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‘There’s a lot of talk about democracy that I think falls flat for our generation’: Takeaways from young organizers in Georgia
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.
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 in the new year.
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‘There’s a lot of talk about democracy that I think falls flat for our generation’
One day after the Georgia Senate runoff, I spoke with a group of nine students on the campus of Georgia State University – the students hailed from Georgia State University, Georgia Tech University, and Morehouse, the historically Black men’s liberal arts college and Sen. Raphael Warnock’s alma mater.
Our conversation took place just hours after Warnock, the incumbent, had been re-elected in the Peach State, defeating Republican candidate Herschel Walker.
Of the nine students, most were canvassers with the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition – a community of young people in Georgia between the ages of 14 and 23 that deployed 300 student organizers ahead of the Senate runoff on campuses such as Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Georgia State, University of Georgia, and Georgia Tech.
We talked about whether civics and electoral politics are resonating for students in the state, which has become the center of the political universe the past two election cycles with high-profile and high-stakes runoffs that have given Democrats an edge in the Congressional balance of power.
Asked if the current system is working for them, the group said no, highlighting local issues such as school funding, especially for historically Black colleges and universities, gun violence, student debt, housing, and “a sense of celebritized politics.”
“There’s a lot of talk about democracy that I think falls flat for our generation,” said a 20-year-old student organizer at Georgia Tech University. “If the majority of people agree that something should be able to change about the way we live,” she said, citing housing and college affordability, “ideally… we can make it happen.” She said she hopes for “Americans to have the power to change the things in their everyday lives for the better and not a political system that essentially just stands in the way of all that.”
‘It feels like my priorities don’t really matter when it comes to them, so voting isn’t on the top of my priorities either’
Of the group of nine students, most of whom were organizers, seven voted in the general election – two did not. One of the two young men who didn’t vote in the general election decided to vote in the December runoff.
“I didn’t vote in the first election, but I voted in the runoff because it was kind of peer pressure,” he said.
“It feels like my priorities don’t really matter when it comes to them, so voting isn’t on the top of my priorities either,” he said about why he didn’t vote in the general election, referring to politicians.
And yet, explaining why he voted in the runoff, he said, “it feels like a thing I have to do or should do as a citizen. But it’s mostly cause of the people around me who believe in that or believe it may have an effect… the reason I voted is for them,” he said, adding that how close the election was made a difference in his decision to vote in the runoff.
“I did help with the canvassing though,” he added. “Between that and people telling me how important it is, I was like, ‘I might just go ahead and do it.’”
The other student who didn’t vote said that while his social media feed was full of politics, he didn’t have “a chance” to look deeply into the platforms of both candidates and their “belief systems.”
“What I saw on social media was ridiculous stuff. I saw Raphael Warnock and then I saw Herschel Walker talking about werewolves and vampires, and I was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” the young man said. “But at the same time, just because I see him talking about werewolves and vampires… that does not mean he might say something valuable with his perspective. But I never got to that point.”
The other seven students shared a number of reasons why they voted.
“Too many Black people died and didn’t have the opportunity to vote for me to not vote,” said the student from Morehouse.
“The way I see it, I don’t get the choice to opt out. Because whether I vote or not, my tax dollars will still pay their salary, pay for all their bougie little things as they're up there in Washington D.C.,” said a student from Georgia Tech. “They’ll also just pass laws. Whether I vote for them or not, whoever’s up there is going to be making decisions that cost trillions of dollars or billions of dollars about going to war or banning gay marriage or getting rid of abortion rights, or whatever it may be. So, if I have opinions about that, to me, it’s just like an act of sitting down and doing the research.”
‘A few tangible things change’
While some said they see voting as a vehicle for change, the scale of that change ranges.
“A few tangible things change like stimulus checks, food stamps, insurance, but it won’t be like nothing huge like building better housing in Clayton County,” one student said.
“Historically voting did have an impact because you know, look where we are now. We had the civil rights movement, the Emancipation Proclamation, all of those things to me. Of course, they’re politics too, and if I think of it in that way, then of course votes matter,” one student said about whether or not voting makes a difference. “But as of now, I’m on the fence. It can in some places… but then in other places, it’s just like the higher ups do what they want to do.”
“It does matter a lot more on the local level,” said another student from Georgia State.
“If you’re voting for the president, there are a good amount of people who are voting for the president nationwide. But if you’re voting for city council or a mayor, there aren’t that many people going to those elections or showing up and voting for those, and I do think a lot of change starts on the local level when we’re looking at some of the issues that we’re all talking about,” she said. “Abortion rights depend state by state. So if you’re voting on a local level, you are voting for the people who will make those decisions for you.”
Many of the organizers described voting as a first step toward change. Beyond the ballot box, the group described canvassing other young voters and joining protests like the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Some of the organizers with Georgia Youth Justice Coalition have lobbied for local education issues. One student described going to Washington D.C. to lobby for gun violence prevention at the national level.
On-campus experience with gun violence
When it came to the topic of gun violence, the group was exceptionally vocal. Just days before our conversation, a student was shot and killed at Georgia State, which abides by the state’s campus carry legislation.
The students at Georgia State described their experience with shootings on campus.
