Youth Apathy: The Problem Is in the Question, Not the Answer

Young people have a terrible reputation for not having political convictions or speaking out about them. Only 45 percent of 18 to 29 year olds voted in the 2012 election and less than 20 percent went to the polls in the 2014 midterms--the lowest number in the past 40 years. Yet, after a few years working on youth civic engagement I've learned a little known fact about my generation: we care.

Rewind to four years ago, on a cool November morning in 2011 when I walked through my high school on an atypical day. I heard two students discussing the Occupy Wall Street movement and the importance of new economic policies. Later, in the cafeteria I overheard a heated conversation on the ethics of affirmative action. The entire day, walking through the halls, entering classrooms and while eating lunch I listened to people talk. It wasn't about the Kardashians, clothing, or an upcoming test; rather, they were conversations focused on current events and political issues.

That day was the kickoff event for the Fight Apathy Campaign. The campaign gave out stickers that say "I believe in..." to students when they entered school. Students took a marker and filled in the sticker with whatever they were passionate about ranging from divisive social issues to political philosophy and wore them proudly. Those little stickers transformed the school--catalyzing conversations between students, teachers, and administrators in classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias. I started the campaign in my New Jersey high school where 700 students wore stickers. Working with enthusiastic students across the country and the Junior Statesmen of America, the campaign has grown annually to engage 150,000 students in discussions in 23 states, 2 territories, and 3 countries.

The Fight Apathy stickers offer students an opportunity to voice their opinions and quite literally wear their thoughts on their sleeves. Often, when students hand out stickers and ask their peers, "What do you believe in?" they are met with confusion. Students are being asked for their political beliefs--that's a rare experience for a teenager. Yet, after a moment or two something clicks, they are now being asked what is important to them. Sometimes it takes a second, but when students write down their beliefs it's usually something they are passionate about.

The Fight Apathy Campaign is more than just getting students talking about politics in school for a day. It's about action and conversations that stretch far beyond the classroom. The campaign helps to foster an atmosphere for civic knowledge and interest. Political conversations do not need to be the basis for every discussion, but if students can talk about current events at the lunch table once a week for a little while that makes a big difference. Down the road for these students, voter turnout trends are shown to be greatly affected by an individual's background and their early exposure to politics.

The stickers provide an unexpected opportunity for students with similar interests to join forces in a school. A teacher in California noticed one of her students who wrote "environmental protection" on her sticker--a mutual interest for the two. The duo then paired up and organized students to attend a nearby river cleanup the next month. After a Fight Apathy event, students connect with school activism clubs working on issues they are passionate about.

Students are active across the country in so many issues. In late August I am meeting other young people who have been awarded the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for their activism efforts to make the world a better place. These teens have set up programs from Baltimore to Seattle that help day laborers, at risk youth, autistic children, and many others.

There is an overwhelming assumption that kids don't care about politics. Yet, at the end of the day most people don't even give us a chance. They should just ask us a simple question: what do you believe in?