Last week, Brad Lander, a New York City councilman from Brooklyn, and founder of the City Council’s progressive caucus, stood before 50-or-so young people and talked about the push to close Rikers Island, the city’s dysfunctional jail; the challenges of persuading the state legislature to vote for bail reform, and how cash bail disproportionately impacts the poor; and a recent victory in helping to pass legislation that provides a lawyer for anyone facing eviction in housing court.
Lander also talked about how the social issues millennials care about have been influenced by activists and ordinary citizens—like the attorney general’s race in Brooklyn, in which the candidates have zeroed in on criminal justice reform.
Before long, Lander was being peppered with questions and comments from his audience of mostly 17- and 18-year-olds who had congregated in a large meeting space at the CUNY Graduate Center and had spent two hours of intensive learning and discussion about the City Council in advance of Lander’s talk:
–Can you bring restorative justice to those in jail?
–How would a bill Lander recently co-sponsored to create an office within the New York City Commission on Human Rights to monitor school segregation work? Wouldn’t it just create another layer of bureaucracy?
–What do you think can be done about political polarization?
–How can you keep people from being kicked out of their homes?
–Gentrification is not all bad; for example, it brings healthy food options to what had been food deserts before. How can we improve poor neighborhoods without gentrifying them?
The young people assembled for Lander’s talk, last Tuesday evening, are part of YVote, a new youth-voter initiative that I helped found with a group of New York City educators, as part of an effort to help midwife democracy at the local level. By examining such issues as affordable housing, immigration and mass incarceration through the lens of “why vote?” we expect these high school student leaders to channel their interests and passions into civically engaged action and to become ambassadors for voting in their schools and communities.
YVote seeks to fill a vital gap in civic- and youth-voter-engagement projects, which often fall short by focusing primarily on registration. Too many students remain disengaged from, or intimidated by, the voting process. As Education Week noted in its recent write-up of YVote:
Seventy percent of registered voters over 70 years old turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election. But of those under 25, only 43 percent went to the polls. “If youth had turned out in larger numbers, the results would likely have been different,” notes Sanda Balaban, who formerly directed Strategic Learning Initiatives for Facing History and Ourselves.
[Balaban is a cofounder of YVote along with Ann Wiener, a founding principal of the Crossroads School and Marilyn Niemark, a professor emeritus at Baruch College.]
YVote is also part of a broad-based national 18 in ‘18 campaign that aims to get newly eligible voters registered and voting in far greater numbers for the midterm elections, for which youth turnout historically is notoriously low—below 20 percent in 2014.
Behind YVote is also the recognition that a lack of civic knowledge and interest is an unintended consequence of the education-reform and accountability movements, which have created a boom in educational testing at the expense of non-tested subjects, especially history and civics. (See my upcoming book After the Education Wars, which will be published by the New Press in spring ’18.) In 2010 New York State board of regents eliminated the testing of social studies in grades 5 and 8 as a “cost reduction” measure, while adding numerous new standardized tests including two—the so called MOSL and the base-line MOSL–that were designed for the sole purpose of evaluating teachers.
As of 2012, only 21 states required a civics exam, a “dramatic reduction” from the 34 states that conducted regular assessments on social studies subjects in 2001. “We know from report after report that social studies is not being tested and is therefore not being taught,” says Peggy Altoff, a social studies consultant for Colorado and a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “States may have strong standards, but without strong legislation to back the teaching of it, I don’t think it’s happening.”
Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, has deemed social studies and civics to be expendable. In 2014, the NAEP governing board dropped fourth- and twelfth-grade civics and American history, beginning in 2014, even while it added a new computer-based Technology and Engineering Literacy test in 2015.
YVote aims to give young people the tools, the context and some of the knowledge they need to become informed citizens and grassroots change agents. YVote launched this summer with a seed grant, which enabled us to develop a series of youth focus groups and training sessions. Our first YVote cohort is double the 25-to-30 students we expected. They are economically, racially and politically diverse juniors and seniors from 20 New York City high schools and all five boroughs.
In advance of Councilman Landers visit, our team of experienced facilitators—some are teachers at some of New York’s best public schools, others are youth activists—introduced YVoters to the role of the City Council, as well as articles, representing multiple perspectives, about key issues facing New York City and its government: school segregation, criminal justice reform and gentrification. These materials, as well as conversations among the students, prompted the YVoters questions and a lively hour-long back-and-forth with Lander.
In the spirit of YVote, Lander concluded his remarks with the inspiring story of Wes Bellamy, at 30, the youngest person ever elected to the Charlottesville City Council, who sparked what once seemed like a quixotic effort to remove the statue of the Robert E. Lee. Bellamy, the only African-American member of the City Council was, at first, alone in the effort. He gradually succeeded in persuading two of his five colleagues to vote with him.
“When someone gets a little courage, others get courage,” explained Lander. “And then a little more courage.”
The YVoters have plenty of courage. During the coming school year, we expect to help channel that courage—and fire—and to facilitate their efforts to learn, to launch projects of civic importance, and to mobilize their peers to vote.
Here is more information on YVote