Future Voters

How teenagers are making sense of the election — and preparing to step into their civic roles

By Leah Shafer, on November 15, 2016 9:42 AM
Future Voters: How teenagers are making sense of the election — and preparing to step into their civic roles #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

If the largely unforeseen results of the presidential election and nastiness of its campaigns have been unsettling for seasoned voters, they have floored many future voters — teenagers who followed the election intently. 

We asked members of the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) — a diverse group of teenagers who work with the Harvard Graduate School of Education project Making Caring Common — to  help us understand how teens are making sense of the past 18 months and where they think we should go from here. Four members of the board (Anna Kizito from Massachusetts, Andrew Schoonover from Kansas, Jasman Sigh from New Jersey, and Brianna Taylor from New York) offered their perspectives — unjaded, contemplative, and still rooted in idealism.

What has this election season revealed to you — about your school, the political process, or what it means to be a good citizen?

Jasman: I’ve learned more about tolerance and the ability to be open-minded. Being a good citizen isn’t measured by how we push our own agendas, but how willing we are to step back and reconsider our views through open interaction with others. A good citizen is not one who only believes he/she can be right. A good citizen is one who believes in something but is willing to accept validity in the beliefs of others.

Anna: In school, I was shocked, and admittedly horrified, to see how many people supported the ideas of a candidate that essentially attacked their peers' race, nationality, socioeconomic background, religious practices, etc. I wondered if these were views that my classmates harnessed for all the time that I had known them, or if it was merely a fear-induced hatred.

Although I was uncomfortable with the social conflicts this election brought about in my community, I learned that sometimes it's best not to add fuel to the fire, but to be understanding and civil even when I do not necessarily agree with another's opinion. I believe this is what it means to be a good citizen.

Andrew: It does not matter what side you are on to agree on one thing: There is a deep divide in this country. Our parents’ generation has failed to work together and has lost the art of compromise. I hope, pray, and work every day so that my generation will go down in history as the generation that fixed the wrongs of our mothers and fathers. Throughout history, America has been the exception, and I can feel it in my soul that my generation will revitalize this ideal.

What has it been like for you to witness Trump’s and Clinton’s candidacies, both historic?

Brianna: While I see clearly the historical significance of this election and agree that both candidates had the potential to change the course of American history, I continue to be sorely disappointed by the lack of integrity both candidates displayed. I am resolute in my belief that strong and unwavering ethical behavior is not only expected, but mandated of the person who is elected to the highest office in the United States of America.

Jasman: It was an election unlike any other in that Trump was the first candidate running for public office who has ever spoken so bluntly without regard for censoring his thoughts. Clinton was more deliberate and careful. We saw Trump energizing people who have felt so left out in the past few decades by Washington D.C ., which is why we saw lots of "anti-opposite candidate" rhetoric rather than support for a party’s own.

Andrew: It is notable that these candidates showcase a flashback of the old issues of our country. Racism, sexism, and a number of other issues are all problems that our parents and grandparents have grown up with. This election has shown both sides of these issues and how our parents have failed to conquered these problems.

Post-election, what advice do you have for rebuilding trust? How can we work together and talk to each other respectfully?

Brianna: I would advise the president to create a special project that will focus on building respectful relations among Democrats and Republicans in the United States, with the consistent message from our pledge “One nation, under God, indivisible…”

Anna: I think the answer to rebuilding trust is undemanding and maybe even a little simplistic: just be kind to one another. I saw in this election how people become afraid of things they do not understand, whether it be a religion, a way of life, a racial group, etc. This fear can easily turn into intolerance. I believe that if we start a conversation that allows people to share their stories in a safe setting, then people will be more likely to be empathetic to what these people face in our country. It is imperative that we approach every person and situation with a basic level of kindness and appreciation for the fact that they are also a human being who deserves the same amount of respect we would wish for ourselves.

Andrew: Building trust needs to come from our leaders. The divide in our country comes as a result of our political system refusing to work with the other side because of our differences. New trust can be rooted in common-sense reform and causes that everyone can get behind (investing in education and infrastructure, for example). It is going to be hard to bridge and close this gap, but I know the youth will be there eventually to fix our problems and showcase traditional American ideals in a new, revolutionary way.

Jasman: In order to rebuild trust, we need to focus less on politics and rather more on improvement from a bipartisan point of view. Schools and students need to have forums for discussion where students can reflect on how they feel about the election and what they’d like to see happen in the next four years. Democrats cannot hate Republicans and vice versa.

Students can’t feel disenchanted by the election process because political parties do not serve their constituency. They serve America. To rebuild trust, people need to know that Washington isn’t corrupt and everyone will be cared for under a new session of government. People need to feel cared for and welcomed in a new America.

Additional Resources

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Topics in this article

Schools, Leadership, Learning