We Can’t Dismiss Young Voters. Here’s Why.

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High school students work the polls

Bellefonte Area High School students check in a Penn State student to vote as they work the polls in University Park, Pa., in 2016. (Nabil K. Mark / Centre Daily Times via AP)

When I drove a van of students to a Trump rally, we were in awe. Traffic crawled into the coliseum. A sea of people wearing red Make America Great Again T-shirts inched through the parking lot. Trump 2020 flags waved in the wind. Vendors selling “Women for Trump” and “Re-elect Trump” T-shirts crowded the grounds. It looked more like a music festival than the place where the president of the United States dismissed the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.

I was outside alone in a parking lot in South Carolina at one of Trump’s last rallies before the coronavirus pandemic exploded. I heard him discount it as a convoluted fairy tale exaggerated by the Democrats to sabotage his presidency. That was before Covid-19 killed more than 189,000 Americans, wrecked the economy, and shuttered the nation.

In February, I was among a team of professors who took students to South Carolina for the Democratic presidential primary to learn about the election process. They attended a variety of campaign events. I volunteered to take four students to a Trump rally in Charleston, S.C. Before heading to the rally, we rode by the Mother Emmanuel Church, where a white supremacist shot nine Black parishoners five years earlier. I thought it was important for students to see that significant site of recent history. I couldn’t be in the city and not see it myself.

About 20 minutes later, we arrived at the rally. The students went inside. By the time I parked and returned, no one else was allowed in, as the 14,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum was filled to capacity. I, a Black woman, watched Trump’s speech outside on a jumbo screen with the overflow crowd. The mostly white supporters yelled and applauded. I stood still, noticed the glares and lingering glances, felt the negative energy from others near me as their excitement grew. I had none.

“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus…. This is their new hoax,” Trump said on February 28 at the coliseum a day before Joe Biden won the South Carolina Democratic primary and essentially the Democratic nomination.

During the two-hour drive back to Columbia, S.C., the students and I discussed Trump’s speech. They were baffled by his dismissal of the pandemic, because they had read about the coronavirus’s impact across the globe. About two weeks after the rally, those same students and others who contributed to this Vision 2020 project were told to return to campus, retrieve their belongings, and not come back due to Covid-19.

The campus was closed. Our physical newsroom was shuttered. The students in this project that I directed found themselves hitting brick walls when attempting to conduct interviews. Sources were more concerned with trying to find groceries, toilet paper, and anti-bacterial gel and grappling with working from home or with losing work than with talking to young reporters.

Current Issue

The world changed drastically after we started this project. A pandemic erupted; job losses spiked; an economic recession took hold; and a racial justice uprising ignited renewed calls for institutional change and equality. All of that could have killed this project about young voters’ presidential election concerns. But it didn’t. These issues affect young people’s lives daily. These issues pushed them out into the streets for weeks to demand equality in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Young people organized and led protests across the country this summer after the police killings of Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade.

Young people will inherit this nation and all of its problems. Protesting is one way they choose to push for change. Voting is another. The Vision 2020 Election Stories From the Next Generation project was created to center and document the concerns of young voters in this presidential election. Every four years, older journalists ask young people about their concerns. The result is often generic stories with interviews featuring white, heterosexual, middle-class, college students—casting young white people as the default representative for all young voters.

In this project we empowered young journalists from different backgrounds to develop their own story ideas about their peers’ concerns and report them. They wrote about young Muslim voters’ interests, suppression of the youth vote, and young queers of color as a voting bloc. There are multiple stories in this project that amplify the voices of young voters and their vision for the next president and the nation. I’m proud of the students’ work. Vision 2020 is modeled after an earlier partnership with The Nation, the award-winning project Black on Campus project I codirected with Melissa Harris-Perry. Black student journalists documented Black college students’ experiences in the midst of rising racism on campuses.

The point of this project is to move beyond the narrative of the apathetic young voter. Young voters are often perceived as ambivalent. But history shows us that young people led the nation’s most significant movements, including the fight for voting rights. The late Representative John Lewis worked on voting rights efforts and helped lead the Bloody Sunday march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that helped garner support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Unita Blackwell, who died last year, registered Black people to vote during the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign and became the first Black woman mayor in Mississippi. Diane Nash, a founding member of the groundbreaking youth-led civil rights organization SNCC, was a key organizer of the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign. Dave Dennis served as the Mississippi Congress of Racial Equality project director in the early 1960s and worked to register Black people to vote in the Deep South years before and during Freedom Summer.

No one knows who today’s generation of young voters will become—or how they will change the nation. Our young journalists’ stories aim to illuminate issues that are on the radar of this generation whose youth was shaped by a stream of fatal police brutality videos, numerous deadly mass shootings, severe climate change, and a rise in racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic violence. Their anger and energy thrust them into the streets to protest this summer. They will surely take some of that passion to the polls in November. We hope these stories offer some insight into what’s important to this young generation and what’s at stake for them this election.

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