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'I’m just happy to be alive': Gen Zers in Boston describe a city that's dangerous, expensive, and getting harder to live in
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be traveling to cities across the country and talking with young Americans as part of a project to amplify Gen Z voice with the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration.
A note to readers
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be traveling to cities across the country and talking 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, we visited Colorado.
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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'I’m just happy to be alive'
This week we spoke with young Americans in and around Boston, Massachusetts. We visited the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury, Roxbury Prep High School, a free public high school also in Roxbury, and chatted with students on campus at Boston College.
Having spent the first 22 years of my life living and attending school just outside of Boston, I was excited for the homecoming and curious to hear which issues would resonate just a couple of miles from where I grew up. I wondered how the conversation would differ in Roxbury (an urban and diverse neighborhood in Boston) as compared to Newton (a more homogenous suburban neighborhood home to Boston College).
Many of the young people we spoke with yesterday shared a sense of Bostonian pride, which I can relate to, but they also described a city that is dangerous, expensive, and getting harder to live in.
Within minutes at both the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club and Roxbury Prep High School, the Gen Z Bostonians stressed the frequency of gun violence in their communities.
“It’s just something I’ve been around my whole life,” said a young man. “It’s just part of the everyday, and that’s sad to say, but that’s just what it is.”
On campus at Boston College, students listed national unity, climate change, workers’ rights, and racism as some of issues they’d like to see addressed.
The majority of Gen Zers we spoke with in Boston identified as people of color – many stressed the impact the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in 2020 had on their community.
Every city has its challenges, but in Boston, where The Globe reported in 2017 that the median net worth of Black non-immigrant residents is $8 as compared to $247,500 for white people, there’s a complicated history with racism. From the crisis surrounding desegregation of Boston’s public schools in the 70’s to recent criticism of the city’s sports fans, the city has grappled with issues pertaining to race for years.
When we asked about the young Bostonians' hopes for the future and vision for success, resoundingly, they said it’s not about the need to thrive, but a desire to survive.
“I’m just happy to be alive,” said one young woman. Though we often hear from students who say they fear for their lives at school, she said “sometimes school’s your safest place to be.”
Asked if the issue of gun violence seems solvable, most recognized that gun violence is a national issue, and stressed the overwhelming presence of guns in American culture and communities across the country. In thinking about solutions, many suggested education and community based resources, such as investing in places like the Boys and Girls Club.
One young man suggested the need for “laws to regulate guns, how guns can be moved, going in and out of the community.” He also emphasized a need for affordable housing and teaching life skills in K-12 education.
Mixed views of the efficacy of voting
Despite most if not all being registered, the majority of young people we spoke with yesterday, both in Roxbury and Newton, did not vote in the 2022 midterm elections.
On Boston College’s campus, multiple students said a logistical barrier – like missing a voter registration deadline, not receiving an absentee ballot, or not knowing how to vote out of state – prevented them from casting a ballot.
One young woman from Texas said she didn't vote "because I did not know how and how to get the form. I did not know [the elections] were really going on until one of my teachers mentioned it, and by then it was a little bit late."
And yet she was passionate about issues such as racial equality and educating young Americans on issues like racism.
One young man said that while he thought about voting, had a conversation about voting, and was presented with an opportunity to vote, he decided not to because he doesn’t feel like his vote matters.
For those who did cast a ballot in 2022, some said they see voting as a vehicle for change and characterized it as “all you have.” Many said it’s something their parents and families taught them to do. Others said that while they know voting won’t remedy all of their communities’ problems, they feel that it’s hypocritical to complain if they don’t vote.
‘It’s one thing to listen, but it’s another thing to take action’
The young people we spoke with in Roxbury felt similarly about protesting – many had joined the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020. More had protested in 2020 than had voted in 2022.
Asked if the protests catalyzed change, they had mixed replies. While some said it made a difference “especially for our generation,” started a conversation, and got people in positions of power to listen, one young woman said, “it’s one thing to listen, but it’s another thing to take action.”
Across the board, there was a desire for more action.
These conversations were dark – the young Bostonians shared their concerns over violence and mental health and feeling like even when they protest and vote, nothing in their community changes.
And yet, there was an overwhelming sense of resiliency, rooted in community, friendship, and camaraderie. Many said their hope for the future lies in "the youth." They know that while they’re going through it, they’re going through it together, and they are optimistic that it will get better for those who follow their lead.
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