The topic of voting and politics can be divisive and, in some cases, incendiary. And, far too often, we just vote along party lines — not really understanding the issues or even the long-term effect of a single act of casting a vote. We just know that the new privilege we enjoy at 18 is the ability to vote. Not much preparation comes along with that. It is almost like getting a driver’s licenses mailed to your home at the age of 16 with no preparation or knowledge of the rules of the road.
Not providing our youth with knowledge and education around voting can be just as reckless as putting ill-equipped drivers on the road. At the age of 18, our young people automatically acquire a most important privilege and constitutional right — without knowing exactly what to do with it, the power they possess or the damage that can result if not used responsibly.
Aside from the compulsory historical context of voting in history, government and civics classes, I know from experience as an educator and parent there is not a lot of education and empowerment that goes into educating our students on the real impact of voting.
If we are truly about developing a group of young adults with agency and power who can continue to move our country forward, shouldn’t they know the power of their vote? Shouldn’t they understand democracy beyond rote facts like the minimum age of the president and the number of senators and representatives in Congress? I submit that we do not look at voting as a perfunctory event, but as a rite of passage for which we should adequately prepare those who seek to gain entrance into their newfound status as voters. Raising a generation of intelligent voters is paramount.
We cannot assume that every new voter will automatically understand the power of their vote and their ability to influence how elected officials support the communities in which they live. What goes into developing voters who know the power of their vote goes beyond historical context. The education must include an in-depth understanding how political power can be accessed outside of elections, the importance of knowing candidates, why local elections are just as important as national elections and how citizens can become civically engaged beyond casting their ballot.
Our youth should be privy to the power of supporting candidates they believe in and the ways to do that. Additionally, giving them an understanding as to why voting is important so that they may intelligently articulate the reasons to those peers or adults in their lives who hold true to the myth that their vote does not count.
Campaigns like “I Can’t but You Can” provide this type of education for youth ages 14-19. The second installment of this initiative first launched in 2008, is now taking place virtually and thereby reaching even more young people. Leveraging the expertise of voting experts and harnessing the passion of youth civic leaders, Usher’s New Look (UNL), creator of “I Can’t but You Can,” seeks to make an indelible mark on youth. The nonprofit focused on youth leadership development, founded 21 years ago, advances its mission by fostering a new generation of future voters, equipped with the skills to share their knowledge and empowered to influence others who have already attained the right to vote as well as elected officials. Imagine the confidence and sense of accomplishment that a young person can feel if they can successfully persuade a family member or neighbor of the importance of voting causing them to cast their vote or become civically involved in their community!
If we truly want to decrease the gulf between historically politically powerless citizens and those who have historically controlled the political narrative in this country, we must focus on the development of our youth as civic leaders. Families, schools and community-based organizations like UNL must educate our youth from a young age on the voter process, bring awareness of their rights as voters, and assure them that not only does their votes matter, but the 15th Amendment is an integral piece to developing a more equitable country for generations to come.
Careshia N. Moore, Esq., is president and CEO of Usher’s New Look.