Generation Z, with their passion, activism, and instinct for eliciting change, truly inspires me. With more eligible voters turning out in record-breaking numbers, young people ages 18–35 were pivotal in our recent elections, not because of party affiliation or labels but because of their commitment to driving change. Whether they're my children or the young adults I work with every day, I want to use the tools I possess to help them create the social change they seek. But the tools for building voice and using it to solve public problems are not broadly accessible to all of Generation Z. In guiding young people from diverse backgrounds toward the critical thinking and disciplined action of informing local policy, we also guide them toward developing a spirit of civic engagement and a future as informed, responsible leaders.
What young adults are saying about their futures
Cathy Cohen, renowned political scientist, activist, and founder of the Black Youth Project, is a leading expert on understanding youth voice and perspective. She is the researcher behind GenForward, the first national snapshot of youth perspective, especially how race and ethnicity influence how young adults think about the world. Their most recent survey was conducted between July and August 2020 as racial protests and the spread of COVID-19 dominated the national dialogue. Their findings show racism and the coronavirus were major concerns, but Black and Latinx kids had other worries, too: African American millennials and Gen Zers were more likely to be extremely worried about paying bills, finding affordable housing, and securing a decent job.
The survey showed that young people, especially young people of color, are seeking economic opportunity—without feeling like second-class citizens. They want to know our institutions are trustworthy and their input is valued and necessary in our democracy.
Their worries come at a time when our nation is reckoning with its racist past and present, with the very notion of democracy being tested almost daily. To engage, young people have to know that they have the tools to correct the injustices they see. And no matter where we sit—as local business or civic leaders, researchers, nonprofit officers, or policymakers—we must lift up models of engagement that can help them understand and successfully wield that power.
Abner Mikva’s legacy of youth engagement
I’m a mother of two Gen Zers, ages 7 and 18. It’s been an interesting time to be a parent—worrying about learning loss, my children’s social and emotional development, and the world we are leaving to their generation. I asked my 18-year-old son a few weeks ago whether he wished he came of age in another time. He said, “I feel very fortunate to be alive right now. It’s a pivotal time, and I need to be a part of what’s going on.”
Hearing this gave me some relief, but it is also what I so admire about Gen Z—they don’t shirk the challenges. They fully embrace the need to be not only part of the change but also drivers of change.
But when it comes to civic power and voice, young people in Black and Latinx households are more likely to be told there isn’t a place for their perspectives. Abner Mikva (a lawmaker, judge, and political reformer credited with shaping liberal politics of the past several decades), believed that the so-called powerless should have a voice in the political process, but without connections, how would the people most affected ever have the opportunity? That question is the cornerstone of a youth engagement initiative started by Mikva and his educator-activist wife Zoe—an initiative that is, even today, working to change the face of civic and political engagement.
Mikva Challenge partners with school districts nationwide to create opportunities for young people to elevate and address issues important to them. The program encourages critical analysis and serious conversations with local decisionmakers where young people’s concerns are treated with respect.
“What fuels me about this work is that we’re showing young people that what they have to say matters. And we’re bringing city leaders to listen and take them seriously,” said Robyn Lingo, executive director of the organization’s Washington, DC, office, in our recent interview. “We will make better decisions—and have better policies about things like virtual education and reducing violence, for example—if we listen to what young people need and want in their community.”
Sincere commitment to authentic inclusion of youth voice is one critical aspect of Mikva, Chicago student advisory council member Cassius Palacio told me. The high school senior added that respectful communication is important to building the trust needed to move solutions forward. “Often, we see stakeholders tokenizing youth, then pushing them aside to implement whatever agenda they’d already decided on. Being honest and not sugarcoating the issues [with youth] will always lead to a stronger solution.”
The young leaders have made remarkable strides on local policy in light of the pandemic, according to Lingo. In early March, when schools were shifting to virtual learning, Mikva’s senior leaders saw how quickly emergency stimulus plans were emerging and saw the opportunity to have young people help influence allocation of resources. The organization convened 22 young leaders from across the country in the National Youth Response Movement, an advisory council on COVID-19 response.
The first meetings were about finding common concerns and key themes. Once the council decided to focus on student mental health, supporting students hardest hit by the pandemic, and creating more equitable and racially just schools, they mobilized online campaigns to help more young people speak out on those issues.
“From there, the students started meeting with partners from the Aspen Institute, Education Trust, and school leaders to present policy suggestions built around supporting young people’s mental health needs in a culturally responsive way,” Lingo explained. “They called for curriculum and teachers that reflect student diversity and that the history they learn about in school be inclusive of their histories and experiences.”
The student council delivered its list of policy suggestions to members of Congress and the National Education Association. Although the work is just taking flight, Lingo noted, they are encouraged by the welcome response from policy leaders.
“For us, the biggest impact so far has been the appreciation we’ve seen for these ideas. We’re bringing youth voices to the conversations that are happening among organizations who focus on federal policy.”
Including youth in the vision for recovery
True inclusion means incorporating diverse perspectives into the process of creating change. Parents, teachers, policymakers, and older adult partners have a perspective on topics related to young people, but only they have the experience of living out those policies and practices. When we support young leaders as they translate lived experience into action, we encourage the kind of critical thinking and civic responsibility necessary for them to grow into fully informed, aware, and self-directing adults. Engaging and amplifying the voices of young people today is, quite literally, an investment in our future recovery.