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Every day, I wake up in a city where I am not heard nor represented. As a 15-year-old White Station High School student who also works, I spend 35 hours a week in an public education system my income taxes help support, yet I have no say in what happens to my money or me. If youths could vote, we’d have more say-so over policies that affect our lives.
Youths are much more serious and responsible than dominant narratives give us credit for. As a fellow at Memphis Youth Union (MemYU), I’m working other youth community organizers to advocate for voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds in statewide elections.
Allowing high school students to vote isn’t a radical notion: Three cities in Maryland already allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. Myriad campaigns have developed around the nation, including California, Massachusetts and Illinois, as well as Washington D.C., according to Vote16USA. Globally, Norway and Austria have allowed voters as young as 16.
Allowing high school students to vote isn’t a radical notion: Three cities in Maryland already allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.
Voting rights have been an integral part of our nation’s history in defining the rights of different identities. When our nation was founded, only a small percentage of its residents could vote: rich, land-owning white males, as they were believed to be the only well-educated citizens. When George Washington was elected as our first president, only 6 percent of the population was qualified to vote, according to the Northern California Citizenship Project.
Suffrage, the right to vote, has grown over the past several hundred years through amendments such as the 15th (universal male suffrage for citizens regardless of race) and the 19th (women’s suffrage for citizens). The national voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1971 after decades of debate over the fact young people who could fight — and die — in wars but not vote.
In making the case for lowering the voting age to 18, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) said: “I believe the time has come to lower the voting age in the United States, and thereby to bring American youth into the mainstream of our political process. To me, this is the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation if we are to succeed in bringing our youth into full and lasting participation in our institutions of democratic government.”
Despite these hard-won gains, voter suppression efforts continue to deny these basic human rights to citizens, whether it is due to race, sex, age or class.
“…teens are taxed, yet we have no voice in how our money is spent within our own communities.”
Meanwhile, the fact remains that teens are taxed, yet we have no voice in how our money is spent within our own communities. At MemYU, we chose age 16 because it is the standard age in our nation to be eligible to drive and hold a job, acts of incredible responsibility. Research by Daniel Hart and Robert Atkins indicates the neurological differences between 16- and 18-year-olds are irrelevant when referencing the ability to civically participate and make educational decisions.
They write: “Adolescents in this age range are developmentally ready to vote. This pattern is in accord with research on adolescents’ reasoning and cognitive abilities, which suggests that development in these areas plateaus at age 16.”
Many students who are 18 or older struggle with voter registration because regulations requiring them to vote for the first time in person at a time when they’re often moving out of state for college, for example. Extending these rights to 16- and 17-year-olds makes going to the polls more habitual throughout adulthood than when people begin voting at 18.
“Voting is habit forming,” Peter Levine, a Tufts University professor of citizenship and public affairs, told Governing. “If you voted in a past election, you tend to vote again.”
Likewise, those who don’t vote the first chance they get establish nonvoting as a habit, too.
This movement is a piece of a much larger national and international movement taking place to end the ongoing disenfranchisement of youth. Not only are we actively working to change the laws to include youth voting, we are striving to change the culture and reputation youth are given in our community. We hope to prove youth are knowledgeable, civically engaged, and active in participating in a better future for our city and state. With MemYU’s partnerships with national organizations aligned with our same goals like the National Youth Rights Association and Vote16USA, we are aim to have our bill on the ballot in November.
Youth are not the future but the present, and our voices deserve to be heard and included in decisions that directly affect our livelihood and well-being. If you are interested in supporting our campaign, please visit thememphisyouth.org and sign our petition.(/p)
Brentley Sandlin is a fellow at Memphis Youth Union.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.
Kevin Smith, 17, Memphis, TN
Rising 12th grader Kevin Smith of Whitehaven High School wrote and delivered this speech to his fellow Bridge Builders at their COLLABORATE conference induction ceremony.
Video by Elizabeth Lee, 18, Collierville, TN
The Memphis Youth Union, a coalition of Bridge Builders CHANGE members striving to increase youth voice and participation in the political process, hosted a forum and open mic at Caritas Village in March of 2017 to discuss the importance of youth participation in political process and civic decision-making. MemYU works to give the youth of Memphis a space to voice their opinions about the social and political sphere as well as be empowered as youth artists and creators.
