By Jazmyne Wright, University of Memphis Student
November 3, 2020. My family and I were up at 6 in the morning and at the polls by 6:20 A.M. It was about 34 degrees, so we sat outside of Lewisburg High School in lawn chairs with hoodies and coffee. There were at least twelve people in line when we arrived at the school. I remember setting my alarm the night before, feeling worried that the line would be long. We waited for about thirty minutes before they opened the school. We all started filing in and soon the halls were lined with voters. The wait was reasonable, but the lines extended outside and wrapped around the school because we were all standing six feet apart. We did, however, discuss the Mississippi flag and the medical marijuana amendments on the ballot. Filling out my ballot took about as long as it took us to brew our coffee that morning, no more than five minutes.
I decided I would skip the sensationalism and hype and wait until the morning to hear the results. Of course, things did not happen that way.
Being a young voter, I did not vote because of taxes, medical insurance, or salary gaps. I didn’t know the first thing about tax cuts or universal healthcare (until I volunteered with a local campaign). What prompted me to vote was education. Seeing the implicit bias towards black students prompted me to reflect on more than just the current President’s policies. I considered how bias and local elections play a large part in the academic experiences and development of our youth.
A common feeling that most Generation Z Voters in the South share is discouragement from what local and state elections are like in red states. Oftentimes, voters do not realize just how much power local elections hold over their communities, infrastructure, and schools. It is important for young voters to know their resources early on that they can use to research candidates and their policies for local and national elections.
We have to be sure young people have the means and the incentive to vote, such as transportation. During casual discussions among my peers at The University of Memphis about how voting can be more accessible for students, most of my peers said that not having a ride to the polls was a common issue. Another issue was out-of-state students not being able to get home during school to vote. Then there is the matter of incentive to vote. In the time of police killings, young people are starting to question the American criminal justice system. People do not believe that voting has any direct effect on police brutality. In actuality, voting for local offices like District Attorney and Prosecutor is significant when it comes to justice for police-involved killings. Hosting virtual events aimed at educating youth about elections and politics is a great way to engage young voters. Another great way to engage young voters is to give them a platform and show that you value their voice. This can be done with panels, mentorships, and internships.
I got my start in civic engagement and social justice advocacy by launching a petition to implement ethnic hair into the cosmetology curriculum of Shelby County Schools. Voting is important, no doubt, but it is not the only means of civic engagement and social justice that youth can take part in. For instance, I joined Pumps and Politics 901 as Executive Director two years ago. Pumps and Politics is a youth-led, nonpartisan political organization geared towards involving young women in the political process and encouraging civic engagement. This organization was founded by award-winning activist and Memphis native, Marissa Pittman. My work with Pumps and Politics 901 allowed me to connect with other young women of color interested in mostly civic engagement and activism. Generally, most young activists are forced to organize and speak among themselves. While I have never referred to myself as an activist, I try to recognize the work of others while I speak up and advocate for social change and justice. There are certain barriers to youth activism. Sometimes it is hard to dedicate copious amounts of time to something that does not pay, though I do not think this should allow you to lose sight of what is truly important.
Seven million young people voted in this election, that is incredible! However, our work does not end with voting. Young people need to continue organizing and speaking. We need to continue learning and growing into the leaders we have always admired in our communities. If there is a change you see that needs to take place, do not wait until you have a degree or a title. Act now, speak now. Your voice is just as valid as everyone else’s at the table. Whether you bring fresh ideas or carry the torch handed down to you, your work and your courage is necessary.