By Lorene Cary
This article was originally published as an op-ed in Metro Philadelphia. You can see the original story here.
“…we still have a shot/And this choice/Is our voice.”
—”Choosing Day” by Cydney Brown, Philadelphia Youth Poet Laureate
In January, a handful of young organizers perched in my office in the English Department at the University of Penn planning the 2020 reboot of #VoteThatJawn. As a pop-up initiative in 2018, #VoteThatJawn had shown us the potential of regular, not celebrity, young people to bring their age-mates to the polls. We were a very small group, local and organic. My aim was to create a structure that would allow more young people to use their creativity to bring peers to the polls. Writing students in my class would again form the core and reach out to others across the city. The social media engagement was fairy dust to sprinkle cool and fun, non-partisan information into young people’s social media feeds. With seed money from the university, we could re-up our website, artists, young animators. If hate groups and Russian bots could talk to young people, well, hey, so could we!
But how many, we asked ourselves, how many newly registered youth would constitute success? The numbers of 18-year olds who’d registered in 2018 had more than doubled over the preceding mid-term to nearly 7,000.
So, we figured, 10,000. Why not? That would only be half the 18-year-olds in the city. Come on. Why not?
Sometimes they talked about using their voices for the voices of people who could not speak out or access the media. It was the one thing that many young people believed passionately that I did not. I encouraged them to speak for themselves—and not suppose they could speak for others.
Enter the pandemic. Shutdowns. Loss, illness, death. Unemployment. Food insecurity. No in-person schools with predictable schedules and gatherings. Teachers, parents, students stretched, stressed, struggling; sometimes not able to plug in at all.
Like the rest of America, #VoteThatJawn went remote. During the summer, a generous new grant allowed 20 interns to create great content—infographics, videos, blogs, IG Lives. The interns rededicated themselves to amplifying young voices. They said again that they were voting because other people couldn’t. They said it on a sponsored video for the remote Juneteenth, and to celebrate the 26th Amendment, in July, then the 19th, then the Voting Rights Act in August. It seemed truer than ever that young people from across the country were starting up their own voting social media, like @Templevoters2020. It was characteristically more beautiful, graphic, funny, idealistic, issue-oriented and, importantly, more determinedly NOT hateful–than the stuff that sloshed through my own feeds.
The Instagram posts, Tweets, memes, and TikToks wrestled with the firehose of facts, lawsuits, and legislation that our governing officials have used to make voting harder in some cases, and easier during COVID. They reflected the Black Lives Matters insistence on a racial reckoning. They came back again and again to the planet. Not just climate change, but solutions, and climate justice as well as legal, moral, and economic justice. Young people want a just society. They are trying to gigure out how to vote for it, and how to say it when so many are silent.
And this fall a new group of students turned their minds toward #VoteThatJawn. Kelly Writers House hosted a program of youth poets laureates reading beautiful, moving readings their own commissioned poems, a virtual hype event for the partner program with Philadelphia Music Chamber Society this October 30 inspired by Walt Whitman’s election poem. When the youth poets read, I heard again the early theme. Mia Conception, last year’s youth poet laureate wrote in “Vote for You”:
From behind the curtain,
You must remember that you do not vote just for you,
But for the mothers supporting their family without even a living wage,
Fighting for $15, which isn’t even enough.
A beautiful video by Big Picture Alliance showed me that the young people making the film agreed with the young people performing their poems and registering voters and creating Jawn content. They feel responsible for their fellow citizens, people thrown off the voting rolls, or unable to make it to the polls, or out of their homes, or too traumatized or disrupted to use the basic action of their own citizenship; dreamers and people in our territories who are not allowed the franchise.
I do not know how many young people we’ve registered, with partners and volunteers like Tom Quinn, the brilliant Civics teacher and organizer of Philly Youth Vote;or the indefatigable voting organizer Angie Hinton, who leads students and volunteers in Voter registration drives from City Hall to ShopRites. Or the supermarkets who let us stand outside on Saturday afternoons, or the YMCAs or Fresh Artists, whose Junior Jawn logo contest has brought in 400 children’s images. In 2020 election chaos, numbers are a mystery. But not the passion, not the orderly, clear, and vote-evangelism of the youth who have found their voice and can find time and data to share it. The youth I’ve been honored to work with support each other in this sacred mission: to make democracy work. They’re voting and learning and sharing, IG-ing and registering, Tiktok-ing and Instagramming–for us. With them on board, we still have a shot.