Right now, outside my building at 34th and Walnut streets, a marching band is playing to welcome first-year students to their new dormitory. Above the low grumble of traffic, the air shimmers with brassy sound. An arch of red balloons with the big silver number 2022 aims them at their presumed successful graduation date. Baby showers, weddings, rites of passage programs, b’nai mitzvah, induction ceremonies of all kinds: we’ve created these rituals to welcome young people to adulthood. We’re telling them what we expect, and hope and dream for them, even as the ritual and our lives show them how hard it can be sometimes, and what it looks like to fail.
How does democracy do it, this big, sprawling system of governance built to grow with us and to change with our needs? As a middle-schooler just west of Cobbs Creek, I marched with my class to the circle on Whitby Avenue. This was right around the time of the Voting Rights Act, when African-Americans in the South had just been written back into the electorate. We stood in a circle, like the Whos down in Whoville, singing while the flag was hoisted high. The housing that held the rope clinked against the pole to keep time. We were told about the privilege of democracy, and that one day we’d participate by voting. To this day, every June 14th, I remember: “Yeadon, home of the founder of Flag Day!”
In high school, as more and more young men were sent to Vietnam, I heard the phrase “Old enough to die, old enough to vote.” The House tacked an amendment onto the Voting Rights Act dropping voting age to 18, but then it was challenged in court for an even bigger mash-up. Here’s what the House of Representatives history site says:
The Court decided that the law was valid for federal elections, but not at state and local levels. To avoid the complicated and costly voting procedure established by the Court’s decision — separate elections for national and state and local contests for most states — Congress scrambled to pass a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age. The proposed 26th Amendment passed the House and Senate in the spring of 1971 and was ratified by the states on July 1, 1971.
As far as we could gauge, the vote mattered to the country, but we young people were lobbied about it mostly in the service of particular candidates or causes. It was a milestone, but not prepared for: such as scoring a driver’s license, getting a job, or going to college. No one mentioned voting in our graduation rituals. No public service announcement, like the seat belt campaign, was rolled out to make young voting a new behavioral norm.
Don’t take drugs!
Practice safe sex!
Learn about candidates!
Follow them once they are in office!
We have launched #VoteThatJawn to be just such a super-local, citizen-led rite-of-passage into democracy. It’s meant to bring youth together to convince other youth to vote — or to register their parents or neighbors. The website will post content that youth (and others) can share easily. The Twitter feed will act as a slow-drip, civic IV with quotes, facts, bits and pieces to prick our minds as we do every day with other less important facts. The idea is to have the sweet-n-sour edge of fun. It’s serious engagement — with no diminution of smarts — that young citizens insist on, as in just-turned 18-year-old TV actor Yara Shahidi’s excellent national platform EighteenX18.
But thoroughly, totally, completely Philly. Which is how the young Steering Committee that planned all summer decided on “Jawn” for the jawn itself: Saturday, September 22nd, from 2 to 4pm, in Hamilton Commons at WHYY, where a a city-wide youth house band and local DJs will welcome teams of young people. They’ll hear tips from expert guest speakers, and have access to generous coaching from PR, marketing, and organizing professionals on hand. The teams will then be tasked with creating different strategies to bring friends (or parents or neighbors) to the ballot box, particularly first-time voters.
Three young Philadelphians are busy animating a short how-to-register video we’ll post in mid-September for young people to share. And a young rap duo has created a VoteThatJawn song that’s worthy of our Philly sound legacy. Above and around this effort, throughout the city, are fabulous youth voting programs we hope to connect to, write about, share, and help others admire, like Girls, Inc.’s “She Votes,” the universities’ separate and numerous programs, Rising Sons’ Vote4Me, the local sites for College Election Engagement Project (CEED), and so many more!
Beginning in 1942, soon after FDR dropped the age for military draft to get more men into World War II, Congressman Randolph Jennings brought the first of 11 bills to the floor, urging Congress to make these young soldiers eligible to vote for the people who were sending them to war. But he also believed that the youth voice was an unused resource. Youth, he said, “possess a great social conscience, are perplexed by the injustices in the world and are anxious to rectify those ills.”
Still true. So let’s invite them to share this privilege with us. We need them to vote that jawn.
(First published in ThePhiladelphiaCitizen.com and on SafeKidsStories.com)