Youth Carve a Space for Themselves in Civic Engagement

Last week, high above downtown streets, Seattle CityClub partnered with the Seattle Foundation to host a forum catered to potential youth activists. It was a diverse gathering that brought out students from across the Seattle Metro area to hear their peers.

The context? A surge in youth activism after another shooting at another school. The Parkland High shooting launched two surviving classmates into the national spotlight for vigorously advocating gun responsibility, and American citizens not yet old enough to vote are catching on to the power of their voices as an impetus for change. More students now realize they can shape policy by letting their elected officials know they’re paying attention and that they have more than a superficial understanding of the impact their decisions have on their lives.

Students Aji and Sofia have known that for some time now. They came to our forum, Our Civic Future, to lead a discussion with Washington State Representative Laurie Dolan and Open Doors for Multicultural Families Programs Manager, Hodan Mohamed, about the important role youth engagement plays in shaping our nation’s policy.

At 15, Aji Piper took on the state’s Department of Ecology before then joining nearly two dozen other youth activists to hold the federal government accountable for their lack of environmental stewardship by suing them in 2016. His activism has led him to speak at TEDxSeattle, several rallies, and universities across the country.

Lakeside School Senior, Sofia Osuna, has been the chair of Seattle Foundation’s Youth Grantmaking Board for the past year and credits that experience with giving her a much broader understanding of how civics work in America than most students receive in the classroom.

When asked how to empower other young people to learn how their government works, both teenagers seemed to agree; civics is something you learn by doing, not just by sitting in the classroom.

Hodan’s organization advocates for the equity of access to resources for multicultural families with differently-abled family members. She emphasized that while more and more students are getting involved there are marginalized groups of students who are at risk of being left behind in the surge.

Rep. Dolan shared two new pieces of legislation that expand civics education in public schools and make it easier for students to vote as soon as they reach voting age. House Bill 1896 was passed during the last session and allocated $322,000 to improve classroom civics education. Another bill passed that will enable students to get enhanced Driver’s Licenses at the age of 16, automatically registering them to vote when they turn 18. Dolan said there is a higher probability of young people not voting again if they are disqualified on their first attempt. This measure decreases the chance of that happening.

While the number of adults narrowly outnumbered the number of students in attendance, Our Civic Future managed to communicate something significant. Aji and Sofia showed that even though they weren’t yet old enough to vote, kids see and understand what’s happening around them. The adults there did them a solid by showing up and listening.

Watch the full program, courtesy of Seattle Channel.

Written by Shari Shepard, Database & Office Coordinator at Seattle CityClub