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From Free-ish To Free: Why Engaging Young People Politically Could Create A More Equitable Democracy

As we reflect back on Independence Day and Juneteenth, I wonder what example we are providing to our young people? How do we reconcile that for two years Americans hid the fact that slavery had ended from humans who had a right to know? And, if Americans could hide such an important legislative and policy change for their own capital gain, how do we expect young people to claim our democracy and this country as their own? It begs the question that many young Black Americans are rightfully asking themselves: Are we free? Or just “free-ish?”

I’m scratching my head about this as a descendant of slaves, mother of three children and as Chief Executive Officer of DoSomething.org — one of the largest organizations for young people and social change. We exist to fuel young people to change the world. Those young people are living through an intersectional reckoning. The fight for the American soul is the pulsing drum beat of our daily lives, and the soundtrack for our collective agony and confusion. Young people are clear that they deserve equity and justice. They are rightfully demanding systemic change and clear that the change must happen now.

On the heels of Independence Day and Juneteenth, I can’t help but think of all the young people who feel left out of or are skeptical of our democracy. Juneteenth was officially recognized as a national holiday in 2021, during the peak of the racial reckoning that began brewing in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people whose murders were magnified and televised in 2020 and 2021. Like me, you may be asking yourself, “Is that all Black people are going to get? And, if so, why should we care about and participate in this democracy or the quest for a more perfect union?”

In a recent pulse survey, 57% of DoSomething members said the issue of racial equality has become more important to them in the past year. And, 90% of those young people took at least one action through DoSomething’s youth activism hub in 2020 to advance racial justice. Racial and social justice are clearly pressing issues for Gen Z and rising Gen Alpha. It’s no secret that young people are bearing the burden of so many societal challenges at this moment.

As a self-described democracy ninja who has dedicated her career to pushing for a society and democracy that is more accessible, inclusive and representative of all, I often get stuck wondering how we can better engage young people to claim our democracy for themselves. I keep attempting to reconcile how to talk about the brutality and inhumanity underlying why we commemorate Juneteenth alongside the ongoing quest for equity and justice — from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movements to today — in a way that inspires hopefulness or at least curiosity among new generations of young people coming of age that we are, in fact, working towards “a more perfect union.”

It’s ironic that we recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday as it’s just weeks before we celebrate America’s independence on July 4 — another holiday that was not built with the perspectives of African-American people in mind. However, I would argue that now is the time for all of us, especially Black young people, to truly claim our democracy and keep pushing to make it our own. Claiming our democracy and continuing to push for systemic change is the key pathway to true political independence, equity and justice for Black people. It allows us to go from being “free-ish” to truly free.

Seventeen million young people will become voting age eligible between the 2020 and 2024 election cycles. That means that the face of our democracy is changing to create a more diverse electorate. DoSomething has historically activated young people or lit their civic spark to take actions — big and small — on issues deemed relevant, without fully explaining and equipping them to understand the system. We need to educate all young people about the true meaning of  democracy, which ultimately controls people’s ability to effect change on important issues.

As DoSomething  approaches its 30th anniversary, and becomes a full-fledged adult nonprofit, we are taking a hard look in the mirror to reflect on whether we are driving young people towards slacktivism rather than active citizenship. What we learned is that our foundation is strong, but we had to evolve our work to meet the moment and fuel new generations of young people to change the world.

So, I ask people across the country to join me in elevating the voices of young people as they question and, hopefully, ultimately claim our democracy.  Let’s not just help register young people to vote in the midterm elections, but help demystify our democratic system so they can continue their journey towards active citizenship. Let’s also educate young people about the journey it took to get from Juneteenth to today, and explain that in order to create the more equitable, just and perfect union they desire, we need them to keep playing in the full contact sport that is democracy in big and small ways daily.

We need to let young people know that none of this was or ever will be perfect, but that we see them and need their leadership. We know this is a marathon and not a sprint. We and others in this movement will do our part to give young people the knowledge, resilience and skills to keep pushing for systemic change. We’ll stand hand-in-hand with them as they build the future they wish to see.

As we reflect on “Independence Day” — let’s all commit ourselves to the work it takes to go from being “free-ish” to truly free.

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DeNora Getachew is the CEO of DoSomething.org, the largest nonprofit for young people and social change.

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