It’s clear there’s no age limit on being a political force. Look at climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who at 16 is speaking to tens of thousands of people. Or, the kids from the Parkland school shooting, like David Hogg, who started March for Our Lives and is helping to spearhead gun control efforts nationwide.
While not all teens can be international figures, any teen can get politically involved, at both the local and international levels. It just takes some research and networking to make it happen.
Think Big: Start an Organization
Some efforts can start small and end up huge. Take, for instance, the organization Teens in Politics. Started in the spring of 2018, 10th-grade student James Kuntz at NYC’s prestigious Dalton School saw an opportunity for connections between minors and political internships.
Teens in Politics hooks up politically interested teens (think precocious policy wonks) with internships in the New York area. It’s currently focused on the New York House reps, New York State Senate, and New York Assembly, but may branch out in the future. Teens can look forward to seeing the inner workings of state politics, good, bad, and ugly. There might be plenty of Starbucks runs for interns, but there also might be a pathway to a job after college, too.
Vice recently interviewed underaged teens who got involved and grew their efforts. Here’s a comment from a young student who started a school resource:
“I’ve been out as trans since I was literally 11, so I’ve been educating people on how to be respectful and realize that trans/LGBTQ people deserve basic human rights. My friend group and I started the LGBTQIA club at our middle school in 7th grade.”
Or this youth, who created a pre-registration drive:
“I hosted a voter pre-registration drive at my high school (anyone over the age of 16 can pre-register to automatically be registered on their 18th birthday). Got 221 kids pre-registered to vote. BOOM.”
Organizations like Zero Hour and Fridays for Future were both started by minors, and now offer underaged teens the opportunity to start campaigning for climate change action sooner rather than later.
“As you can see people doing with the Fridays for Future movement, people are striking every day, demanding a livable planet,” Ethan Wright, the now 19-year-old Advocacy Director for Zero Hour, tells Parentology. “I’m asking my school to create a sustainability plan and use sustainable practices — like encourage and inform and have a curriculum based on environmental justice and climate justice itself. “
According to Wright, just speaking up (loudly) can make a difference.
“Calling your representatives, even if you can’t vote for them, bugging them, making your voice heard is the most important thing to do,” Wright says. “So whether it be through action, whether it be through calling, whether it be through a petition, whether it be just through making noise in the street. Right now, we can’t settle for the status quo. We have to come up with creative ideas. And I think that’s exactly what these strikes are.”
You Don’t Have to Be 18 To Help Get Out The Vote
The young might not be of voting age yet, but they can still inform, guide, and pester with the best of adults.
As a minor, you can still write postcards and texts to potential voters. Text “resist” to 50409 and it connects to easy instructions, and all it takes is a phone; some communities offer Civic Sunday activities and text banking every weekend.
Elle Nicoletti, 17, has voting on her mind even though she’s not eligible yet.
“I’ll be working for the Grassroots Democrats HQ for Young Democrats, which is a teenage advocacy group focusing on phone banking,” Nicoletti tells Parentology. “I’ll also continue to use social media to spread the word about different political candidates and their positions.”
Kids Can Use Their Collective Influence… And the Threat of Voting Soon
Generation Z is going to get hit square between the eyes with the consequences of climate change, and they’re making it their number one political priority. While kids do have influence over parents and elders in terms of politics on occasion, they also have the threat of released voter power the moment they turn 18.
“Climate change, climate change, climate change,” Nicoletti says. “It should not be a political issue, it should be a global issue that everyone takes seriously, but unfortunately, the infiltration of greed and corruption have politicized it.”
Young activists like Nadia Nazar, 17, the co-founder of Zero Hour, are motivated and have the time and energy to devote to climate change issues.
“Kids who can’t vote can do a lot politically and outside in order to hold elected officials and corporations accountable,” Nazar tells Parentology. “They can campaign for certain elected officials. They can promote the elected officials that they want to get voted into office. I think what’s really important is calling elected officials out on what they’re doing and saying you took this much money from these fossil fuel companies and stating that so people know they don’t have the best intentions running for office.”
Xiye Bastida, part of Fridays for Future, the People’s Climate Movement and the 2018 recipient of Spirit of the UN award, agrees that taking a hard stance is absolutely required, and that can be done even without the power of the vote.
“We have moral authority now because the climate crisis is going to affect future generations the most,” Bastida tells Parentology. “And saying you have to listen to me because this is my future and this is our community’s presence. When you say that, you come at them at a different angle, and they have to respond to your questions.”
Still, Some Adults Are Useful
While these teen activists seem united in their distrust of current adult political machinations, they know they need them for their future. Besides, often parents and teachers are teens biggest political influences.
“My mentors are my parents, as they raised me to be politically aware and involved,” Nicoletti says. “ In fact, one of my earliest memories is watching the 2005 State of the Union. I also greatly admire my history teachers from high school and from middle school, as they truly inspire me every day to make the world a better place.”
Today’s politically involved teens have a good grasp of history; they’ve learned about activism and political protest through history classes and their parents. Kallan Benson, Fridays for Future USA National Coordinator, acknowledged this at a recent climate change conference.
“We are standing on the shoulders of so many amazing activists who’ve come before us,” Benson tells Parentology. “The adults that I trust and know in this movement are teaching me every day about how to be a more effective advocate for climate action. They’re mentoring us, teaching us and helping us move forward. They’re also friends and family that we care about incredibly.”
Keep Talking, Even When You Don’t Agree
Just like the electorate at large, not all teens agree on political issues. Rather than become as polarized (and potentially ineffective) as the adults, keeping communication open is a good thing. That doesn’t necessarily mean arguing with drunk Uncle Fred at Thanksgiving, but it does mean keeping communication flowing with peers.
Although the internet can be rife with dubious voices, there are some good and positive outlets. YouthVoices, an online platform dedicated to social media with an educational slant, helps students share their common and disparate beliefs in a safe space (no trolls allowed).
This exposure and tolerance leads to better political outcomes, at least according to Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy’s book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education. The book offers an ethical framework for the discussion of political topics in the classroom and provides practical insights both for educators who are new to in-class political discussions and for more experienced instructors who want to expand political discourse in the classroom.
Such exchanges lead to greater engagement in school, greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking skills, and greater likelihood to become politically engaged in the future.
As future voters, innovators, scientists, and politicians, teens hold both hope and power. And on the international level, they’re starting to flex their activist muscles.
Seventeen-year-old activist Jonah Gottlieb already has a hefty resume: the Director of Schools for Climate Action (S4CA) and the Executive Director of the National Children’s Campaign. He urges empowerment even if you can’t yet vote. There are many ways to get involved and make your voice heard.
“Kids can do everything to make the world a better place,” Gottlieb tells Parentology. “Kids can talk to their parents and make sure they’re voting in line with ideas that will make our future better. Kids can strike. Kids can protest. Kids can organize. Kids can make sure every single person in America who says they care about kids are actually voting like it, too.”