Christopher Carter worked hard up until the presidential election to register and turn out his classmates to vote. Carter, a second-year political science student, attends the country’s oldest historically Black college, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.
“Our efforts were very successful; we were able to register almost everyone on campus. It took a lot of work. We had someone sitting in the cafeteria everyday registering students to vote and then reminding people to go out and vote,” says Carter, a vice president of his school’s NAACP chapter, which organized a get-out-the-vote campaign on the school’s 1,000-student campus.
Young people like Carter poured out to vote in record numbers during the presidential election but that does not necessarily mean they will stay involved in politics, or even their communities.
Motivating young people during a highly contentious election is one thing, keeping them involved in community organizing and volunteerism is another.
It isn’t so easy, says Dr. Pedro Noguera, an urban sociologist at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Noguera says it is too early to tell whether young people will stay involved beyond the campaign season.
“The candidacy of Barack Obama really appealed to young people. But whether or not that translates to ongoing involvement remains to be seen,” he says. “Getting organized around an election has a very definite goal, but a lot of things this country needs to work on don’t have such clear targets.”
Noguera is optimistic that the new administration’s policies will keep youth engaged. “What I’m hoping is the new administration will get people to continue to work hard where service is needed, whether tutoring in schools or working with the elderly or homeless,” he adds. “I think that can happen because Obama has an organizing background, and I think he understands the need to engage young people in their communities.”
Though the new administration’s policies can play a key role in whether young people will engage in the political process and in their communities going forward, the burden does not just rest with Obama, experts say
“We’ve been talking about what Obama would do but this is a job for all sectors — the government, colleges, universities and even the news media to produce and support volunteering opportunities,” says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a nonpartisan research center that focuses on youth civic engagement.
Part of Obama’s education platform centers around providing tuition assistance to young people who volunteer in their communities. A plan like this might help more young people stay engaged, Levine says. “I would recommend building up nonpartisan opportunities for engagement, a good piece of legislation is the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act, which Obama and McCain both endorsed on the campaign trail.”
The act would fund 175,000 more slots for national service participants who would work in any number of areas including natural disaster preparedness, high school drop out prevention, and public health.
Nearly 53 percent of young people — those under 30 — voted in the election, about 3.4 million more than voted in 2004, according to data released this week by the CIRCLE at Tuffs University.
Though a historical high, it still means nearly half of young people under the age of 30 did not vote. There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of getting young people involved in helping make a difference in their communities, as well as the political process, says Dr. Nicole Rousseau, a sociology professor at Kent State University in Ohio.
“I do know momentum will keep moving people forward, but I think the real question is about the people who didn’t go out and campaign,” says Rousseau, who specializes in social justice issues. Rousseau is especially concerned about young people in lower-income communities. “If you’re a young person born to a poor community in the inner city, it’s easy to lose sight of participation in government.”
Likely it will take both education initiatives and Obama’s example as a Black president to engage young people of color, adds Rousseau.
Obama, as a living example, might affect minority youth more than the education initiatives he might implement, Rousseau says. “Programming and putting more money into these communities is important,” she adds, “but being a 16-year-old Black male and seeing the president is also a Black man, you know that you can do what he did. Fundamentally, I think that’s going to be the difference.”
Experts emphasize the effort it will take to both inspire more youth to get involved in politics and maintain those young people already engaged. “It won’t automatically be sustained, we’ve seen some elections where young people voted in high numbers but then engagement dropped off,” says CIRCLE’S Levine. “It’s partly inevitable because before the election there’s a lot to do in a campaign where young people can be involved in terms of organizing people to vote, but it’s harder to sustain after an election.”
Another moment when young people were eager to volunteer and work in their communities was just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
“You can get people aroused but can you give them an opportunity to really focus their energy? It seems like that’s what happened with 9-11,” says Dr. James Youniss, a professor at Catholic University of America who studies ways young people become politically engaged.
“Young people were really energized, all kinds of local events happened after memorials and parades, but unfortunately the message from the administration was just consume — go out to restaurants and buy things,” adds Youniss. “They didn’t know how to turn that into constructive community engagement.”
Experts say youth who do work with organizations are more likely to remain involved for the long term. “Once you get engaged, once you actually do something, the likelihood of doing it again is really high,” says Dr. Constance Flanagan, a professor of youth civic development and an expert in youth civic and political development at The Pennsylvania State University. “Organizations are formed and they don’t just go away. I’m hopeful lots of young people will continue doing grassroots work in their communities and their colleges.”
John Koblan is a student who worked on Obama’s campaign who says he will stay on a political path. The junior, who is studying government at George Mason University, got his first taste of politics when he worked for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine’s campaign in 2005. But, Koblan says, “I’ve always been into politics. My dad was a history teacher and he inspired a love of history and government in me.”
Now Koblan hopes to snag an internship at the White House. Many young people have the same idea. “I think more students than ever want to graduate and go to work for this administration. That’s not something I have ever seen,” says Carmen Berkley, president of the United States Student Association, which lobbies for students and access to higher education.
The key is just getting involved, period. “The major thing is to get them involved in some activity to give them a sense of what it’s like to participate and not just sit on the sideline,” says Youniss. “You have to give them opportunities; it doesn’t just come from within. That’s only part of it — having the desire — but you need something to hook your hands into, something worthwhile that you feel like you can contribute to.”
Ultimately America will just have to wait and see what will happen to young people’s political involvement post-election. But Berkley is optimistic from her experience working with students across the country on get-out-the-vote efforts. “For me, it’s the first time I saw people really positive about politics and government,” she says. “Young people made the difference in electing this new president. I think young people really believe in the political process and know if they actually go out and vote the results they want will happen.”
Carter, the student at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, says he has a renewed faith in the political system. “The election showed me that maybe there is a lot more hope for the democratic system in this country because the last two elections I felt the same way other people felt,” he says, “left out and that whoever we voted for wouldn’t matter.”
Carter decided to give the democratic process and activism another chance with this month’s election. Obama’s win, he says, shows him that getting involved can make a difference.
“When we go all out and do everything we have to do, you can be successful in the system. I would say it inspired me,” Carter says. “People have told me I should run for president when I get older. That’s a real possibility now.”
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This article was appended to correct the spelling of Cheyney University on its second reference. We regret the error.
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