Scrolling through my social media timelines on Tuesday January 30th, I saw more than a few individuals insist that the State of the Union (SOTU) address doesn’t matter. They have a point. Regardless of how you feel about the person in the Oval Office in any given year, the State of the Union has little real impact on legislation. Its primary purpose is to rally Congress and the President’s cabinet behind the President’s agenda and accomplishments, making it functionally the most-watched pep rally in America.
I’m proud to be part of an initiative that believes the SOTU address can be much more than a series of applause lines. The 22×20 Campaign, co-led by The LAMP and Tufts University’s CIRCLE, aims to equip the next generation of voters with the tools required to challenge harmful and misleading messages and become informed, first-time voters. Turnout at the polls among youth is a big problem: While data shows youth were 40% more likely to vote after turning 18 if they were taught about elections and voting, only 14% of 18-19 year olds voted in the 2014 midterms, setting a record low. We need to do more to bring young people into our elections – not less.
In this polarized and dynamic media environment, the State of the Union is an opportunity to ingrain media literacy skills and engage the 22 million teenagers who will be newly-eligible to vote in 2020. Our State of the Youth Action Parties we held nationwide provided opportunities for young leaders with the chance to speak up on the issues that matter most to them when they cast their first ballots. They have expressed their concerns around the health of the environment, the student debt they will take on if they head to college, and the kinds of jobs that will be available to them when they graduate.
These events, took place in Austin, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco, help youth imagine and plan for the country they will inherit. Using digital tools like video remix and social media campaigns, they can talk back not only to the State of the Union address itself, but also to the way it is covered in the media, and to the many responses coordinated by other political parties. At each event, we have asked the participants to respond to the question: “What would you say if you were asked to present on the State of our Union?” Action Parties have been providing a forum for youth to debate their peers and go beyond the hot takes of pundits to work out what they really believe. I’ve been so impressed by the nuance and complexity in the exchanges I’ve witnessed, and feel so hopeful about the enthusiasm of our young people to participate and engage.
Attending these events are leaders like Ziad Ahmed, a 19-year-old college student leading the charge for youth activism. Also attending are teens like the ones I’ve met at marches bearing signs trumpeting their first votes in the year 2020. Participants at our D.C. event held in partnership with DoSomething.org and OZY spoke out about sexual violence, representations of young, black women, misconceptions of student athletes, immigration and healthcare – to name a few.
I believe that we can do better in our next midterm elections than set yet another record low for youth voter turnout. More importantly, the young people I’ve met want to make sure that this particular piece of history does not repeat itself. Their determination is already making a difference; according to research by CIRCLE, youth turnout in Virginia doubled between 2009 and 2017, thanks to concerted efforts in that state to engage young people and encourage them to speak up about issues that affect their futures.
So, to the people in my feeds convinced that the State of the Union doesn’t matter, I say: Just wait. You’ll be hearing very soon from 22 million young people who feel differently.