As the father of two millennials, I know how obsessed this generation is with Snapchat, Instagram and every other social platform. But, it’s not just about selfies at the ballpark. Across the nation, more young people are using their smartphones as tools to fight for what they believe in.
From the #BlackLivesMatter movement, to immigration reform, to shaming corporate greed, one thing is clear: We’re in a new age of youth rising.
While young adults are more active than previous generations, this surge of activist energy hasn’t translated into the place where it can make a difference: the voting booth. In the last election, less than 10 percent of Californians between 18 and 24 voted. In fact, 18- and 19-year-old men were more likely to get arrested in 2014 than vote.
If young Californians are making an unprecedented investment in social change, why aren’t they taking that crucial step?
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The California Endowment, which depends on deep social change to help empower struggling families, was determined to find out. We commissioned a study to better understand what issues young adults care about most and why they’re not voting. We made a point of listening most closely to young adults of color and those in traditionally underserved regions. They are most likely to fall through the cracks of a traditional Get Out the Vote campaign.
In all of the interviews and surveys conducted by our researchers, one theme was consistent: discrimination. Young people view discrimination as the pre-eminent social justice issue of our time.
But it’s not only the traditional definition of “discrimination.” They are concerned about the most common consequence of discrimination: inequality.
They’re concerned about not being able to afford college.
They’re concerned about being denied access to health coverage or clean drinking water.
They’re concerned about a dearth of job opportunities for young people.
And they’re concerned about the stigma associated with mental health issues.
Simply put, they see a lack of equity and inclusion as barriers to healthy, productive lives.
The youths we heard from are demanding inclusivity and practicing solidarity. They want to be included in critical conversations affecting our communities.
Voters in this election will be the most diverse in U.S. history, especially in California. There are more millennials now than baby boomers and more youths of color than in previous years. Yet, among the more than 1,000 youths we interviewed, there was a feeling of being excluded.
One young woman said their voices are usually disregarded because they’re young and not taken seriously. One Asian American youth discussed how those most capable of change are older adults because they hold the power.
Voting clearly hasn’t been popular with young people. They’re often skeptical of the political process and unsure their votes – and voices – matter.
This could be the year things change. California youths have a historic chance to go to the polls this November and prove their voices do matter. The health of our communities depends on their engagement. When younger voters turn out, issues important to them will command attention at all levels of government.
Young people are getting loud – at rallies and on social media. This is a good sign, but young voters need to take that same energy to the polls and show that inequality and discrimination are not the future they envision.
As Secretary of State Alex Padilla told youths in an interview, “The more we don’t participate, the more we aren’t heard.”
When we start seeing selfies of young Californians with “I voted” stickers going viral, the future of our state will begin to reflect their activism, their hopes and their dreams.
Daniel Zingale is senior vice president of The California Endowment. Contact him at DZingale@calendow.org.