In an expression of dissent earlier this year, I got one of the state’s most powerful Republicans to show off an “Abolish ICE” / “Impeach Trump” painting at a tea party event in North Texas. I left the artwork with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s staff, and Patrick said that he would take it with him on the private jet he’d arrived in — though it was probably trashed as soon as he realized what it actually said.
After media outlets picked up the story, I wasn’t surprised that a Patrick spokesperson brushed me off as a “duplicitous” teenager. The tactic of discrediting young people has been used for too long to diminish our collective power. The Black Lives Matter movement was told to find less obstructive routes to express their voices. Student activists in Parkland, Florida, were said to be using the massacre at their high school for political objectives. This strategy is often used by older generations in power, who would much rather “those damn kids” sit down and be quiet than engage in discussion. Ultimately, it serves the purpose of deflecting from the real message of youth-led movements.
To the dismay of those powerful people who want to silence youth activists to serve their own interests, their time has passed. Young people all over the world are stepping up to lead on issues like climate change, gun violence and rampant social and economic inequality. To mirror this, authority figures need to officially include us in discussions relating to our past, present and future. Candidates vying for president in 2020 need to prove they are ready to truly represent all of America, including voting- and non-voting-age youth.
I know how it feels to be ignored by someone who supposedly represents me. In April 2018, along with some of my fellow students at Guyer High School in Denton, I helped plan an event for the National School Walkout against gun violence. Hundreds of students from my school participated. We passed out voter registration forms, hosted student speakers and sent more than a 100 messages to the office of our congressman, Michael Burgess, a Republican who represents Texas’ 26th district. After the rally, we felt energized and excited for the future. We were excited to hear what Burgess would propose to help students impacted by gun violence.
But there was never a response from him or his office. Our opinions were completely dismissed by our own representative. It was some of my peers’ first interaction with the political system, and it crushed us. Eventually, we all came to realize that as young people, our concerns are generally dismissed. When we step up to advocate for ourselves, our voices are often attacked. To that, I vehemently urge my peers to say “No more!”
A new era of American politics is here, with youth voter turnout reaching new highs. In Texas, one estimate suggested voters under 30 voted at rates 500 percent higher than in previous midterm elections. We are turning out in droves to support candidates who inspire us and whose views align with ours. We are beginning to create seats at the table, but we are not forcing change as aggressively as we should. We must place young people front and center in electoral discussions while actively involving their voices in every step of the political process.
These steps must be accompanied by change within the political establishment. It is no longer acceptable for youth, especially people of color and those in the LGBTQ community, to be ignored by our elected officials. To the 2020 contenders, I say this: Hire youth as part of your campaign staff, or lose my vote.
The youngest candidate who has announced a presidential campaign so far is 37. That’s 19 years my senior. The oldest, 77, is 59 years older than me. Candidates can’t bridge this gap merely with pollsters, advertisements or embarrassing attempts to be relatable.
The only way to win my vote is to officially include youth from all walks of life in your journey to the White House. Candidates, you need to go out of your way to bring young people on to your campaign. You need to provide opportunities for direct communication. You have to prove to us that you care. Most importantly, you have to prove that you can listen.
Hear the stories of students of color who face gun violence at higher rates than the rest of the population. Hear the stories of transgender students, who face higher rates of suicide and mental health problems and are being subjected to hatred and abuse for simply being who they are. Hear the stories of students who are subjected to the effects of environmental racism and who are constantly exposed to dangerous toxins. Our stories deserve to be heard, and we will no longer be silent.