Amy Anderson thinks civics is cool. And she wants kids to think so, too.
To get them engaged, she’s doing everything from helping to recruit teens to work as election judges to teaching them how to have respectful conversations in an era of increasingly polarizing politics and decreasing civility.
“It’s more important than ever to not take for granted we need to teach kids these things,” she said.
Anderson is the executive director of Minnesota Civic Youth, a St. Paul nonprofit that’s merging this spring with the YMCA’s Youth in Government program to create the Center for Youth Voice, a new statewide hub for civic engagement.
It’s yet another nonpartisan effort aimed at teaching students to go beyond protests and rallies to create lasting change in government.
Last weekend, a first-ever summit in Minneapolis taught students how to get involved as student representatives on school boards or organize around issues they care about.
“Schools don’t provide adequate resources to [students on how to] make a difference in communities,” added Raina Meyer, 17, of Edina, who is on the Minnesota Youth Council, which organized the event. “If we give them the tools to go to more than just rallies and protests … it is really powerful and is definitely needed.”
A growing number of young people across Minnesota have become politically involved in recent years, from persuading city councils to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to leading protests on everything from climate change to gun control in the aftermath of school shootings. While the momentum is encouraging, many teens don’t have the means or access to speak up, Anderson said, adding that more efforts are needed to combat apathy and mobilize the next generation of voters and civic leaders.
“There are lot of kids who have access and are doing things,” said Anderson, the senior program director at the new YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities’ center. “We want to provide opportunity to any kid … who wants to be able to have a voice.”
‘Sign of the times’
While polling places across the U.S. saw a rise in young voters in the 2018 midterms, only 31 percent of eligible 18- to 29-year-old voters turned out, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
In Minnesota, an estimated 37 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds voted in the 2018 midterms, according to the Secretary of State’s office, which calculates the number based off census age group estimates rather than as a percentage of eligible voters.
Anderson and others hope to boost that number.
The YMCA’s new Center for Youth Voice is a compilation of new and existing efforts aimed at getting kids involved in such programs as the Y’s longstanding Model United Nations, which drew 700 students last week. Anderson also helped connect 1,000 metro-area teens to work at polling places in 2018 and plans to expand that statewide in 2020.
And, inspired by the 2016 election, she started going to schools to teach students how to respectfully discuss controversial issues. That year, more than 115,000 K-12 students participated in mock elections statewide, but the political climate was so contentious that some schools nixed the idea.
“That’s mind-boggling,” Anderson said. “I think it’s a sign of the times.”
‘Civic life is cool’
While Minnesota historically has recorded some of the highest voter turnouts in the nation, Anderson said there is room for improvement.
She’s working with the University of Minnesota and Ramsey County Elections in the first year of a three-year study to increase voter turnout in four St. Paul wards with some of the lowest turnout in the state. They are teaching high school students how to have civil discussions and hold mock elections while also talking about why voting matters in hopes that engaging kids will motivate parents to vote, too.
“We do have a culture of high voter turnout, but we have to be careful not to take that for granted,” Anderson said. “[Young voters] could have tremendous influence over the issues they care about at the polls. How do we reframe that and say ‘civic life is cool … even down to the local election?’ ”
A bill requiring high school students to pass a civics class before graduating has bipartisan support at the Legislature but has yet to get traction.
While many students know how to mobilize and organize, they often don’t know how to have civil discussions on difficult issues, especially with the heavy reliance on social media, said Kulani Moti, an attorney who volunteers with the Y’s Youth in Government.
“We’ve lost the ability to communicate face-to-face,” she said. “We need to equip the students to go out and help in these challenging times we’re in; schools aren’t always able to offer that.”
Last weekend, about 300 students and youth advocates gathered at the first Youth in Educational Leadership Summit at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis to discuss how to organize and conduct civil discussions. The event was put together by Meyer and the Minnesota Youth Council.
“Minnesota youth are beginning to be politically engaged,” said Mimi Le, 16, of Apple Valley, who’s also on the council. “It’s just the beginning. We really want to capitalize on this movement.”