Making government work
Rock the vote. Declare yourself. Chose or lose. Vote or die. There has been a lot of hand wringing about youth voter participation since it hit record lows in the mid-90’s. To some extent, it’s working. 2008 marked the third major election in a row where youth turnout increased, with more 18-29 year-olds voting than in any year since 1972.
But while participation spikes around big elections, it sinks just as quickly once they’re over. And even those who do vote don’t seem convinced they’re making a difference. When a 2007 study asked young people whether volunteering, advocacy, voting, organizing people, or giving money was the best way to address public issues, voting finished dead last.
Instead, our generation is voting with its feet. A Harvard study of youth engagement showed that 51% of young people were involved in local volunteering, while only 19% were involved in political advocacy. The reasons were simple. Young people are energized to participate in building communities they can be proud to call home. But they want to put their energy where it makes the biggest impact, and they increasingly feel that politics isn’t it.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Our generation wants a more meaningful, effective, sustained way to participate in the processes that make a difference in our lives and our communities. We want more than a vote: we want a seat at the table, a voice in an authentic dialogue that outlasts the election cycle.
Virginia21 has the tools to make that happen.
Low voter turnout is a symptom, not the disease. It reflects young people’s larger frustrations with the political process—and fixing those will take a lot more than voter registration drives. A CIRCLE study of political engagement among college students took a revealing snapshot of these turnoffs:
Lack of access and transparency
Young people don’t have the resources (finances or connections) that other groups use to make their voices heard, and we worry that politicians tune us out as a result. We also lack the institutional know-how to ID where and how to plug into the political system to make an impact. This limits even basic participation like voting, not to mention complex engagement like creating policy change.
No perceived potential for impact
Lack of access is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we don’t see a way to make an impact, we’ll put our energy somewhere else. Young people want results, and we see politics as too slow, messy, and opaque to achieve them. We’re skeptical not only about our ability to effectively impact politics, but the ability of politics to effectively impact anything—too much posturing and point-scoring, not enough decisive action on real problems.
Too partisan, too polarized
Young people see today’s politics as “a polarized debate with no options for compromise or nuance. [We] do not like the competitive and confrontational atmosphere created by the parties and do not seem to want [our] beliefs and identity limited by party affiliation.” 4 in 10 young people don’t identify as members of either party, and more than half of us are centrists whose beliefs don’t fit either traditional conservative or liberal labels. We’re extremely frustrated by the lack of authentic discussion about issues or solutions occupying the large middle ground where most of us stand.
It’s not that there’s a lack of information—there’s more now than ever before. And it’s not that young people aren’t seeking it out—we’ve been increasing our news consumption since 2000. It’s that the media ecosystem is so crowded with competing and partial information that we can’t sort out a clear picture of the issues. Young people want a basic story so that we can critically develop our own opinions. We resent being targeted for marketing and manipulation. We’re not sure where to find sources to meet those needs, or a safe, smart, diverse forum for authentic peer-driven discussion.
How Va21 can help
VA21 partners with business, community, political, and education leaders across the commonwealth to make sure you get a seat at the table with the decision-makers. Better yet, we equip you with the knowledge and skills to start those conversations yourselves. Case in point: in December 2011, we helped students coordinate a twitter blitz about student debt with an online petition and grassroots events on campuses across Virginia. The next week, our members met personally with Governor McDonnell to discuss the issue. Two months later, our student chairman stood next to the Governor on the Capitol steps to deliver a speech calling for public reinvestment to head off the student debt crisis (go Waylin!). The students gathered behind him then filled the halls of the general assembly building to hand-deliver more than 14,000 petition letters to elected officials and personally urge them to “invest in me.”
Someone must have heard them, because when the budget finally passed, it included $200 million in higher-ed investment, much of which went to tuition support and financial aid. Turns out you don’t need high-paid lobbyists to open doors and wield influence—just a guide who knows the ropes to point you in the right direction, and the power of your own voice multiplied across a generation.
It might look like nothing gets done in Richmond (and the Senate video feed probably doesn’t help that impression…) But we have a proven record of making a difference on issues that matter to young people, from textbook prices to student debt. Over 65,000 young people have joined us to show that by standing together, we can spark meaningful change. And while we think that’s a big deal, we stay strong by staying small. National groups have big budgets and slick marketing, but our local Virginia focus lets us personally connect you to both peers and power-players in a community network dedicated to improving the place we call home together. Richmond is only a few hours’ drive from DC (traffic sucks), but it’s light years closer when it comes to opportunities to act today in ways that directly impact your life tomorrow.
We’re old school. VA21 likes politikos, not politicos: to us, politics means active members of society contributing to the public good rather than insiders manipulating the system for personal or party gain. But we’re not naïve. VA21 also knows you have to engage the system to impact it. What’s a civic-minded realist to do?
1.) Promote nonpartisan, problem-centered dialogue. VA21 began with a small group of students thinking out loud together in a coffee shop. We work to recreate that climate of collaborative, open-ended conversation across the commonwealth.
2.) Promote bipartisan, solutions-driven action. VA21 rejects the idea that issues are inherently partisan, but we accept that the process of solving them currently is. We build support for solutions among key actors on both sides of the aisle because we know nothing gets done without it. We don’t “hold elected officials accountable” (whatever that means); we bring them together and lead them forward.
Sharing information and resources VA21 wants to be your first stop for Virginia news and information about issues that affect young people. (Follow us on facebook, twitter, and VA21’s blog for frequent updates.) We’re also hard at work tracking down tools and resources to help you make the decisions and build the skills that young people need to navigate today’s versions of some very old problems: getting a good education, starting a successful career, and building a government that works.
 Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement “Millennials Talk Politics”: A Study of College Student Political Engagement,” 2007.
 The 11th Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service, Harvard University Institute of Politics, Fall 2006.
 “Millennials Talk Politics,” p. 4
 Harvard Institute of Politics, “A guide to reaching young voters,” 2004.
 How’s that sentence for an accidental survey of Greek history from Acropolis to debt crisis?