth of color, live in a rural area, or live in a low wealth community.
  • Bronwyn Lucas, executive director, believes “Adults and institutions seem too often to fear teens or aim to protect them.” YES! youth staff are colleagues and respected as co-equals, not treated as interns relegated to the sidelines.
  • Positive youth development typically aims for personal growth and individual achievement. Parrish Ravelli, who coordinates YES! Access to Health Care initiative, draws a fundamental distinction that the YES! Youth Empowerment Model “centers on addressing social inequities through meaningful engagement of the target population.”
  • Several former YES! youth staff who spoke at the 5th year celebration, credited with the YES! trifecta—skills, critical awareness and opportunities—for their relentless questioning of the status quo and advocacy capacity to pursue social justice.
  • Christine Laucher, one of the five YES! co-founders, told me “I cannot imagine how I could do this work without youth staff!” In addition to the synergy and creativity between generations, it’s time to consider lifelong learning which perhaps could be labeled positive adult development.

Please spend 2 minutes listening to high school senior Tyshaun Johnson discuss food deserts and his ongoing work with convenience stores to offer healthier food. You can really grasp the integrity of the YES! framework and its durable impact by watching dozens of other youth and adult staff on the YES! YouTube channel.

That’s my take! What do you think?

Girls Win Changes Juvenile Detention Conditions & Policies

The cover of “Caged Birds Sing” contains bold brown brush strokes that could represent bars.  This compelling 18-page booklet published by the Maryland ACLU, written entirely by girls at a juvenile justice facility near Baltimore, explodes with their artwork. The gifted adult ally, a brilliant young attorney, writes in the preface: “I cannot stress enough how completely this report is that of the girls themselves…I simply typed up their comments and strung them together, making minor changes or additions for tone, clarity and consistency only when necessary.”

One painting accompanies the commentary: “The Waxter building feels like a cage–not a place to help girls learn to do better.” Their heart wrenching poems pack real punch:

Rescue Me (by T.)
Take me away from this world
full of hatred.
Give me the oxygen to breathe
before I don’t make it.
Rescue my heart before the
beating stops.
Wipe away every single tear
before it drops.
Give me the confidence I need
to feel good about myself.
Help me even when I say I don’t need help.
Tell me all the things I do best,
Before it’s too late and I live
my life full of regrets.

Unlike most reports that use graphs, quotes or photographs to break up the dense content, every page of “Caged Birds Sing” makes a splash with artwork and concludes with 41 specific recommendations.  The Baltimore Sun newspaper and other media paid attention which increased pressure on state juvenile justice authorities who adapted three significant proposals:

  • Create an evening reporting center for girls in Baltimore City, as an alternate to detention.
  • Hire more staff and make sure that the staff you have get good training/know the rules, and treat us respectfully.
  • Give girls the same types of opportunities you give boys, like hands-on experiences and different types of job training programs

This document demonstrates how “youth voice” and art activism, when combined with media advocacy and direct action with policymakers, can make a lasting impact.

Brief History of a Historic Youth-Led Campaign

One year before the United Nations approved the resolution to establish the International Day of the Girl Child, nearly 100 young activists with School Girls Unite launched the successful national campaign to mobilize U.S. support for this annual girls’ rights day. Similar to International Women’s Day, the U.N. set October 11 as the day each year “to help galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.”

This grassroots effort led by School Girls Unite, the international program of the Youth Activism Project, really got traction when four co-founders were back from college over the summer. They worked as paid interns and took the reins of the campaign. They interviewed and hired our talented social media coordinator. They strategized and coached the younger School Girls, presented workshops at schools, explored collaboration with numerous nonprofits, and led a critical conference call with the White House.

During the summer, the round-the-clock commitment of these hardworking interns made all the difference in gaining momentum. Their strategic sense and innovative thinking were irreplaceable. When we describe this as a youth-driven campaign, girls have to be in the driver’s seat. Adults, including myself stay in the backseat and minimize time behind the steering wheel. Our nimble nonprofit, with this engine of interns and passionate younger School Girls Unite members, accomplished extraordinary results in a matter of months.

One high school club produced videos explaining the rationale for a girls’ rights day. More than 50 girls participated in an online contest to design the logo that many still consider too powerful. Hours were devoted to strengthening every sentence in a letter to the White House Council on Women and Girls. Middle school girls held a summit with the County Council Chair to learn the process of getting local and state Day of the Girl proclamations. Requests asking organizations to support the Day resulted in over 75 endorsements. “Negative Media Images” and “Child Marriage: Tragic Tradition,” became the model framework for nearly a dozen other action-oriented issues briefs, all written by young activists, that are posted on the website:

This movement for gender equality has progressed beyond School Girls Unite. The original leaders have established the Day of the Girl-U.S. Action Team by including girls from many backgrounds and persuasions across the country to help drive this effort. “We’re on the precipice of something big,” predicts Anika Manzoor, 22, who’s been a human rights advocate and founding member of School Girls Unite since age 12.  Day of the Girl-U.S. Actions Coordinator Eliana Stanislawski, 17, emphasizes that it’s not enough to just learn about the problem: “There has to be value in that knowledge that incites action.”

