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‘If you’re waiting for someone to save you, you’re gonna burn’: Students at Miami Dade College describe a generational divide in South Florida
For the past few weeks, I’ve traveled to cities across the country and talked with young Americans as part of a project to amplify Gen Z voice with the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration.
A note to readers
For the past few weeks, I’ve traveled to cities across the country and talked with young Americans as part of a project to amplify Gen Z voice with the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration, an education advocacy nonprofit. Last week, I visited Miami, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia -- just one day after the Senate runoff there. More to come on Atlanta in just a bit …
The conversations are part of a broader initiative to gauge how young Americans are feeling in the aftermath of the 2022 midterms. Did they vote? If so, why? If not, why not? Do they view voting as an effective vehicle for change? What issues matter to them most?
The project will build on existing research from the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration that has so far explored Gen Z's perspective on civic engagement, work life, family life, education, life preparedness, and more.
The two groups teamed up to start exploring themes and trends pertaining to Gen Z last spring, and now, as a fellow with the Walton Family Foundation’s education team, I have the privilege of joining, observing, and reporting on some of the takeaways.
I hope you enjoy reading about our findings. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, and we look forward to sharing the final product down the line.
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Students at Miami Dade College describe a generational divide in South Florida
For years, Miami-Dade County was considered a Democratic stronghold in a purple Florida. At least until this November, when Governor Ron DeSantis became the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to win the county in 20 years – indicating to some that the Sunshine State is officially red.
While that may be true – the group of eight youth vote organizers I spoke with at Miami Dade College last week would have you thinking otherwise.
This was a hyper-engaged group of young people – a couple are organizers with the group Engage Miami, a voter education and engagement organization that’s part of the Alliance for Youth Action network. Others are civic ambassadors at the Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy at Miami Dade College, and a couple work with Civic Influencers, a group that looks to increase youth voter and civic participation.
Seven of the eight students self-identified as Hispanic or Latina, and one self-identified as African American. One of the seven self-identified as both Latina and white.
While these young organizers are very civically active and aren’t necessarily reflective of the average Miami-Dade voter, they spoke about what they view as a generational divide between many young Miamians and their older counter parts. Having spent the lead up to the midterms talking with and registering other young Miami residents, the organizers were able to succinctly point out key issues that are currently resonating in their community.
‘A lot of people care, but they don’t know how to get involved’
Of the eight students, six voted – two are not eligible to vote in the U.S., and yet still worked to turn out students in the 2022 midterm elections.
The voters listed several priority issues: gun control, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights, to name a few. While these issues are debated nationally, they have been brought to the forefront and are especially relevant in Florida, where DeSantis has leaned into the hot-button topics.
The Republican governor signed bills including one that prohibits public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through third grade, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, and a 15-week abortion ban.
But while these students are politically active and were eager to vote or canvass this fall, they said that trying to mobilize other young people on campus wasn’t always easy.
“A lot of people care, but they don’t know how to get involved,” one said.
“When it comes to people our age, they would say ‘Why should I vote? What’s the purpose?” said another organizer.
“Students are passionate about issues I was passionate about, and yet didn’t make it a priority… [they were] too busy, or missed the date,” said another.
‘It feels like it’s their personality’: Organizers describe frustration with today’s binary party politics
The organizers said the young people they registered were often concerned about choosing a party.
“I think a lot of people didn’t want to be associated with ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ for their own reasons,” one student said.
“It feels like it’s their personality,” she said, adding that she tries to explain to voters that you can always change your party.
“When it gets to that portion of the registration form, they turn to me and they always ask, ‘What do I put?’” said another organizer with a similar experience.
Party is not the be all end all, she said.
“You can be a Democrat but still have different ideology when it comes to certain type of topics or certain issues. That’s the main thing that I try to stress to people because they’re automatically set on one set decision or one set label and that’s not the case.”
Another organizer suggested that students “in our generation” feel this way because of the way modern elections are portrayed.
“In the 2020 election between Biden and Trump, they seemed to be like the two figures. And so if you had to choose, it would be between these two, right? Whereas really, as a Democrat or as a Republican, you can fall -- it’s on a spectrum,” he said. “It seems to be nowadays that that’s what they attach it to. If you’re a Republican, you automatically support Trump. If you’re a Democrat, you’re automatically incredibly leftist, and I think that’s not the case. And if people just sat down and had a conversation and really tried to uncover what it is that matters to each other, the conversation would be very different.”
‘School’s there to teach you about the real world, the world that’s happening’
Many of the students discussed having politics that differ from their parents.
“There’s a strong correlation in Miami between political identity and national background,” one student said about older Miami residents. “[For] young people [there’s] less predisposition to vote for one party or another. It’s more so just issues that matter to me personally,” she said.
“Even though I’m super Catholic, there are topics that we don’t have to mix with our religion. Even if I agree or not, I have to respect that other people have different opinions,” said another student who described often disagreeing with two of her aunts.
Asked how and where generations differ, the organizers brought up the recent debate over classroom curriculum.
They said that while they never discuss whether or not schools should teach Critical Race Theory or LGBTQ rights with friends, older family and community members have fixated over it. One student said her doctor brought it up in conversation during a visit.
“Critical race theory, they can’t teach it in Florida schools anymore. And I feel like these are things that people need to learn because it’s a reality. School’s there to teach you about the real world, the world that’s happening, the world of the past,” said one student.
“Some of those books are being banned,” said another. “What will be learned? What will be taught from that? It doesn’t seem to be good,” said another.
“There are people who lobby for certain parts of history to be excluded for protecting children, right? But I think then you’re also creating a wall… it’s almost like an ignorance. They’re going to be exposed to the world at some point or another,” said a student who self-identified as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“If you do it in a way that’s age appropriate and a way that you’re conveying the whole truth of the world, you’re building empathy in these students and you’re no longer creating indifference if you were to include, let’s say Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights,” he said.
“In South Florida there’s like this fear around Critical Race Theory,” said another student who self-identified as both Latina and white. “I don’t know if it’s just a Hispanic thing maybe, but I know a lot of people that are very scared of critical race theory.”
“They’re like, ‘We don’t want our kids learning this stuff that’s going to brainwash them into thinking this way about things,’… I think the language that’s used around critical race theory can be harmful sometimes because it makes people afraid of it,” she said.
‘If you’re waiting for someone to save you, you’re gonna burn’
Asked how they advocate for the change they’d like to see, one student — who was disappointed that she missed out on Opa-Locka’s Art Basel celebration because she didn’t know it was happening — described taking initiative to get her community on social media so that young people can be more aware of events in the neighborhood.
“Most of the time, I don’t know about actual stuff going on in the community. To me that’s an actual issue,” she said, explaining that she tried to find the city of Opa-Locka on social media, but couldn’t.
She wants to change that, and is advocating for the city to create an Instagram account.
“The main way for you to actually engage with younger people is social media,” she said. “On the 14th, they’re having a City Commissioner meeting, so my plan is to actually go up and speak to actually see if I’m able to interact with someone.”
“My teacher told me, ‘You have to stop waiting for a hero.’ Sometimes you have to put your foot forward and take the action yourself. Because if you’re waiting for someone to save you, you’re gonna burn,” she said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do.”