Virginia’s youth can influence policy. Are legislators ready to listen?
By Kayla Bravo
This is an important election year in Virginia, where voters will decide who will represent us in the General Assembly. For young voters like me, it’s important that our voices are heard and that our leaders are responsive to our concerns. That starts with our leaders wanting to listen and connect with young people as experts of our own lived experiences.
I moved to Richmond to study political science and philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University almost two years ago. Now, I am working as an advocate to increase the benefits and welfare of Virginia’s children.
Admittedly, I was pretty shocked when I found a genuine lack of interest and faith in American politics and government from my peers during my first semester in college. It is hard to hear friends say that “voting is a scam,” they “don’t care about elections,” or “there is no point to them.” It saddens me to know that many people my age do not share positive sentiments of community, democracy, and government.
Political engagement is essential to the proper functioning and legitimacy of American representative democracy. It is a valuable form of power for communities to ensure that their elected officials will truly understand their best interests and act as a trusted representative on behalf of them in government.
According to a 2021 study by Juelich & Coll, young voters are the least politically active constituent group in American democracy today, but our apathy is not unwarranted.
Investigations exploring this topic find that some young voters’ lack of civic engagement comes from pessimistic political attitudes caused by poor political experiences and civic education. In other words, our representatives fail to be inclusive, understanding, and respectful towards the needs and best interests of young people.
There is little discussion about what impact legislative action will have on our youth. Younger generations are always impacted by the decisions made before them, yet these consequences are often dismissed. Our representatives constantly make policy decisions that are harmful to my generation and our future, from the declining environment that will continue to impact the health and wellbeing of young people, to the continued economic crisis impacting job stability, housing stability and appropriate wages.
When we are consistently overlooked and disregarded, it is only natural to become politically withdrawn and apathetic. The 2021 Juelich & Coll study also assert that “because young voters are less likely to vote, candidates and campaigns view them as not worth mobilizing.” It is imperative that our legislators take the steps needed to make youth feel included and valued in political processes at every level and further encourage political engagement.
Raised in Arlington, Virginia and growing up so close to Washington, D.C., the hub of American political activity, I was constantly exposed to acts of civic and community engagement throughout my childhood and adolescence. I was surrounded by individuals who recognized the power of uplifting their community’s voices. In high school, my classmates and I were civically active by attending protests, organizing social projects, and discussing current events. My upbringing has been so valuable to my understanding and development of my individual and collective political power.
Youth civic engagement needs to be habitualized. Civic education and positive political experiences matter! The sad reality is that representatives are often disconnected, inattentive, and oblivious to the problems and best interests of American youth, despite the fact that they are the demographic most affected by legislation. Many representatives serve their roles without being inclusive of our voice nor considerate of our future. While some representatives do make an effort to be inclusive toward youth, it is not common practice for them to make a consistent and active effort to listen, understand, and address youth concerns. Many of our youth, discouraged, have lost trust in a system that does not value their opinion. It is the duty of our representatives to gain this trust back.
Few formal legislative efforts have been made to make formal political systems and institutional spaces more inclusive to youth and all have been met with little support. Fortunately, there are other steps our officials can take to uplift the youth voice. Representatives who personally engage with youth and make an effort to connect on “young” issues are displaying great ways to be more mindful. Listening sessions centered on youth within bigger community forums at realistically accessible times for students show genuine effort to connect with youth as leaders. Despite their age, our youth are so powerful, insightful and influential. It is crucial that our representatives recognize this and take the steps to further nurture and support positive civic experiences for our youth.
Youth voices and our civic engagement are crucial to American democracy and its legitimacy.
So many young voters are deprived of the positive political experiences that are essential in understanding the value in voting and other forms of political engagement. It is so important that our legislators put more effort towards increasing opportunities for American youth to positively experience more traditional forms of democratic political participation like voting and interacting with legislators. Youth voices and our civic engagement are crucial to American democracy and its legitimacy. Our youth deserve to be treated as equal constituents and valued as the community members they are!
Kayla Bravo is a third-year undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying both political science and philosophy. She also serves as a youth advocate on Virginia’s Youth in Action advocacy council created by Voices for Virginia’s Children.