March for Our Lives: The Political Awakening of Youth

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Happening Now Saturday, March 24, 2018 View Count = 2109

March for Our Lives: The Political Awakening of Youth

Jane Hilderman is the Executive Director of Samara Canada, a non-partisan charity dedicated to strengthening Canada’s democracy.

Gun Reform March Blog

Social media-savvy and eloquent, the students of Stoneman Douglas High School have drawn attention to gun laws in America since seventeen of their fellow students and staff were killed by a gunman on February 14th. Student leaders have garnered enormous Twitter followings, which they have mobilized to real effect. They generated a mass walkout effecting 3,000 schools in America. And today, tens of thousands of students are expected to join March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. to end gun violence.

They have done what others have consistently failed to do – generate real pressure on America’s pro-gun lobby, and sustain public and media attention. It is too early to say whether their activism will produce policy change. But for the first time, even though a month has passed since the shooting, it feels like something has shifted in America.

The students of Stoneman Douglas are demonstrating they are ready and capable to work the levers of modern democracy. And the thousands of young people who are expected to join them are showing that they are neither apathetic nor only motivated by a short, finite list of “youth issues”, as is often alleged. It’s an important reminder that young people care about a lot more than just the “marijuana issue.”

Youth in Canada should have the same opportunity to be heard by politicians.

Samara’s research has found that across 18 forms of political participation, young Canadians’ participation rate is on average 11 percentage points higher than that of older Canadians. Eighteen to 29-year-olds are most likely to discuss political issues with friends and family, volunteer for a candidate or campaign, protest, or demonstrate.

Young people have also played leading roles in recent major social movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. Every year, Samara Canada runs a contest to highlight “Everyday Political Citizens”, and every year we are amazed by the effort and achievements of young engaged Canadians across a range of issues. This year’s winners are working to create a renewable energy future, addressing violence against Indigenous women and girls, pushing for a national mental health strategy, and increasing youth civic engagement.

But the political engagement of young people is still often dismissed, because it doesn’t always take place at the ballot box.

Young people are thoughtful, engaged, and passionate – but they are also much less likely to vote. Both the last federal election and last Ontario provincial election saw significant upticks in youth participation, which is encouraging. But it’s too soon to say whether it’s a trend that will continue.

The basic toolkit for engaging young people in formal politics is in-class civic education. But we can’t leave empowerment of our youth to civics classes alone. All schools should also offer debate clubs and instruction, on-campus political clubs, and student government. In fact, some observers have noted that the poised and articulate students of Stoneman Douglas were the beneficiaries of a school curriculum that is uniquely attentive to civic competencies like debate.

Additionally, all levels of government need to strengthen the civic education offerings outside of classrooms, to reach young voters who have left school, and to build lifelong habits.

Politicians and political parties also need to talk and listen to young people. Contact matters for getting people out to the polls. And our research has found that the youngest voters are the least likely to receive direct contact from politicians. Perhaps most importantly, political leaders, governments, and civil society partners need to create meaningful avenues for engaging young people between elections.

Canadian youth are opinionated, engaged, and powerful. They are making their mark on our contemporary democracy beyond the ballot box. We need to work hard to open the door to formal politics a little wider, to help them articulate their passion through the act of voting.

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