Current & Trending

Engaging Young People in Politics

  • SHARE:

Young People and Politics 

Young people’s relationship with politics is complex and problematized. They are seen both as the group who disengages politically, yet also at the forefront of major political movements. At the age of 19, in March 2017, I decided to run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners against a 16-year Democratic incumbent. There was a lot I was excited to stand for as a young candidate, and I wanted to ensure my voter base reflected the demographics I represented in my community and district: young people, people of color and those who identify with the Islamic faith. I realized quickly while campaigning, that there was no “secret” to engaging young, first time voters. It was simply a matter of speaking on topics and issues that this demographic cares about. Historically, young people have not felt included in the political realm. The accusations that young people are politically apathetic are being refuted by countless new studies, but many in this generation are turning away from mainstream politics and towards political organizing, social movements, rallies and boycotts. 

The Power of First Time Voters

When I was running for public office, many people who voted for me found themselves voting for the first time. Whether they came from traditional immigrant backgrounds that never felt engaged in politics, or they weren’t old enough to vote before, I met these voters where they were at. I spoke at every college and university in my district, and most of the high schools as well. People found this to be silly, because they argued there was no reason to pay attention to high schoolers who weren’t old enough to vote. But I believe this is exactly where the conversations should take place. The students I met were so bright and had clear political ideas. The things that mattered to them ranged from gun control to abortion rights. Young voters care about all the same issues that any other voter would care about. The difference is that young voters are not at the center of traditional politicians’ strategies.  

I even went to speak at middle schools and elementary schools and showcased the power and impact of voting with the following exercise.

“So you all have chosen me, Bushra, to represent you in deciding what ice cream flavor we have. Raise your hand for chocolate, and now vanilla, now strawberry.” I do a rough count and see chocolate has more votes, but only by 3 or 4 and share that chocolate wins. I then ask, “Those of you who wanted strawberry or vanilla how do you feel? And those of you who wanted a flavor other than chocolate, but did not vote, how do you feel?” I found this exercise to be particularly powerful in shaping the impact of voting and what it looks like to cast a ballot for someone who represents you. We ended the exercise by having these students write postcards to their parents reminding them to vote. 

Power vs. Politics 

Let’s move beyond the claim that young people are either politically engaged or disengaged, to acknowledge that both can be simultaneously true. Power is constantly being withheld from young people, which limits and binds the type of organizing and political involvement they have. Interpreting low voter turnout by young people as evidence of apathy ignores the structural and organizational obstacles to electoral participation many young people face. It also ignores the distrust many young people feel towards traditional institutions of governance. Feeling disconnected from a process that is viewed as ineffective is not apathy. Especially when one considers how young people have been failed by political parties, including those that claim to represent us.

Youth and Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool to spread information at massive reach, yet also has equal potential to do harm with the dissemination of misinformation. Politically engaged young people from all political and civic backgrounds use social media every day for sharing information, mobilization and to make their mark in political spaces. Since 2015, young people have been on the frontlines of human rights and environmental movements, leading climate strikes across the country and in the March for our Lives movement. Postsecondary students across the world are addressing affordable education and sexual harassment and assault. Young people, fluent in digital tools, have significant power and presence in the conversations taking place online and are a political force to be reckoned with. Youth movements have always shaped and informed politics. Some of the most significant leaders of our time began their activism as young people. But in this moment, where young people are fueled with the power of social media, their impact is exponential.  During my own campaigns for public office, we leaned into social media as a tool to mobilize first time and young voters who found my campaign online and decided to follow it based on what they saw. If we want to truly capture the imaginations of young people in their civic power, we need to approach them in new and relevant ways.

To sum...

Young people are the future that will support all the generations before them. Authentically engaging them in their civic power should never be underestimated. While many were quick to dismiss my own run for political office as naive, at the end of my first campaign I had personally registered 2,000 first-time voters, and brought over 10,000 new voters into the electoral process, 30% of whom were voting for the first time. These voters were young and old, Muslim and immigrant, and unlikely voters who found it refreshing to see someone like me working to make my community a better place. My campaign was predominantly built and executed by college and high school students, almost all of whom were motivated to engage in campaigning for the first time because they saw a candidate who reflected their own lived experiences. Although I lost that first election, I ran again a few months later, and I’m now the youngest Muslim to hold elected office in the country. You can see my story in the PBS documentary series, And She Could Be Next, and use many of the free educational resources from that documentary to help engage your students, too. 

Bushra Amiwala

Bushra Amiwala Youngest Muslim Elected Official in the United States

Bushra Amiwala, 22, a Pakistani American recent college graduate from Skokie, Illinois, is the youngest Muslim elected official in the United States, serving on the Skokie School Board of Education. Her work to fight injustice and to ensure that government works for all of us has led to her being recognized as Glamour magazine’s College Woman of the Year, Seventeen magazine's Voice of the Year, and internationally as CosmoGirl’s Change Maker of the Year. 

Join the PBS Teachers Community

Stay up to date on the latest blog posts, content, tools, and more from PBS Education!