Maybe this feels like a strange time for a party, like the one #VoteThatJawn has planned for May 16. But we need it, almost as badly as we need to keep our pandemic-anxious minds trained on this key issue: voting. It’s crucial that Philadelphia build voting enthusiasm among our youth before next month’s primary, and keep building it through November.
Young people are made for voting. At 18, like scholar-athletes of adulthood, they work, study, join the military, date, make babies, or decide not to, or not yet. They are learning what they bring, what they’ve inherited — and what they can change. We need youth energy in the electorate urgently, what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” to infuse democracy with openness and fresh, urgent problem-solving. Instead of tut-tutting their lower participation numbers, older adults need instead to mount campaigns to go after them, like the military recruits or corporations target them to shop.
After the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., young people in that suburban Florida school did something new: They connected with youth in urban centers to articulate a cross-regional, cross-class, cross-racial understanding of the carnage done by guns to America’s children. Youth in my writing class at the University of Pennsylvania responded by creating a publication exploring those efforts that has become #VoteThatJawn. They wrote about siblings and friends back home, who were barred from leaving school to protest but did so anyway; they studied our original Constitution, its flaws and amendments. Some wrote funny bits that displayed deep underlying anxiety. My students were not looking into the rear-view mirror at remembered U.S. glory. They were staring ahead at a degraded planet, debt, an implacable system making life more precarious, and envisioning paths forward.
Soon after we convened a small, intergenerational steering committee to create an online platform to support youth vote. The watchword that runs through #VoteThatJawn’s work is justice: in the realms of COVID response, climate, criminal justice reform, education funding, and health outcomes. Early voting predicts robust, life-long civic engagement.
In his book OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?, published in April, Ben Sheehan argues that we need to do better at teaching how government works, its actual levers. Dueling coronavirus briefings from federal leaders prove the point, without clarifying: Who does or should do what in managing the response? Where does the money go? How do we know? What happens to real people under one policy or another? Young Philadelphians are asking these same questions, but with idealism still intact, along with anger and trauma, privilege and poverty. They are searching for the possibility of fairness.
After the 2018 midterm election, Philadelphia saw youth registration increase more than 150%, from about 2,700 to nearly 7,000, according to the Office of the City Commissioners. #VoteThatJawn was glad to help build that momentum by releasing an animated video by Philadelphia artists from 25 to 17 years old; blogs tackling the Constitution and first voting experiences, and other forms of engagement directed at young people.
Partners suggested our work continue with a local version of the successful national “couch parties” that registered voters last month. The first Philly Youth Voter Registration House Party Jawn, broadcast on Facebook Live May 16, features Philly’s legendary DJs Jazzy Jeff and Diamond Kuts; DJSophiarocks; DJ Bobby Flowers; host LGP Qua, the young, positive North Philly rapper; and hip-hop cellist Aijee Evans. During the party young people from the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement know to text friends who are not registered to coach them through registering online. Community engagement staff from SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition) are training our coaches online. Anybody watching or listening is encouraged to text friends, too.
Getting our youth to the polls matters, like vaccination matters — not just for the individual, but for the health of the body politic. Will it work: an online house party, and new experiments in going phone-to-phone when door-to-door isn’t available? Could be. Will it spawn other ideas from brand-new citizens with beginners’ eyes on patriotism and community? Absolutely. Will this work make democracy stronger? We believe yes. We hope you join our efforts.
Lorene Cary’s latest book, “Ladysitting,” comes out in June in paperback.