The sound of steadily beating drums and the flowing notes of the piano invite me into the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall. A mahogany podium bearing the Seal of the City of Philadelphia stands at the front of the room. Today, at the celebration for the youth who participated in the #VoteThatJawn initiative, teams are to present the strategies they used to bring fresh voters to the polls for the 2018 midterm elections.
As the music dies down and the event begins, Art Sanctuary, along with other key teams that participated in the Vote That Jawn Challenge, was noticeably absent. Erinda Sheno, my fellow classmate in Lorene Cary’s “Nonfiction Now!” English class, had to present for them. I was completely taken aback when I learned that the Art Sanctuary team was composed of one 17-, two 15-, and one 12-year-old who went out to register new voters. These young people, not even of age to vote themselves, found other ways to let their voices be heard. Rather than becoming frustrated in their inability to vote, they channeled their passion into registering new voters by going door-to-door and standing out on the street. They spoke to family members and neighbors about voting and even created T-shirts for the new voters that they registered.
I was immediately taken back to my experience as a high school senior just six months shy of voting age during the 2016 presidential election. As a Democrat living in the deeply red state of Texas, it was hard for me to walk the halls of my high school every day, navigating through a sea of MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats and Trump 2016 t-shirts. School was supposed to be a safe space of learning and personal growth, but it seemed that anywhere I turned, I was once again confronted with the fact that, because I was 17, I could not voice my opinions in this historical election.
Then, there was AP Government class. When I signed up for the semester-long class, I was honestly excited to learn about a very relevant topic in my life. I felt that it was important to have a deeper knowledge of my rights in this country and to learn about the law-making process. AP Government, however, quickly became a class that I dreaded going to every single day. Given that the presidential race was occurring during the semester, my teacher set aside fifteen minutes at the beginning of each class to discuss election news. While the classroom was supposed to be a safe space where students could share their opinions, five boys who came to school every day wearing MAGA hats always dominated the conversation, constantly pushing their pro-Trump ideas and attacking the views of anyone who opposed. I did not feel comfortable sharing my frustration with Trump’s stance on immigration or healthcare. I didn’t feel that my voice was valued in the classroom or outside school in the body politic. I could not speak my mind; I could not vote.
The day my teacher initiated a discussion about Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims, I was anxious in class. I am not Muslim, but I am brown. My family originated in the Indian subcontinent. I can still recall the fear in my parents eyes after 9/11. I remember my mother telling my brother and me to be careful. “They don’t see you as an American,” she said. It wasn’t until I got older that I truly understood what she meant. In elementary school, the other kids would give me hateful looks when I would bring to school dal chawal, a traditional Indian dish of lentils and rice, for lunch. I begged my parents to begin sending me to school with a PB&J like everyone else. For a long time, because I so wanted to be viewed as an American, I outwardly rejected my culture.
For the first time since my classmates scrunched their noses at my food in elementary school, I once again felt like an outsider. As my teacher began the discussion on the Muslim Ban, a boy in a red MAGA hat quickly spoke up. He eagerly expressed his support for the ban, claiming that the foundation of Islam is to oppress women, so there is no reason that “people like that” should be allowed into our country. For someone who just days before had a lot to say in defense of Trump’s “locker-room talk” about sexually assaulting a woman, it was more than difficult to believe that this boy’s views on Islam came from anything but a place of hate. All eyes in the room shifted to the clearly horrified look on the face of the one Muslim girl in our class. She stood up, near to tears and face red with anger.
“How can you insult my religion to my face?” she said.
The boy, not backing down, proceeded to argue with her about Islam’s oppression of women. The classroom went into an uproar, as friends of the girl rushed to her defense. Finally, the teacher kicked the boy out of the room. I kept thinking to myself “how could he say those things? Didn’t he pay attention in the World History class that we were required to take sophomore year as part of our high school curriculum?” It was in that class that we learned that one of the main reasons that Islam attracted so many followers was the foundational belief in the absolute equality of all humankind. Islam values humans by the good that they do, not by their race or gender. It was clear to me that any hatred that this boy had towards Islam had originated from an aversion to people that looked different from him: people like the girl who had spoken up and people like me. I felt attacked by my classroom experience and bitter about my lack of voice in American politics.
I was angry after leaving the classroom that day, and I don’t think that the anger really left me until Vote That Jawn. My inability to vote in the presidential election deeply frustrated me, and rather than find forms of expressing my values, such as registering others to vote, I simply remained angry. But today, as Erinda is presenting for Art Sanctuary, the team of four Art Sanctuary students enters the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall with backpacks on, late because they had just gotten out of school. The four underaged Americans are all proudly wearing the T-shirts that they designed for the Vote That Jawn Challenge. They jump with joy when they are announced as the winners of the award for the Most Grit in a Campaign. Together, they were able to register six people to vote. While this may not seem like a lot, their grit and their motivation to register new voters through the #VoteThatJawn initiative has certainly ensured that the Art Sanctuary team will be civically engaged and active voters (when the time comes) for the rest of their lives.
As a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, I voted for the first time in the 2018 midterm elections in Texas by absentee ballot. As I cast my ballot, I thought back to my classroom experience in high school. Back then, I did not feel that my voice mattered, but now I know it is heard.
Samira Mehta is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying biochemistry and chemistry. She is a writer for Unearthed Penn, a free science magazine for West Philadelphia middle and high school students.