April 2017 Column: Kids should consider political engagement
This is to all the kids in the area – and especially to those who feel like there are problems in the world and who would like to do something about them.
In sixth grade, my teacher read our class a book called “It’s Our World, Too!” It was a collection of stories about children around the world who had done some sort of activist project: one had gotten the city to create a playground so kids wouldn’t play in the street and get hit by cars; a class of kindergartners had started a fundraising project to protect rain forest from deforestation; the stories spanned all issues and geographies.
For me, that book was a validation of one idea I have lived by for as long as I can remember: young people can do anything, and we don’t need to “wait our turn.”
I would go further, though, and suggest that young people, especially kids, have unique power because they are not who most people would expect to be activists. College students are often activists, many older people have been activists since the time they were in college and are still organizing. But an articulate, confident, respectful 6th or 10th grader? That’s rare, so those in power tend to notice.
After reading that book I started working on various activist projects, mostly environmental issues, and mostly in our school district, and I embraced the “cute kid activist” aspect.
My advice to potential young activists is not to try to seem older than you are. It’s fine if adults think you’re a cute kid (I still get that even now that I’m a college graduate and elected politician, and it’s rather fun) – as long as they also take you seriously. Here’s some advice on how to make sure they do.
The biggest point is to be confident. If you are not confident in yourself or your ideas, you can’t expect other people to be confident in you or in the ideas either. When you talk about your issues or suggestions, don’t use phrases like “I think” (if it’s a fact, then assert it), “just” (it makes your sentences weaker), or “really”/“very”/etc. (saying something is “really important” is less strong than saying something is “important” or “critically important” or the like).
At the same time, be respectful and deferential – people who you’re trying to get to do something often have expertise on issues that you don’t know about, they often have many competing factors to balance, and they often may feel under attack for various things. The more friendly you can be, the more positive your suggestions can be, the more helpful you will end up being to them.
The final point I will make here is to think about the big picture. If you’re trying to solve a large, systemic issue, figure out the changes that would get at the root of it and have the biggest impact (for instance, asking a town to change how it buys electricity would have a bigger impact than asking a few individual families to turn off their lights). Aim big, and don’t be afraid to (respectfully) say that we need much bolder change – but also be ready to compromise and get smaller things done in the short-term.
After all, young people have ideas, perspectives, and needs that are different from older people. Sometimes it’s a matter of thinking longer-term about our future (for instance, when talking about global warming); sometimes it’s a matter of being more directly connected to the systems that decision-makers affect (for instance, by being current students in public schools); and sometimes it’s simply because we live on a different time frame.
From elementary school through college, our lives are structured not year to year, but week to week and month to month. We are used to time frames and deadlines that are one semester or less, and if something takes longer than a semester it’s usually irrelevant.
This is a totally different mind-set than the “adult” world where, at least in government, people do not usually stay in their position for four years and then graduate, but are used to being around for decades and having long time frames for getting things done. Sometimes that’s important: the institutional memory, the expertise that people build up, and the time to work out details and get everything right.
At the same time, especially on certain systemic issues, we could use the student mentality – consider lending yours!