By Maggie Stern and Sara Albanna
At the beginning of the year, 76 percent of young Texans agreed that their generation had the power to create change, according to a poll conducted by CIRCLE. A majority of these 18- to 39-year-olds also responded that they belonged to a group with members who could exert political influence and would use their vote in the upcoming election. As we entered a new decade, young people were prepared to make their voices heard.
Then came a year that would have been unimaginable to those young respondents, along with the rest of the world. COVID-19 has killed a quarter-million people in the United States, with cases continuing to rise across the country. One in five young voters reported that someone they knew had died of COVID-19. Fifty-two percent reported that they had lost their job or income due to the pandemic — 14 percentage points higher than the general population. Youth of color were most likely to report experiencing COVID-related losses, reflecting the racial and economic disparities laid bare by the pandemic. As young people lost loved ones, jobs, and the familiarity of their school and social routines, many responded by organizing mutual aid funds and sharing resources.
Compounding the pandemic, a series of high-profile police murders of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led to a surge of protests and demands to reimagine community safety, often led by young people of color. Then, an unprecedented election cycle tested our democracy with blatant attempts to suppress and delegitimize the vote – particularly the votes of people of color. Young people stepped up to volunteer for campaigns, to serve as poll workers, and to vote at levels that, when all votes have been counted, may set records for youth turnout in the modern era. Young people of color in particular appear to have been instrumental in deciding the presidential election, and the youth vote was decisive all the way down the ballot.
Young people are intimately aware of the issues facing our country and communities, from institutional racism to inaccessible and unaffordable healthcare to the climate crisis. These issues drove youth to the polls, and they are inspiring civic engagement that goes beyond the electoral cycle.
Yet young people have too often done this work despite the heightened barriers in their way. While they frequently hear messages exhorting them to be the “leaders of tomorrow” (and shaming them if they are not already engaged), they simultaneously experience anemic civic education, outdated voter registration systems, and rhetoric and policies that disparage or even criminalize protesting. Voting and other forms of civic engagement are a habit, one that we must nurture and invest in from the home to the classroom to the capitol. Most importantly, youth leaders and their demands must be taken seriously as we continue the struggle to build a more perfect union — particularly in Texas, home to one of the youngest populations in the country.
Young Texans may not have been able to predict much this year, but in this they were right — they have the power to make change, and they will continue to exercise it.