By Judge Tom Jacobs and Natalie C. Jacobs, J.D., coauthors of Every Vote Matters: The Power of Your Voice, from Student Elections to the Supreme Court
Today, American voters cast ballots for a presidential candidate, US Senate and House seats in Congress, state races, and many local officials throughout the country. They do this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has turned our daily lives and routines upside down. 2020 has also brought racial inequities and issues to the forefront. The death of George Floyd resulted in millions of people taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Meanwhile, the climate crisis takes a backseat as a public health emergency, the economic downturn, and racial justice activism are prioritized by the media and government action.
For all these reasons, this is a pivotal year to model to our children and teens the importance of being an engaged member of our communities and country. Here are ways that we can encourage students to stay civically engaged beyond Election Day.
Learn More About Issues Impacting Their Communities
Discuss the young leaders of various movements who may inspire students and show that it’s possible to make a difference for a cause no matter your age. For example, John Lewis (civil rights leader who recently passed), Greta Thunberg (17-year-old climate activist who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for two consecutive years already), and the Parkland shooting survivors and gun control movement.
Invite speakers from various nonpartisan groups (such as groups focused on advancing issues like climate action, racial equality and justice, or immigration policies). Students can learn more about the issues and ways to get involved if interested. Countless grassroots organizations are in need of supporters and volunteers.
Bring Civic Engagement into the Classroom
Start a classroom newsletter or blog so students can practice finding and using their voices concerning matters important to them.
Review letters to the editor of a local newspaper and then start a letter-writing campaign. If and when a student gets published, the class may be empowered to continue using their voices through writing.
Check out the resources page at the Civic Engagement Research Group for videos and toolkits concerning civics education. Or use iCivics, a great website focused on engaging students in meaningful civic learning. Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the founder of this useful resource.
Empower Students Outside the Classroom
Our legislators work for us, the constituents, and they care a great deal about what we think. State and federal lawmakers normally hear from a small percentage of the people they represent. If this number dramatically increases, they will be forced to take their constituents’ thoughts and actions into consideration. The earlier teens begin writing, emailing, or calling their senators and other lawmakers, the more likely they will be to continue to express their voices in the future. Students, regardless of whether they can vote yet, can participate in town halls, many of which have gone virtual during the pandemic. Find a meeting near you at TownHallProject.com.
Young activists can also discuss issues that are important to them with family and friends. The more these issues are discussed, the more people will become educated and engaged and ultimately care about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
Tech-savvy students have myriad social media techniques to spread information about their causes and gain support. The Women’s March founders organized via a Facebook group and started a movement that inspired millions. During this presidential election, many teens used TikTok to raise awareness about the issues they’re passionate about.
Thomas A. Jacobs, J.D., was an Arizona assistant attorney general from 1972–1985, where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for ten years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers, and judges. Visit Judge Jacobs’s website AsktheJudge.info for free interactive educational tools that provide current information regarding laws, court decisions, and national news affecting teens.
A former criminal defense attorney, Natalie C. Jacobs works with her father, Judge Tom, on the teen rights website AsktheJudge.info, helping teens and their parents become better informed about youth rights and the laws affecting minors. She has volunteered with the Arizona Innocence Project, which investigates claims of innocence and works to exonerate those wrongfully convicted. Natalie lives in Arizona.
Natalie and Tom are coauthors of Every Vote Matters.
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