Why aren’t we getting more excited about politically active youth?

There’s something I’m often struck by when I’m able to attend city council and planning commissions or other city events: I’m often one of the youngest people in the room, and I’m not even a resident of the city — which means that I can submit comments as a member of the interested public, but I can’t actually vote come election day, making me powerless to actually vote on things that affect me, like increases in the sales tax. I go because I think these issues are important, because I want to take an active role in my community, because I want to be a presence and represent voices that might go otherwise unheard.

Much of the crowd at such meetings, however, slants older — I see numerous people in their 40s and 50s, but few people in their 30s like me, and even fewer under 30, let alone teenagers. There aren’t many youth and young adults, and even though I can hardly be classified as ‘young’ at this point, people still gawk at me like some kind of unicorn. The age difference between me and the next youngest person is apparently significant enough to merit a second glance and a confused expression. People find it perplexing that a ‘young’ person would be interested in city affairs — and on more than a few occasions, I’ve been ignored when offering my services or suggestions.

This is not a phenomenon limited to one place, one time. Numerous municipalities and political organisations don’t give youth (actual youth) the attention they deserve when they attempt to get politically involved. People with drive and focus might start their own political organisations to counter their marginalisation, or might push harder, as in the case of some teen candidates for city councils in various regions of the country. For other youth, though, it can be really dispiriting to be rebuffed when they attempt to engage with the political landscape of the places they live.

Decisions made by city councils and various municipal agencies have a direct effect on the youth population. Young adults work and pay taxes and play in their communities. Some may plan on going off to college, but they may return home to visit, may be planning on returning to reinvest in their communities at some point in their lives. They have an interest in what happens where they live, and that interest should be cultivated and rewarded instead of thrown out to dry — moreover, youth often have interesting, thoughtful, innovative ideas because they’re approaching situations from new perspectives. That means they can provide immense value.

This is a culture that tends to underrate and devalue youth as a general rule, though it may selectively choose certain individuals for attention — usually ‘exceptional teens’ who fall within a very narrow rubric of social fascination. The treatment of teens and young adults when it comes to political engagement is no different. It’s a slog to sit through meetings, go to events, prepare comments whether written or spoken, contact officials and the media. These things take effort and time, something many teens are short on given that they’re engaged in other activities as well. Instead of having that recognised — a mayor noting the presence of young adults at a meeting, for example, and thanking them for attending — they’re just kind of ignored.

Or they’re patronised by adults who think it’s just so cute to see teens playing at political engagement, as though attending city council meetings is equivalent to putting on heels and mum’s dress as a child. This kind of messaging sends a clear signal to kids interested in politics, as most people don’t enjoy being patronised, and youth are no different. The thought of being forced to parade around like a dancing pony for the pleasure of observers can be more than a little offputting, as well it should be, because it’s gross. Youth engaged in politics aren’t fun novelties, but people with a genuine interest.

Teens experience a different kind of powerlessness when it comes to politics at any level, as those under 18 cannot vote, and are essentially the legal property of the parents, who can make decisions for and about them without accountability to their children. (Strange that the state has more legal authority over parents than children do.) People under 18 who show up at city council meetings and submit comments are engaging with local political systems in the only way they can, and what they get back in response often isn’t much.

When I was a kid, I sent letters to all sorts of politicians, and it was interesting to see how they responded (if they responded). Bill Clinton — well, aides in charge of his correspondence — for example, sent back a form ‘great job, kid!’ letter and a photo of Socks. A district supervisor took the time to sit down and seriously respond to a query about zoning. A mayor sent back a polite and formulaic letter that was clearly a canned response to any citizen writing in about that specific controversial issue. Bush Sr. didn’t bother to write back at all, clearly busy with more pressing activities.

I am struck by the Obama White House, which regularly posts letters written in by children. Obviously, the White House doesn’t respond to every single letter, but it makes a good faith effort to try to single out at least a few for personal responses, and sometimes more — an invitation to the White House, for example. One thing I appreciate about these letters is that they’re taken seriously, treated exactly like the letters from adults that the administration also sometimes posts. The administration takes youth engagement seriously, setting a model for how politicians and agencies should be treating teens and young adults with an interest in politics.

Maybe people will lose interest on their own or get jaded and tired. But that’s up to them, not the adults around them.

Image: Andrew Aliferis, Flickr