Reimagining civic engagement for young Texans

Austin-area high school students march to the state Capitol for a rally calling for action against gun violence on April 20, 2018. The event is held on anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Photo by John Jordan for The Texas Tribune

After joining the Austin March for Our Lives in solidarity with millions of people marching globally to end gun violence, I came home to watch the impassioned speeches by empowered youth at the national March in Washington D.C.

Their call for an end to gun violence and demand for accountability from our civic leaders was momentous, both for its historic numbers and geographical span and also for another reason: the mostly white student leaders of the movement deliberately directed the widespread public attention they received to communities the media and policymakers often overlook.

In our deeply fractured political moment, the student gun-reform advocates could have whitewashed gun violence in schools. Instead, they prominently included young black and brown activists who have fought gun violence in their communities for years, and demonstrated the profound power of centering the voices and experiences of young people of color in our calls for social change.

This surge of youth empowerment and engagement comes at a time when our country needs it – and them – the most.

Recent data show that trust in our national institutions and knowledge of how government works is at an all-time low. A recent survey found that two out of three Americans couldn’t name all three branches of government. This lack of basic civic knowledge undermines the functioning of our democracy and limits how individuals can engage with our public institutions and processes.

Civic action and participation are central to the health of our democracy and communities. Texas’s electorate is younger and more diverse than the national average, so culturally competent civic engagement by the state’s youth is critical. Of all the ways the 2016 electoral cycle was surprising, what was unsurprising was the depressingly low youth voter turnout. Only 32 percent of Texans aged 18-24 voted in the last presidential election, versus the state average of 55 percent. Only half of Texans aged 18-24 who are eligible to vote are even registered to vote. This is bad news for Texas’ future.

State policies contribute to these troubling statistics. We cannot have a government “of the people” – especially young people – if there isn’t a serious state commitment to easy ballot access, improving voter turnout, and building a culture of civic engagement in Texas classrooms. Restoring participation in our democracy and our institutions also requires a new approach to teaching civics, as well as major investments in the communities and organizations working to empower young people – particularly young people of color.

States are tackling the challenges of low civic education and participation in several ways. Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts are among the states that are modernizing their civic education curriculum to include action- or project-based learning for middle and high school students. Ten states and the District of Columbia have passed automatic voter registration, which has the benefit of improving voter registration rates, especially among those under 30, while reducing the potential for voter fraud and lowering costs.

School districts have risen to the challenge with culturally appropriate innovations: In Tucson, Arizona, the integration of ethnic studies in the curriculum both increased students’ academic performance and helped raise students’ social consciousness and engagement. And Texas just recently made a step in the right direction with our State Board of Education’s recent approval of a Mexican-American studies course.

Young people have a long history of holding up a mirror to our country to help reveal its flaws. But they also demand, and do, the necessary work to see it live up to its founding ideals of equality and justice for all. From the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, the East Los Angeles student walkouts that launched the Chicano movement, and the youth today who are part of Black Lives Matter, United We Dream, and the student gun-reform movement, there is a powerful lineage of youth activism that has shaped our country for the better.

More than most states, Texas badly needs this rebirth of youth civic action and engagement. As adult allies to Texas youth, we must do more to provide the tools, skills and supports they need to lead us forward.

Michelle Castillo

Youth civic education and engagement coordinator, Children’s Defense Fund