Try listening to youth to engage them

Sadler head shotThis week I found myself in the company of progressives socializing over breakfast. At every table there were three typed questions that the groups could use as starting points for discussion. This was the first one:

How can we get folks from ages 18-35 involved in the political process and why do you think they’re so difficult to engage?

At just shy of twenty, this is a topic that I hear often. I was curious to hear my table’s thoughts on the matter and to share my own experience.

I read the question aloud and suddenly found that I could not get one word in edgewise. The three at my table had a great deal to say on the subject and were eager to agree with each other on the apathy and laziness of youth. While the kindly individuals shared stories of their students and of their own children, I started looking around the room.

I counted. There were 30 individuals, including me. The average age seemed to be in the 50s. One woman seemed to be 35. One individual was younger: me.

The conversation slowed and I shared my observation with the three at my table. I asked, “Why do you think that not many people younger than 35 are here?” One woman readily had an answer: all of them are working right now. Then, I said, if we want younger people to be engaged we have to start by making it possible for them to be part of the conversation.

I have a great deal of thoughts on the subject of how we as a society define and talk about “political engagement,” how we view younger individuals and their perspectives, and whether we want the youth to be more greatly involved for our benefit or for theirs.

But I think that the fact that I was the only individual younger than 35 in the room of 30 says it all.

When committees full of men state that they are acting in the “best interests” of women, more often than not it results in more restrictive abortion policies. When white plantation owners spoke of slavery, they often defended it as being good and necessary for the African American slaves. These examples are extreme, but they illustrate that we cannot work to aid individuals without asking them what it is that would help them. More than asking, we also have to listen. We have to give them the opportunity to speak and listen to what they say.

It goes the same for youth. “How can we get folks from ages 18-35 politically involved?” Ask us.

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