“I get a call, an email, and a text message when something happens, and it’s like, ‘Hey avoid this area…’ I feel like it’s scary for students, but the way that it’s dealt with makes it seem like it’s more of an inconvenience,” one student said. She described carrying pepper spray and a taser while she walks late at night – a reality for many young women in America.
The Georgia State students had mixed feelings as to whether students should be able to carry guns on campus. They recognized the issue of guns is not relegated to their campus alone, but rather the state and country. While some vehemently oppose the campus carry law, others see the need for self-defense.
“I just never see the police trying to stop gun violence. I’m not saying take away the ability to own weapons because a lot of times some people need it for simply protection, because at the same time this is Atlanta, but I never see the police or anybody else trying to make a change on the amount of gun violence or where it’s coming from,” one Georgia State student said.
“The older I get, the more easy I realize it is to actually get a gun,” he said, before advocating for change at the national level or even the state level.
“I feel like Georgia State as a university doesn’t have as much power as Congress would to actually change the laws. It should be changed on a national level,” said another Georgia State student. “Georgia State as a university can’t solve the issue of gun violence. The Georgia state representatives or Georgia state house can make gun laws, but in reality, it’s just getting worse and worse.”
‘If we don’t do it, who will?’
Asked if students in Georgia are making connections between the issues that impact their lives and voting, the organizers said yes, especially when the stakes of electoral politics are communicated clearly. They said that many of the issues are too pressing to tune out.
“I was in 5th grade when Sandy Hook happened,” said one student. “That was a big turning point. I don’t remember going to school without active shooter drills.”
“For me it was Trump,” said another. “Once he won, I remember being like ‘this is serious’…We are the change we want to see. We put Biden in because we don’t like what Trump did.”
“We care about issues,” said another student.
“I know a lot of students are concerned about student debt relief and so they’re showing up,” said an organizer. “We hear a lot about reproductive freedom and reproductive justice, especially here on this campus and in this city,” he added. “That’s arming a lot of people our age who are concerned that making sure that abortion access is not just a right for a woman to have, but contraceptives, and whether or not other things will fall in the domino affect… I think because those main topics are at the forefront of what’s happening, students on campus have been very interested and very involved.”
“I feel like we have all come into the age of adulthood, like 18, 19, 20, in this very political climate… and I think that has made us all feel like we can really relate – with abortion rights, even gay rights, it feels very personal to us,” said another student.
“Because we’re seeing it at the forefront, it does feel personal to us and we feel like we could be affected. So then we go back and we canvass because like, if we don’t do it, then who will? Because it hasn’t been done thus far. So it’s now or never.”
Skepticism over celebritydom of politics
National political operatives and strategists zeroed in on Georgia this cycle, bringing high profile surrogates and celebrities to rally voters and young voters in particular – that isn’t lost on the local organizers, who suggested there are better ways to connect with young people in the state.
“What we need from our politicians right now isn’t a different person to say the same thing like, ‘Raphael Warnock’s the most qualified,’ but coming out of the mouth of your favorite band. We need someone to demonstrate it’s going to work. Demonstrate that you went into office last time, and you did something,” said one organizer.
“I liked when Raphael Warnock would talk about the actual stuff he got done and who stood in the way of him getting more done, and the fact that yeah, this runoff isn’t the difference of Democrats winning the Senate and Republicans winning the Senate this year, but 51 fighters in the Senate for something like student debt relief. That needed to be really tangible,” she said.
Relational organizers can do that, she said.
“When you’re canvassing, you get to do that. You get to be the person to fix the problems you see campaigns do.”
“The celebrity thing feels so fake in some ways,” said another organizer. “It feels like they’re trying to find this shortcut to connecting, especially with young voters,” he said, adding that it’s frustrating that there were not more young organizers deployed by campaigns in Georgia during the general election, especially for a campaign like that of Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams.
“Maybe instead of flying in some b-list celebrity from somewhere in the country, you actually just put three canvassers on each campus to have conversations with young people,” he said.
The students said that paying young canvassers matters and can be an in with younger voters.
“This is the first election season I was really involved, and I was stunned at the impact that we had on students,” one organizer said about organizing in their community and going back to campus to tell their peers about it, which they said helped increase student turnout at a school like Morehouse. “That to me was much more impactful than Selena Gomez -- love her -- but than any other fluff that I think politics so often comes with.”
‘Party is just something I check on a box when I go to vote’
While most of the group said they align with the Democratic party, few said they would label themselves as Democrats.
“I do think in America the Democratic party is a relatively moderate party, and I’m more left,” said one student who votes for Democrats.
“I think both sides are just not great, cause I think politics at its core is just not great… but I do lean more toward the Democratic side,” said another student. “I hate to say it like this but it’s just kind of how I feel being a Black LGBT person. Democratic values and beliefs and politics just align with me more.”
“Party is just something I check on a box when I go to vote. But otherwise, even though I do so much political work, I don’t really consider it,” said another organizer.
She described a recent scenario is which she “butt heads with Democrats” on the school board in Gwinnett County because they weren’t “taking enough action on things like over discipline, over policing in the school, and safety.”
While she consistently votes for Democrats, she also disagrees with the party from time to time, she said.
“My politics is not defined by that, and my identity is not defined by that, and I think that’s healthy.”