Vote@16: Join the Debate!

Immature, ignorant, uninformed are typical arguments against extending the right to vote to 16-year-olds. Regardless of age, you can vote on this issue that is gaining traction around the U.S. at Debate.org. (A more recent post highlights heavyweights expressing support, even at the national level.)

In January 2015, the San Francisco Youth Commission outlined the rationale in its six-page resolution, including this point:

San Francisco has an aging electorate and has increasingly been losing families over the last two decades. We need young people to be directly engaged in crafting solutions for our city. Extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds will be a positive investment in their civic and political development as lifelong voters and engaged citizens. Our democracy is stronger when more people are at the table!

Ten years ago this student-run commission made the same recommendation but this time, SF Supervisor John Avalos introduced a Charter Amendment that would include city and county elections as well as school district elections. Extensive research by the Youth Commissioners was highlighted at this June 8th hearing. One high school student testified about “the trickle-up influence” on students’ parents, especially low-income immigrants, by encouraging them to vote. Although the sponsors have decided to delay action until next year, this ground-breaking proposal is far from dead. To get updates, follow Vote16SF

The SF Youth Commission has quite a track record, including its YouthVote Student Survey that is a serious instrument to get student input on current polices and issues. While this “youth voice” is valued, students who actually vote could expect real respect from school board members and other elected officials.

Legislation to lower the vote in Washington, DC was officially introduced on November 3, 2015. The bill’s lead champion, City Councilmember Charles Allen argued: “We are holding 16-year-old youth accountable for wide array of decisions and responsibilities, but we do not grant them a meaningful voice in these issues. The Youth Vote Amendment Act of 2015 aims to do just that – by lowering the voting age to 16, we can bring our young people directly into the political process and, hopefully, create lifelong voters.” For updates: Our CAPS Community Alliance for Peaceful Streets. Just outside of the nation’s capital, Representation for Rockville Teens in Maryland has launched a campaign.

In the first U.S. city to lower the voting age in Takoma Park, Maryland, overall turnout in the municipal election was 44 percent among youth and only 11 percent for older voters. In 2015, the city of Hyattsville, Maryland followed and voted unanimously. To watch young advocates testify at both of these city council hearings, click on the links under Voting at the Youth Activism Project’s Success Stories.

Missouri State Representative Karla May of St. Louis has introduced HJR16, the symbolically numbered resolution to amend the state constitution allowing 16-year-olds to vote in all state and local elections. At age 17, she was organizing “street teams…for candidates whom she believed had the best interest of the community.” Perhaps following the unprecedented effort in Ferguson to get African Americans to the polls, another reform in this city might be to extend voting rights to disenfranchised youth.

Youth suffrage in Missouri as well as a bill in the New Mexico legislature to allow 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections are expected to die. However, momentum could build, especially if a San Francisco referendum passes. Between now and then, learn more about the latest research as well as Brazil and several other countries where 16-year-olds vote.

This debate should be happening in every city in America. Let’s build off the work of SF Youth Commissioners!

How To Engage Youth as Change Agents not MIAs and Maximize Community Impact

Young people are still missing in action in many community change campaigns that directly impact them. Take the twin epidemics of teen diabetes and obesity. There is little evidence of a concerted effort to engage youth to counter the massive marketing by the soda and junk food companies or to alert youth about proposed policies designed to reverse this health crisis so they can participate in the public policy arena.

This movement may be stuck in the 1980s prevention model. Many health experts, educators and parents seem to be pursuing school and community policies “for” rather than “with” young people. Yet there are signs of retiring the youth as passive recipients philosophy.

  • The diverse Youth Advisory Board of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation demonstrates the youth as assets paradigm where these 8 to 18-year-olds primarily raise awareness through service-learning projects such as this Louisiana student member.
  • Advocacy organizations and government agencies in California are out in front and embrace the community youth development philosophy that young people are agents for change advocating for systemic reforms.

Meaningful youth engagement won’t happen by itself but a few examples might spur movement leaders and funders to recognize the sphere of influence of youth-led and multi-generational action from the very young to older youth.

  • Parents – Think of role reversal when children prod family members to quit smoking, recycle, vote, sign petitions, boycott products, etc.
  • Peers – Consider The Truth campaign that skewers the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing tactics and has made smoking uncool.
  • Principals & School Boards – Look at the track record of students convincing the powers-that-be to offer salad bars, second breakfast,  healthy snacks and drinks in vending machines, etc.
  • Private Sector – Use their spending clout to convince corner stores near schools to sell healthier food and move candy, chips and soda away from the cash register.
  • Popular Culture – Witness compelling art activism to counter the industry’s targeted messages like this spoken word video.
  • Press – Capture attention of the mainstream media through social media such as two online petitions started by a teenage girl that pressured Gatorade and Coke to stop using an ingredient banned in Europe and Japan.
  • Policymakers & Politicians – Recognize the unique influence and clout when young people testify before school boards and city councils on proposals such as hydration stations or signage ordinances.

There are loads of reasons why young people are MIAs in this movement. Of course, adults lecturing them or limiting their choices usually backfires. And many teens expect and accept being targeted by these companies that deploy incentives, scholarships, sponsorships, grants to youth-serving organizations, advergames, music videos and other marketing schemes. But there are a growing number of young people outraged by these corporate giants peddling their sickening products.

  • Take 9-year-old Hannah who lambasted the McDonald’s CEO at the annual shareholder’s meeting which resulted in coverage by ABC News.
  • The San Francisco Youth Commission, comprised of 17 individuals between the ages of 12-23,  recently considered the sugar-sweetened beverage tax proposal. Two SF Board of Supervisors went to the Commission to explain their proposal which won a unanimous vote. Reading the Youth Commission meeting minutes reveals a lengthy discussion. Also, it’s worth noting that one of the elected officials told the Commissioners that children as young as fourth graders have been debating this legislation.

Usually youth are encouraged to identify problems and invent solutions only with their peers.  There is a major disconnect with health advocates.  An intentional effort to make sure minors are aware of proposed policies and pending legislation and given the opportunity to participate can make the difference because of their unique influence. To learn how adults and organizations can be more effective collaborators, check out my latest toolkit, Catalyst! Successful Strategies to Empower Youth Advocates.