When President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Atlanta recently to address the urgent need for voting rights legislation, they chose to speak on the storied grounds of the Atlanta University Center Consortium, the home of historically Black institutions Clark University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and my alma mater, Spelman College. President Biden and Vice President Harris were introduced onstage by current Spelman senior Jillian Jackson, who is serving as the 80th president of Spelman’s Student Government Association. I am so proud of Jillian and grateful for the current generation of young servant leaders like her who are busy making their schools, communities and world a better place. During Black History Month, it is especially fitting to celebrate today’s and tomorrow’s young Black leaders.
Jillian, who is from Memphis, is a political science major and Spanish minor in Spelman’s Ethel Waddell Githii Honors Program. Besides serving in student government, she has been part of the Alpha Lambda Delta honor society, URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity), Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and Fair Fight U, joining other students supporting Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight organization as they fight for free and fair elections, encourage voter participation and educate voters about elections and their voting rights. This is critical work for young people. As Jillian introduced President Biden and Vice President Harris, she reminded her fellow students it was their “duty as campus leaders and change agents to combat voter discrimination on behalf of their peers and [their] community.”
Jillian described registering to vote at an NAACP voter drive right after she turned 18 during her first semester at Spelman and shared how excited she was to participate in her first election. But she also saw how many challenges hopeful voters face, including strict absentee requirements, limited polling place access, long lines and rejections over technicalities like misspelled names or incorrect addresses. As Jillian said, these barriers “inhibit many citizens and their right to vote, especially within the Black community,” and some of the same barriers that make voting harder for many people of color also make it harder for young people.
July 2021 was the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. In a White House proclamation celebrating that anniversary, President Biden said: “Young Americans have been on the front lines in the fight to defend the right to vote and expand access to the ballot box for all eligible voters. Their civic engagement extends beyond voting — with young Americans leading the calls for racial justice, climate action, gun violence prevention, and immigration reform among many other issues.” But 50 years after younger Americans were included as voters, we are at a very dangerous moment for voter suppression in our nation, and the same proclamation noted that “laws aimed at suppressing voter turnout in Black and brown communities also impact young voters.”
New attempts at installing residency and ID requirements can make it harder to vote for young people who do not have driver’s licenses or items like utility bills in their own names. College students who attend school outside their home states may find it even harder to register and vote near their campuses, while efforts to limit absentee ballots and mail-in voting may make it more difficult for the same group of students to mail ballots home. But measures like automatic and same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee ballots, and extending early access to in-person voting or making Election Day a holiday would improve access for young voters and everyone. Standing up for the right to vote is just one valuable way young people like Jillian are making a difference.
As Jillian gave her introduction, her high school English teacher Karen Garrison told a local reporter, “The superlatives for this remarkable scholar, Jillian Jackson, are too numerous to narrow down.”
“[She] embodies the attributes of a developing leader supported by solid family values and a personal work ethic,” Garrison said. “Her social and political advocacy for meaningful change makes her an authentic influencer. … Get ready, world, this is only a rehearsal.”
Our nation and world are indeed more than ready for Jillian and many more young servant leaders like her. As Vice President Harris told her: “I can’t wait to see what you do next!”
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.