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Beyond Occupation: Engaging Chicago's Political Youth

With the Occupy Chicago movement so visible, understanding what young voters want is pressing. What are their issues and their agenda for change? And will they vote and determine the outcome of the 2012 elections?
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This column originally appeared in the Chicago Journal.

With the Occupy Chicago movement so visible, understanding what young voters want is pressing. What are their issues and their agenda for change? And will they vote and determine the outcome of the 2012 elections?

On Nov. 4, 300 students gathered at the University of Illinois at Chicago and on Nov. 11 another 500 gathered in Detroit as part of the National Student Issues Convention to answer those questions. And public officials struggled to answer their concerns. Their demands are harder to meet than just filling a pothole or getting a street swept.

These conventions were half-day deliberations with peers which ended with students articulating their concerns directly to public officials.

UIC students' top five issues are student loans, grants and debts after graduation; the state of the economy and lack of jobs; the need for affordable healthcare and support for the Affordable Healthcare Act; lowering the legal drinking age back to 18; and transportation issues related to safety, infrastructure, and creating student discounts on Metra. The students in Michigan had a similar top five issues: unemployment, education, gay marriage in Michigan, the national debt, and health care. While there are some differences on local issues like student discounts on Metra and gay marriage in Michigan, the basic student agenda is the same and after votes are tallied from Texas and other states, a common agenda will emerge.

But will students and other young voters discover their common concerns, mobilize to force government to respond, and vote in large numbers in 2012? Equally important, will government officials respond to the demands and actually do something about complex issues like the economy or even straightforward ones like student loans, grants and debts?

In Michigan, Congressman John Dingell, state legislators, and local officials addressed the student concerns and agenda. At UIC, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd Ward), district director for U.S. Congressman Danny Davis (7th) Dan Cantrell, and director of the Chicago Republican Party Stephen Boulton gave the party and government responses to student demands.

Not surprisingly, Democratic and Republican leaders differ in their answers on individual issues and philosophy, but they are responsive to the students. The hour-long discussion with these officials demonstrated to students that the issues -- even big national issues -- are understandable. Officials respond when clear agendas are articulated but their answers are more complicated than voters may originally consider.

Students learn from this experience that democracy works. That is a very valuable lesson. Despite different backgrounds, students can develop a real and thoughtful agenda on which they can agree. If they aggregate their concerns, public officials respond. Right now public officials most often simply say with former President Bill Clinton, "I feel your pain." But they are being pushed to provide real relief for student debt and to provide better student grants and loan programs. They must find a way to assist in economic recovery, not just bemoan the recession. To ease the problems, not eliminate the Affordable Health Care Act while bringing healthcare costs down. The students are on to something and we could all support their issues.

The clearest lessons for us from these student gatherings are that students have common concerns which can be assembled into a clear agenda. They are passionate about these concerns. Public officials, if confronted with youth demands, respond and are willing to act on their behalf.

Karl Marx famously wrote that workers had nothing to lose but their chains. Students have nothing to lose but their apathy and everything to gain in political power and in the wisdom to use that power wisely. But to succeed, students and youth will have to fight politically, not only with demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Chicago. Political success will require sustained political mobilization to jawbone public officials and to elect officials who will meet their needs and demands.

What is at stake is their future and ours. The National Student Issues Convention in Chicago and elsewhere demonstrates that democracy will work but only if we use it. That is a lesson not only for college students but for all of us.

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