They aren’t old enough to vote, but the city’s liberal-leaning teenagers are forging new paths to political involvement in the wake of a historically fraught presidential election. Young people have joined in protests throughout the country, perhaps none more so than in New York City. Along with attending classes, doing homework and participating in extracurricular activities, many students have found time to make signs, call elected officials and raise money to oppose the actions of President Donald Trump that they say threaten their classmates and their futures.
Hebh Jamal, a 17-year-old student at The Beacon School, organized a student walk-out on Tuesday, Feb. 7 that drew a crowd of several hundred to Foley Square. “I think that voting is a very minuscule part of democracy,” Jamal said. “Being part of a democracy is being involved in the conversation, be involved in these issues, be involved in creating an impact.”
As a Muslim she is very much opposed to Trump’s travel ban, but her main focus has been on equity in education and on desegregating the city’s school system. “We’re not only here to yell at the top of our lungs, we’re here because we actually know what’s good for us,” Jamal shouted through a megaphone at the walk-out.
According to the U.S. Census, there are an estimated 940,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 19 in New York City, and more than a million students in the city’s public schools. In an already heavily Democratic area, these young people tend to be some of the most progressive voices. They are tentatively known as Generation Z, and the Center for Generational Kinetics — a research and consulting firm that analyses the various generations and how they interact — found last year that only 24 percent of this age group thinks the country is headed in the right direction, less than 31 percent of millennials who feel positively about the U.S. in terms of economic success and job creation.
“The upside of [Generation Z’s] lackluster view of the country’s direction goes hand in hand with this new generation’s pragmatic tendencies,” the report states. “If a realistic and sober estimation of the problems and issues facing us is the best weapon for developing strategies to solve them, it just might be that these youngest citizens will enter adulthood fully aware of reality and equipped to positively impact it.”
Evelyn Benson, 17, who joined the student walk-out from Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, was particularly shocked by the confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “I think that the things she wants to do are really harmful and I think she’s obviously not qualified,” said Benson, whose sister has a learning disability. “It scares me for my little sister and my cousins and all the people who are gonna have to grow up with [DeVos].”
Al Kurland, who fought for legislation in the New York City Council to lower the age limit on joining community boards to 16, said teenagers have a distinct ability to “influence audiences and see things from their point of view.” The bill was passed in 2014 with the help of the now-shuttered Future Voters of America organization, Borough President Gale Brewer’s office and the Police Athletic League.
According to Brewer, there are now nine youth members across Manhattan’s 12 community boards. “I really believe that young people, if given the chance, have a lot to say,” Brewer said. New York City kids, especially, seem to have more than most. “They’re so much more sophisticated here,” she said. “In New York people grow up faster and have a more diverse and richer experience.” Adding that she thinks the voting age for municipal elections should be lowered to 16 or 17, Brewer said she was confident that the recent surge in youth activism would pay off in the next presidential election, if not sooner.
Though they’ve considered joining their community boards, Bryson Wiese and Zoe Davidson, 16-year-old students at The Dalton School, decided to go their own way in getting involved with local and national politics. Along with classmate Alex Lehman, they founded Coalition Z, which Wiese described as a network aiming to combine “collective political power and voices of students to take action together,” after the November election. Coalition Z isn’t directly affiliated with Dalton, and boasts members from 12 different schools.
About 50 Coalition Z members recently gathered to make calls opposing DeVos’s nomination and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act; they also expressed their support for the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act and the City Council’s plastic bag tax. “I think that the most important thing, especially at this stage in our lives, is to get in the habit of being civically engaged,” Davidson said. Coalition Z recently partnered with the Girl Scout Troop that is campaigning for more statues honoring women in Central Park.
Researchers estimate that by 2020 more than half of American kids will belong to a minority race or ethnic group, with that record-breaking diversity also extending to sexual orientation and gender. A tangible change may be apparent as soon as more of the youngest generation reach voting age, but even before then the youth of New York City will be finding new and creative ways to be heard. “Although we do have support from city officials, it’s not enough,” Jamal said. “We need to be a force that they actually need to have permission from us in order to make laws.”
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org