The first time I ran for office, I was under 30 years old. Despite my age and lack of political experience, I decided to run against an incumbent on Philadelphia’s City Council. The incumbent won, but I did not let this loss dissuade me from pursuing a political career. Four years later, I ran for the same seat and won. Had I let my age and my first setback determine my ability to make change, I never would have become Philadelphia’s mayor. The energy and dedication of America’s younger generations have been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of change in our country.
The young people born between the mid-1990s and 2010 known as Generation Z must capitalize on this moment of social media activism, moving from a passive preoccupation with politics to a moment of productive action, to usher the country in a direction that represents them and their values. But, to do so, it is necessary to provide the proper resources and opportunities for Gen Z to get involved in politics. The digital transition in politics over the last several months affords Gen Z the opportunity to get involved in politics in unprecedented ways.
Born after 1996, more than 23 million Gen Zers will be eligible to vote this November, amounting to 10% of all eligible voters. Despite being such a significant voting bloc, Gen Z is not proportionately represented in our political system. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in America (48% nonwhite) yet is not represented by current elected officials, who are 89% white.
The majority of Gen Z express strong interest in civic participation and politics, yet historically, young people have low voter turnout and civic engagement. As digital natives, Gen Z’s members have taken to social media to express feelings of alienation, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment with current events and the direction of our country.
With a strong desire for change, Gen Z has led a series of successful social media campaigns surrounding Black Lives Matter, climate change, and reportedly influencing campaign rally turnouts. Yet, this social media activism consists primarily of scrolling, reposting, making small donations, or signing petitions. How do we encourage young people to take that next step, to vote, and to get involved in the political realm?
First, we must make politics accessible. The political community is incredibly insular and difficult to penetrate without connections. Furthermore, volunteering on campaigns is prohibitively expensive for many students and politics is not a traditionally stable career path.
Next, we must aim to make politics more reflective and truly representative of the population. Gen Zers don’t want to get involved with politics because politicians don’t look like them. Supporting candidates with diverse identities will lead to a more reflective government, while simultaneously creating a self-perpetuating cycle in which diverse individuals are motivated to enter the political realm. Technology can help increase the accessibility and connectivity of our political system.
The GAP Project, founded by two recent Brown University graduates, Adrienne Wolff and Caroline Blanck, has created a platform that places high school and college-aged Gen Zers as volunteers on political campaigns of all kinds across the United States. Since mid-June, the GAP Project has created a network of young people and candidates, placing more than 500 Gen Z volunteers on over 100 campaigns across more than 40 states. Young people can volunteer for candidates whom they may not have otherwise been aware of.
We must support historically underrepresented constituents, such as young people, women, people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities, to overcome the barriers of entry into politics, ultimately creating a more representative and equitable base of elected officials. Volunteering or working on the ground floor of a campaign provides exposure, establishes political connections, and helps to set up a career in politics, while also supporting the election process, the bedrock of democracy. The GAP Project provides a long-awaited platform that matches Gen Zers with candidates who look and sound like them, and inspire them to get acting to save our democracy.
Michael A. Nutter served as 98th mayor of Philadelphia and currently serves as Professor of Practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Adrienne Wolff and Caroline Blanck contributed to this commentary.