Elizabeth Lee, 18, Collierville, TN
Organized and produced by Bridge Builders CHANGE students annually on MLK Day weekend, Youth Ignite Memphis is a competition designed to elevate and activate youth-led social change ideas to make the Greater Memphis area stronger, safer, more beautiful, and more just for us all.
Each presenter is granted exactly 5 minutes and 20 slides to present their idea, and winners earn funding as well as advertisements and support to help turn their ideas into action.
This year, some six student presenters showcased their proposals on everything from art education for secondary students, to how to properly write a resume for jobs and college applications, to revising the dress code to make it gender neutral.
By Charles Seaton, 18, Memphis, TN
Members of the Bridge Builders CHANGE Youth & Police Relations cohort asked diverse youth a simple question: “What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “police”?
By a member of BRIDGES’ Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out for Change Program
"We need solutions that include the knowledge and insight of people who’ve experienced the problem firsthand."
The members of Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out for Change, a program developed by BRIDGES in partnership with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, are passionate about seeking and sharing solutions to curb youth crime and recidivism and to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.
By Eritrea Temesghen, 18, Cordova, TN
"We need to work to stop the root issue of sexual harassment and assault, and we can do that through education. If we can educate other youth in our city about what to do when they see sexual harassment and how to deal with it, that can actually start change. And it’s so vital that we do this in our schools. Because the youth we’re learning with today are going to be the adults running the world tomorrow. And if we don’t stop it right now, it’s going to continue, and it’s going to happen in our lives and in our children’s lives, and it’ll continue for generations, like it already has."
—Caroline Finch, 15, Germantown, TN
I’ve been a student at St. George’s Independent School for 12 years. My mom is a teacher and alumni at the school. My sister is about to start her 10th year at the school.
I absolutely love school, and I really love my school.
I have only ever been to private school, meaning I have a very small lens in which I view the school system in general with. It took this week at Bridge Builders to realize how narrow my view actually is. I think of my school as an educationally just school, and some of the basic rights that I have at my school are not available to all students. I have taken these basic rights for granted and have not realized how flawed the school system in its entirety is.
I have learned about a lot of problems at a lot of different schools, but the ones that surprised me the most were the disrespect and the ineffectiveness of teachers and the small say that students have in decisions affecting them.
I have loved all—well, most—of my teachers, and even the ones I do not particularly adore always have been eager to answer questions and help me and my peers understand concepts. This week, I have heard stories about teachers ignoring students who raised their hands, rolling their eyes at them, and telling students to shut up. I was unaware of the disrespect and ineffectiveness that students have to deal with when I have just expected the opposite behavior.
I have also learned that students do not get much of a say in decisions or punishments that affect them. My school has an honor council that advises the principal on fair punishments for students, and their verdict is heavily considered.
It took Bridge Builders to show me how far away I feel from the people in my own city. If everyone knows about these problems, that is the first step to making change happen in the community. I hope that someday soon, all students will be able to say that they love school as much as I do.
Photo series by Janiya Douglas
As a junior at White Station High School and student organizer in the Bridge Builders CHANGE Educational Justice cohort, Janiya Douglas felt compelled to address the inequalities she saw playing out in her school on a daily basis. As an African-American in the "optional" program track for high-achieving students, Janiya had personal experience with disparities in treatment between optional and traditional students and between white students and students of color.
So Janiya interviewed scores of her fellow students, recording their experiences with educators and their insights on how to achieve educational justice, then created a poster series to elevate youth voice within the school. She posted 14 of them in White Station’s hallways, and shared many more on EDJ’s blog.
School administrators removed Janiya’s posters within days, citing the fact that she didn’t receive prior approval for the public display, but Janiya met with White Station leadership afterward to discuss students’ concerns. The campaign also garnered wide attention on social media, and it brought needed attention CHANGE’s student petition asking Shelby County Schools to enact new restorative justice policies aimed at dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.
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For their community action workshop during summer leadership conference, 9th & 10th grade Bridge Builders explore the concept of restorative justice in schools, the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline, and recommendations from members of the Incarcerated Youth Speaking Out for Change program.
As part of their summer conference experience focused on economic justice, 12th grade Bridge Builders unpacked statistics and stigmas related to poverty in Memphis and explored the finer points of social mobility by playing BRIDGES’ locally focused board game.