Voices of Youth: Kalamazoo politicians and youth work to increase youth political participation

“You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu.” 

It’s a phrase State Sen. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo, utters often to stress the importance of people getting politically involved, but young people might do well to heed it, too. 

Although many members of younger generations, like Generation Z, aren’t yet able to vote or be elected to office, McCann and some local students interviewed point out that the legislation and policies being enacted now are the ones dictating their future. 

“Not enough young people are aware of the political environment that they’re in,” says Flora Harper, the new leader of the Young Democrats Club at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo. “And something that I really am passionate about is trying to get more young people to be involved in politics and be knowledgeable.”

According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, less than half of young Americans under the age of 25 vote in elections — even in the case of presidential elections. 

Loy Norrix' Young Democrats include Joshua Snyder, Eleanor Cook, Anniken Holm, Jaxon Grubaugh, Emma Doren, Flora Harper, Gabriel Vigiletti, Bjorn Nelson, and others.This disheartening statistic doesn’t only apply to the United States at large; many youths in Kalamazoo show a similar disengagement from politics.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) indicates that although 67.1% of youths in Kalamazoo County ages 18-24 registered to vote in 2018, voter turnout for that same year and age group was 31.8%.

Still, youth participation is on the rise compared to past years. CIRCLE has also noted a general increase in participation by the 18-24 age range, with historically high turnout in the 2018 midterm elections being noted by NPR.

Increasing engagement

Voting, however, isn’t the only way young people are increasing political awareness and participation in their communities. In Kalamazoo especially, both politicians and young people themselves are working to increase youth influence in politics.

One of the ways teenagers can be involved in politics is through school clubs and organizations. At Loy Norrix High School, both the Young Democrats Club and YMCA Michigan Youth in Government encourage students to learn more about public policy and its impact on laws that affect them. 

Bjorn Nelson, a junior at Loy Norrix, leads one of two Youth in Government mock trial teams. While he has always been interested in politics, he says the majority of young people that he knows don’t display this same level of dedication. 

“I think that there are a few groups of people that are very politically engaged and very politically literate… but I do think that there are a lot of people, especially in my generation, that opt for little to no political participation,” says Bjorn.

For many youths, at least from Bjorn’s perspective, this lack of engagement is a result of frustration with the current political system. 

A recent Young Democrats meeting at Loy Norrix High School“There’s a general tendency in Gen Z to sort of look at politics in a very nihilistic way,” says Bjorn. “It feels like, even if you do have a say, it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything you want is getting done. And I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Hot topics

Still, there are a few key issues that motivate young people toward political action. 

Both Bjorn and Sen. McCann agree that environmental issues seem to take precedence for young people. Other priorities include women’s reproductive freedom and gun violence. Although youths as a whole may not show strong levels of political participation, their voices on these topics hold enough power to influence politicians.

“I was reached out to last year by Portage Central students — high school students who were doing a gun violence walkout and asked me if I would join them… and I was pleased to join,” says McCann. 

McCann says the main mode of youth participation he’s observed in recent years has been through student protests like the one at Portage Central, whether in the form of walkouts, rallies, or other nonviolent methods. 

He attributes this rise in student activism to the polarization of certain issues like women’s reproductive rights and gun violence at the national level. 

A recent Young Democrats meeting at Loy Norrix High School“We’ve really seen a great deal of youth engagement and the changing of the political landscape… I think some of that’s been born perhaps due to the advent of (former President Donald) Trump as well. I think that caused a lot of engagement and activism on the part of younger people,” says McCann.

McCann, who graduated from Western Michigan University in 1993, has observed an overall increase in youth participation — similar to what national data has reported. Motivated by the aforementioned issues, youths are now more likely than ever to take a stand on what's important to them. 

How to get involved

For most teens, however, voting isn't yet an option, which can make political participation extremely difficult — a factor that is frustrating in itself, according to Bjorn.

“We’re the generation that (politics are) going to affect the most… and the fact that we don’t necessarily get a say in any of the policy that’s happening around it — it feels very problematic to me,” says Bjorn.

Since the U.S. voting age is 18, youths can affect change outside of the voting booth, whether it’s leading walkouts like the one McCann attended, taking to social media, or joining school organizations.

Among the many school organizations available to local students is the Loy Norrix Young Democrats Club, which is a political discussion group that focuses mainly on issues taken up by the Democratic Party, although leaders make it clear that anyone can join the club, not just left-leaners.

The club’s new leader, Flora Harper, says the lack of interest in politics from young people is especially disconcerting because of how much the political process affects them, particularly with issues related to gender.

The agenda at a recent Young Democrats meeting at Loy Norrix High School“I’m really passionate about reproductive rights. That's something that is really important to me because I think it has a really strong effect on young people,” says Flora. “Not enough young people are politically involved in it, but a lot of the people that are involved in it are not the people that it is affecting.”

For Young Democrats, increasing student participation means making sure their meetings are available to all students, which is why they’re widely advertised at the school so students know about the resource.

Michigan Youth in Government, which Bjorn Nelson is also a part of, is another resource available to politically-minded students. 

In Youth in Government, students can participate in simulated versions of political processes meant to educate them as to how the American democratic system works. Currently, Bjorn is a member of the mock trial team, but he previously served as a lobbyist in the Youth in Government program. He says both of these roles have given him a realistic look at how policy-making works, and how political participation shapes those policies.

Although it's been relatively easy for him to find time to participate in politics and student groups, Bjorn acknowledges it may not be necessarily so for others. According to data summarized by the New York Times and the National Library of Medicine, white people with an above-average household income vote at much higher rates than their minority and low-income counterparts. 

Still, as Bjorn says, political engagement can be as simple as making sure that you're informed about what's happening in your community. Even just subscribing to a daily newsletter, whether it’s from an international news source or a local one, can help youths stay up-to-date on what issues are being discussed around them, he says. 

If you're more passionate about politics, however, it's important to share your opinion and take action instead of simply hoping that one day your beliefs may get passed into law, Bjorn says. 

“If you don’t make your perspective heard, there is no possible way that that’s ever going to get implemented,” Bjorn says.

Eleanor Cook, a junior at Loy Norrix, is a Voices of Youth writer.

Eleanor Cook is a junior at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she’s the chief copy editor of the school newspaper, Knight Life. Eleanor plans on furthering her journalism education through college and going into the field as a career. She
was in the Fall 2023 cohort of the Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program.

Haba Kibezi, a Loy Norrix Freshmen and Voices of Youth artist created the accompanying T-shirt design.

Haba Kibezi is a swimmer and plays lots of sports for fun like basketball, football, and soccer. Haba hopes to head to Kalamazoo Central so he can be near his close friends. Haba loves tacos, is 14 years old, and attends Loy Norrix as a freshman.  

Artist Statement: My focus area is teen activism, and my medium is clothing. I used dye to color my T-shirt and painted another shirt with white fabric paint. My mentor helped me sew the painted portion onto the shirt that I dyed. I wanted to use clothing to represent my topic, so the artwork looked nicer. I think more folks appreciate art when it is wearable.

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