This week, Deyan Johnson counted among scores of District Generation Zers preparing to take to the polls during an election season unlike any other in recent history. This milestone has proven especially important for the onetime member of a youth-led movement that came close to securing voting rights for 16- and 17-year-old D.C. residents.
Nearly two years after the D.C. Council quashed Vote 16 DC’s efforts, Johnson said he remains steadfast in his belief that youth voting rights can be of significant benefit to young people and their older counterparts. He told The Informer that current events and social justice movements of the past have highlighted that reality.
“Voting is the most important thing anyone should ever do, especially when they are voting for a candidate who will be in power for a specific amount of time depending on their position,” said Johnson, a 19-year-old Southeast resident who counts gun violence and police brutality among his key concerns as a voter.
Throughout much of 2018, Johnson and other Vote 16 DC campaign organizers advocated for youth voting rights on community panels and before the D.C. Council. In their testimonials, the youth speakers often cited the experiences of peers burdened with adult responsibilities who had firsthand knowledge of the problems facing District residents in marginalized communities.
Though the D.C. Council would ultimately decline to vote on the legislation, Johnson continued to reflect on those lessons about civic engagement and the experiences he said compelled him to register as a voter earlier this year.
“[This process] gets youth to understand how the country works [and] it gets them in that mature mindset to think for themselves and act upon it so they can live in a much safer and opportunity-based world,” he said.
During this election season, Johnson and other young people have challenged a long-held notion that they don’t participate in electoral politics. In more than a dozen key battleground states, Generation Z and millennials have counted among a significant portion of early voters.
Experts point to social media and an increasing political consciousness as catalysts for increased youth mobilization in the age of COVID-19 and heightened racial injustice.
Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the D.C. Board of Elections’ (DCBOE) outreach strategy involved high school registration drives where eligible students began pre-registration and explored opportunities to serve as poll workers. Other organizations have embarked on similar endeavors to boost voter participation among this demographic and others with historically low turnouts.
In September, members of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General capitalized on this fervor for civic engagement with a #Take30 virtual chat about youth voting that highlighted a voter’s resource guide. It provided an opportunity for LaDawne White, manager of DCBOE’s voter education and outreach division, to answer questions about voter registration.
Other participants on the program with Attorney General Karl Racine included Patricia Kapunun of Children’s National Medical Center and Robyn Lingo of Mikva Challenge DC, a youth electoral engagement nonprofit.
Meanwhile, some people like Lauren Grimes said they’re working to ensure that young people living throughout the District can vote with the knowledge and self-awareness needed to make informed decisions.
As a member of a D.C. State Board of Education task force centered on curriculum restructuring, Grimes has her sights set on what she described as a more culturally relevant social studies curriculum and increased opportunities for impactful community service at the high school level.
“We have to make sure youth are prepared to vote and school is one of the biggest and best platforms to get that kind of civic education [where they can] think of themselves as active citizens, especially if they don’t get that kind of encouragement elsewhere,” said Grimes, founder and executive director of the Community Enrichment Project, an organization formed three years ago with the purpose of instilling a sense of civic engagement and awareness in underserved communities.
Since the beginning of the year, Grimes has connected with young people, in person and in the virtual realm, to help them better embrace their role in improving society.
“Our students show they understand gentrification and other community issues when they describe what they see happening in their communities,” she said.
“We need to give them hands-on opportunities to participate in civic action and make a connection between what they’re learning and living.”