I always change things when I speak but this is what I spoke from when I spoke at the 2015 Janes Walk TO launch party. It was a great party with so many amazing people and I know this weekend is going to be amazingly full of awesome walks! Have a blast Toronto!
I often get talked about as smart, well-spoken, interested in politics – but there is something else that is implied. It is implied that I am different from other youth. We can argue later about whether or not this is true, but something interesting happens when people see you as different from your peers. People see you as an anomaly. People say things to you that they would never say to your peers.
I hear a lot about how apathetic other young people are, about how other young people are entitled, selfish, technology obsessed – you name it I hear it. But I want to reframe that conversation. I want us to stop seeing young people as apathetic. I want us to stop using old metrics of political involvement to measure a new generation, with new tools. Just because our political involvement does not look like yours does not make it less real.
We need to stop using voting to measure involvement. Voting is one of the ways that people participate in the political process, but it is by no means the only way. Politics is bigger than elections. When we frame politics as elections and involvement as voting that means that we are politically very little of the time. It means we spend maybe ten minutes in a given year involved politically, and that would be sad (if it were even true). We have to recognize the value in the everyday political actions. The political in existing and walking and talking. The political in making things just a little better. Waves are building a little at a time below the surface long before the casual observer can see them.
My favourite definition of politics is this: Politics is the total complex of relations between people living in society.
Everything is political. The personal is political. Tonight we are celebrating the political involvement that is walking in your city. But here are hundred of other things you can do to be political that are not voting. Everything from volunteering on a campaign to blogging, organizing, protesting, rioting, guerrilla gardening and just talking to your neighbours. For some, just existing is a political act.
In Samara’s report on political involvement beyond the ballot box, Canadians aged 18-34 are as involved – and in some cases slightly more involved – than those over 35… except when it comes to electoral politics. We volunteer three percentage points more (at 58%) to those over 35’s 55% but what is even more interesting is that that gap doubles when it comes to donating money. More young people donate money to political and social causes.
Unsurprisingly, our engagement online is just about double those over 35 – but where things get real juicy is offline discussion. There is a lot of rhetoric about how the so called “older generation” spend more time engaging face to face. 51% of us aged 18-34 have discussed a political issue over the phone or face to face, compared to just 36% of those over 35. We are also more likely to have written a letter to the editor and to have given a political speech in public. But my absolute favourite statistic out of the whole report is about organising. Out of those 35 and over, only 9% have organised a public event or meeting. People aged 18-35? 20%. More than double. Just slightly more, but after taking all this endless abuse in the popular culture for being a lazy, selfish, tech-obsessed millennial I will take every fraction of a point, thank you.
I think what is interesting about these statistics is that overall we are not any more un-involved than anyone else, in fact we are slightly more involved than some populations, yet we are seen as apathetic because of our lower rates of formal engagement in electoral politics. Words are important. They are our way of describing our reality, so which words we pick and what meaning we assign to them is critical. There are words that have been reclaimed and words that we used to use without thought that have now taken on meaning. Those words changed as we changed our reality, and I’d argue they helped change it. So talking about youth as apathetic, especially when in fact we are incredibly involved, is not only incorrect but I’d argue it is beginning to create a reality where that is true.
Many people, including youth, don’t vote for legitimate reasons. And I know one of those people who come out every election “all if you don’t vote you can’t complain” is all what the heck is this youth talking about. But let’s talk about some what ifs:
What if you didn’t have an address?
What if no politician running had ever spent time in your community?
What if you didn’t speak the language the election was happening in?
What if you were away from home at school?
What if you had no photo ID with your address on it?
What if no one in your family voted?
What if no one ever explained how?
What if you couldn’t get the time off from your low-wage hourly job, or couldn’t afford to take the time?
Many or all of these people might give you a very different answer if you asked why they didn’t vote but there are always layers there. Few people don’t because they honestly don’t care. And there are always the invisible things, the forces of oppression at work in society whose effects are often hard to see and quantify but are of course there and affect people’s voting habits.
So here it is: I want you to stop telling young people to vote. Right now. I don’t want you to lecture or preach or demand any young person vote. I want you to set an example. I want you to ask young people for their opinions, and really listen when they answer. I want you to advocate for our future security and wellness with your work today AND I want to encourage you to start inviting us to the table now, so we can help in making these decisions before it’s too late and we’re stuck with the transit priorities of a generation that sees owning a car as a mark of adulthood and the environmental outlook of the same people that are putting a nickel in their own pocket for every litre of gasoline that’s sold. Inviting millennials to the table is not a concession it is not a kind thing you can do for us. Not having us at the table is wrong. To not include the perspective of any large stakeholder in a decision making process is wrong. Millennials are a huge stakeholder.
We must see youth as stakeholders because we will live with these choices the longest. When Joe Oliver says Stephen Harper’s granddaughter can deal with something he is downloading that problem onto my children who ::spoiler:: don’t exist yet.
I can talk about how including young people will improve decision or how different perspectives make things more productive but honestly, that isn’t the point. The point is, for young people to participate in politics it has to feel as though there is something we can do. Especially this generation. When I ask young people about electoral politics, they often have no idea or don’t care. The candidates are rarely speaking to us or about our issues. But when I ask about issues, young people are passionate. Ask a high school student how they feel about public transit, education, the environment, even childcare and I can pretty much guarantee they have an opinion. And they are often also involved in their community in other ways. We are volunteering, and donating. We are signing petitions and protesting. Young people care. Young people are politically involved.
It’s time to redefine politics. Redefine it with our feet and our hands and the words we use, and we can put it back into the hands of all the people – regardless of their bank balance, age, postal code or, yes – even their polling station.