Philadelphia initiative aims to get young people to vote

By Ebun Adebonojo

Masterman High

Emma Martin-Zimmerman, a senior at Julia R. Masterman High School, turned 18 in January and is getting ready to vote for the first time in the Pennsylvania primary in April.

“Watching the people in power ignore our voices and destroy our world has made me very angry,” she said. “And if I want to see change, I know that I have to make sure my voice is heard.”

Nationwide, there are many programs in place to boost youth engagement in politics. Nonprofits such as Rock the Vote, HeadCount, and Hip Hop Caucus strive to engage young voters through interests such as pop culture and music. HeadCount even partners with musicians to register voters at concerts during tour stops.

In November, Philadelphia joined a few other municipalities in creating citywide initiatives to encourage young people to vote and get involved in politics. First Vote 2020 is an engagement program that strives to encourage high schoolers — especially first-time voters — to exercise their responsibility to vote and to share the importance of voting and civic engagement with their friends and families.

In 2018, the city of Memphis launched Engage Memphis in an effort to educate high school students on voting rights, as well as to reengage registered voters who hadn’t voted in previous elections. In February, New York City launched #WePowerNYC, an effort to double voter turnout among young people throughout the city.

Philadelphia’s First Vote 2020 is a joint collaboration headed by the Office of Youth Engagement, the good-government group Committee of Seventy, and the Philadelphia City Commissioners.

The program is partnering with four high schools: George Washington, Murrell Dobbins, South Philadelphia, and Kensington Health Sciences Academy. Through these partnerships, the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement utilizes workshops, social media, volunteer opportunities, and the Committee of Seventy’s award-winning voting simulation system to engage high schoolers in politics.

“With the 2020 election, the potential impact of first time voters will be greater than ever; and even for those who are unable to vote next year, they have the power to engage others in their community who may be misinformed or who feel apathetic about the election process,” said Jeanette Bavwidinsi, director for the Office of Youth Engagement, in a statement about the program in November. 

Bavwidinsi became involved in politics and civic responsibility after she worked as an organizer for Hillary for America, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. However, she’s always had an interest in politics.

“I loved taking AP History and AP US Government and Politics when I was in high school,” she said.

First Vote 2020 strives to engage students through political education. 

“We want to help all students fully understand how the government works and why elections are important,” Bavwidinsi said. “We’re going into topics like ‘What is the electoral college? How do elections work? What are political parties? and What are the differences between Republicans and Democrats? among others.”

With spring and warmer weather ahead, the program plans to shift toward outdoor activities, like Get Out the Vote rallies, canvassing, and voter registration. The initiative plans to involve city high school students, even those who aren’t of age to vote or won’t be of age in the April primary. 

“Government is involved in everything you do,” Bavwidinsi said. “So why not understand from a young age how it works?”

Response to the First Vote program has been positive so far, according to Bavwidinsi. 

“Students are very excited,” she said. “I’ve even seen younger kids being excited for older kids who will be able to vote in April and November.”

Students are realizing how they can influence politics, not only on a local level, but on a wider, national level. 

“I have many opinions on what I think is right and wrong and one of the best and easiest ways to support people who support my ideals is to vote for them,” said Maia McAllister, a senior at Masterman.

She said her disapproval of the way things are going in the country today has motivated her to become politically engaged.

“You can’t just be against. You have to be for something instead,” she said.

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