As we settle into the second half of this school year—the third of the COVID era—our students, educators, and school systems continue to face many challenges. Wealth inequality, voter suppression, health-care injustice, and climate crises are just a few of them.
Despite these challenges, one of the great gifts of America is our democracy and the opportunity for new leaders to emerge. Through our representative government, we the people have the power to tackle these immense problems. As Americans, we have the power to change our country in meaningful ways via the ballot box, by rallying our collective voices, or by giving the ultimate sacrifice of our lives. Throughout history, progress in America has almost always been spurred on by the voices and actions of our youngest citizens.
Young People Making a Difference
In their early twenties, Diane Nash, John Lewis, and many others risked their lives to organize the Nashville Sit-Ins, which successfully led to desegregated downtown lunch counters. These young people exemplified how sustained, nonviolent civic engagement can change policy and the world. Soon after the events in Nashville, four African American students in Greensboro, NC, led a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. They endured the refusal of service, racial epithets, and threats of physical violence until the lunch counter was desegregated. In 1957, nine African American students simply trying to attend all-white Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, AR, faced an angry and riotous mob. Undeterred by the chaos and the hatred, they persevered and were finally able to attend the school.
More recent victories for democracy extend far beyond the pages of our history textbooks. In 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School experienced a horrific tragedy. A gunman opened fire on students, killing 17 people. In the wake of this mass shooting, some students decided that enough was enough. They organized on a massive scale, with protests spanning the country. They spearheaded “March for Our Lives”—one of the largest demonstrations in America—and it was all youth-led and planned. This powerful movement put feet on the street and legislation on the desk of then-Florida Governor Rick Scott. Due to the immense pressure that students generated through this demonstration, Scott signed a gun-control bill, which passed important protections that could prevent other tragedies. Today, students affected by the Stoneman Douglas tragedy are not satisfied. They continue to organize and strategize for a safer and more secure future for all.
As the senior director of My School Votes (MSV) and a former high school civics teacher, I realize it is not enough to put a voter registration application in front of someone or simply tell them it is their duty to vote. We can—and must—do more by encouraging students to take ownership of the sacred right to vote and to lead the way.
Reinventing Civics Education and Voter Registration in Schools
MSV is reinventing how we approach civics education and voter registration in our schools. A nonpartisan program of When We All Vote, MSV is dedicated to closing the race and age gap in voter participation while changing the culture around civics in our schools. In 2020, we launched MSV with the belief that by applying campaign strategies and tactics to voter registration, we could not only register eligible students more effectively but also develop student leaders and seed school-based civic efforts for the long term. Prior to MSV, school-based voter registration relied on a community organization or a dynamic teacher passionate about voter registration making a presentation to students maybe twice a year. What happens when the community group only comes once a year? Or the dynamic teacher leaves? MSV is challenging current voter registration strategies and tactics and reinventing the promise of democracy.
Our organization empowers students and teaches them how to build comprehensive campaigns to reach every eligible student with a voter registration message. Campaigns are comprehensive instruments that can help students advance the issues they care about. We help students understand that as an organized course of action to achieve a goal, quality campaigns are designed precisely to reach everyone.
We begin by helping students form MSV clubs as a vehicle to shift school culture, ensure long-term viability, and provide the infrastructure for robust voter registration efforts. MSV clubs can be completely new entities, or they can work through existing clubs, such as Key Club or Student Council. The most important part for school leaders and educators to understand is that MSV is designed to relieve them of the need to inform students about their civic duty to vote and instead places that responsibility in students’ hands. We know that schools are multidimensional spaces, which is why we are working with students, teachers, principals, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Teachers of the Year, and NASSP to continue designing and developing our strategies and resources to support our school partners. As proponents of democracy, we want to hear every voice in the room to understand how we can best assist these students in their journey to create a campaign and live up to the promise of American democracy.
Learning by Doing With Civics 101
Supporting our nation’s elementary, middle, and high school students in becoming more engaged citizens is our most important job. As we embarked on this work, we saw the need to support an effort dedicated to creating individuals who are civically engaged throughout their lives. And we saw the need for young people to engage in a program that could work across all states but be flexible enough to adapt to their school’s local context. To that end, we created Civics 101 (whenweallvote.org/schools/civics101), a yearlong training in advocacy, organizing, and leadership where students learn by doing.
With Civics 101, students have the opportunity and the tools to change their community at this moment. We deliver action-oriented, reality-based, constructive civics education that will transform students’ lives. Through Civics 101, students are trained in how to build campaigns. This transformational program is special in that it is instructive and dynamic. Students acquire organizing skills through monthly training sessions held over Zoom, with each training leading to a set of actions, and each action providing an opportunity to apply learning to the real world. Students learn how to ensure that their classmates have voter identification, are prepared to tackle the issues that matter most to their school communities, and are registered and ready to vote in 2022.
Superintendents, principals, and teacher leaders, this is a chance for your students to develop important civic leadership skills, attain community service hours, and build their resume for college and career. More importantly, this is the chance for students to realize their power and potential to change the world. Instead of telling them why they should care about voting, MSV will help them connect the issues they care about with the ballot box. We are rewriting the approach to voter registration and civics education. Long gone are the days of preaching about moral obligations or guilt-laden voting, or putting forth superficial efforts that simply check a box. Individuals must realize the issues they care about for their families and communities, the meaning of the vote, and connect the dots themselves. They must seize this opportunity to change their communities and the world. With MSV, we can build capacity in the long run and truly support students as leaders who will shape the future.
Andrew Amore is the senior director of My School Votes at When We All Vote. Follow My School Votes on Instagram @myschoolvotes.
Sidebar: How to Get Your School Involved
We envision voter registration as the culminating step of a young person’s civic journey and the jumping-off point to a life of civic engagement, just as a diploma signifies the completion of a young person’s formative education and the beginning of adulthood. We aim to see students leave high school as both registered voters and changemakers, stepping into leadership roles over time to create change in their communities with the support of a network of My School Votes students, parents, and educators. Sign up for an MSV orientation to get your school involved at mobilize.us/msv/event/414169.