Even with dozens of festering inequities and not one single mega-issue, Joanne Conelley, who has been an architect of this campaign from the beginning, says “We want girls to take ownership and make this Day ours.” The new tagline, Day of the Girl-US…A 100% Youth-Led Movement, should trigger a massive applause, especially from adults whose mantra is “to empower young people.” Instead, some girl-serving organizations have expressed deep concerns about this explicit independent move. As a member of the graying generation, I believe this approach of real youth-led mobilization is exactly what is needed. Elders who stress the need “to pass the torch” need to walk the talk.

Ten years from now, I predict thousands upon thousands of girls will create a sensation and cause a ruckus on October 11, 2023. It will be the norm for girls to speak about their dreams and demand gender equality.

Unbelievably Articulate Advocates…and that’s the problem!

Young people who are gifted orators and debaters receive accolades. Passionate advocates often get a different reaction. Deeply held stereotypes persist that minors cannot think for themselves or be knowledgeable about specific issues. Unbelievably articulate youth often are not believed.

  • Props & Puppets. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has been an activist for half his life. This 13-year-old together with other youth currently are advocating for a statewide ban on fracking in Colorado. These environmentalists can be easily dismissed because Earth Guardians is a project of the nonprofit Global Alliance of Youth and Adults in Action. Take a look at their video and see if these children are mere props.
  • Questionable Vocabulary. Several teens gave compelling presentations at a legislative hearing to overturn state preemption and allow local jurisdictions to enact tobacco control ordinances. Once again I heard whispers from the audience suggesting that these young people couldn’t possibly understand preemption and certainly wouldn’t have written their testimony themselves.
  • Rare Show of Responsibility.  Many articulate teen parents participate in a lobby day each year at the Massachusetts Statehouse. Nyasia reveals solid advocacy skills talking about Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children and other programs that help her pursue a GED and long-term goal of getting a Master’s Degree Cannot society view every young mother as an individual rather than a data set?
  • Suspiciously Smart. The new North Carolina Voter ID law eliminates the option for 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register outraged Madison Kimrey who got a lot of publicity over her online petition and video that demanded a meeting with the Governor. Why would this 12-year-old care? Who put her up to this? Madison shames those who question intelligence of young people in her blog post.
  • Remarkably Composed.  Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban because of her demand that every child has the right to go to school, is not a typical 16-year-old or any individual for that matter. Malala’s superb speech at the U.N. represents the culmination of her passionate public advocacy starting at age 11. can glimpse her in this 2009 NYT documentary,
  • Parental Manipulation.  The CEO of the world’s largest restaurant got criticized by 9-year-old Hannah Robertson who spoke at McDonald’s annual shareholder’s meeting: “I don’t think it’s fair when big companies try to trick kids into eating food. It isn’t fair that so many kids my age are getting sick.” Plenty of criticism was leveled at Hannah’s mom for putting her daughter up to this. More about accusations of manipulation by parents on my MomsRising post

If these advocates avoid outright distrust or skepticism, typically they are seen as anomalies. Similarly TEDxTeen can reinforce the notion of exceptionalism. A dramatic adult attitude adjustment is the prerequisite in order for a quarter of the population—the rising generation—to be seen, heard and respected.  That’s my take. What’s yours?

Essential Resource: Check Stats at

It’s a fact that many organizations use statistics to make the case for their existence. This practice of cherry-picking data helps paint pictures that many young people are druggies, alcoholics, sex maniacs, super predators, etc. and fail to consider data about adult pathological behaviors.

Here’s one example:

A nationwide survey of police agencies found only 25 documented cases of rape, physical violence, abduction, or other harms to youth inflicted by people they met online in 2005, a year in which child maltreatment authorities substantiated more than 250,000 cases of physical and sexual violence against youths within families, nearly all inflicted by parents. (“Trends in Arrests of Online Predators” by Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor and Kimberly Mitchell, The Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, Durham NH, 2007).

A free portal,, “seeks to debunk the barrage of modern mistruths about youth, restore a climate of fairness and integrity when discussing youth issues, advance verifiable and evidence-based information to better inform youth policy, enhance the integration of youth into democratic and multi-cultural citizenship, and build a culture that values and trusts its young people.”

In addition to relying on this website, I believe anyone working on issues involving young people should read articles and books by Mike Males, the principal investigator for and senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.  He is the author of five books on American youth including Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities (Praeger, 2010), Framing Youth: Ten Myths about the Next Generation (Common Courage Press,1999) and The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents (Common Courage Press, 1996).

The other brain behind is Dr. Anthony Bernier, Associate Professor and a critical youth studies scholar at California’s San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science. He gives this warning:

“So many interests and media across the political spectrum manufacture such grossly inaccurate things about youth then recycle each other’s worst inaccuracies that we can promise a site that is both non-ideological and offensive to ideologues. And, unlike entrenched interests, we’ll respond seriously to challenges and corrections.”

So lob tough questions to Males & Bernier and equally important, make sure young people absorb and analyze data from many sources, including this site.