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Age Is Just a Number: Make a Difference Before You Can Vote

How to change the political conversation in your community.

We’re in the midst of a gripping, historic, and unavoidable election season: gun control, equal pay, and environmental protection are three of the many life-changing issues declared “fair-game” this time around. While we’re disempowered by congressional gridlock, presidential race pettiness, and an 18-years-of-age voting requirement, faceless suits are making decisions that impact our minds, bodies, and futures at every turn. It’s easy to feel dejected and despondent, like our teenage voices simply can’t and won’t be heard. But fear not! Here are 5 steps that’ll ensure you leave your mark on your community and change the political conversation.

1. LET YOUR CAUSE CHOOSE YOU

In this age of digital over-exposure, encountering a heart-rending world issue is simpler than ever—all it takes for me is a humanitarian snapshot and I’m hooked—but dealing with trauma, overcoming a challenge, or feeling genuinely inspired is not. Your life experiences, identity, and story will make a worthy cause come to you. It’ll leap out as an issue that touches and defines your conscience in innumerable ways. Check out this list of options, from The Freechild Project out of Seattle, WA.

Once your cause reveals itself, identify a political party, campaign, or advocacy organization that aligns best with your intentions. Flying solo can be tempting, but save yourself from a bureaucratic headache by joining (or starting!) a larger advocacy network that’ll leverage your efforts through resources, organization, and support.

I’m talking about internet sleuthing and politi-stalking, which is actually fascinating if you’re willing to be wonky.

2. STUDY UP

I don’t mean hunching over a textbook at 1 A.M.: I’m talking about internet sleuthing and politi-stalking, which is actually fascinating if you’re willing to be wonky. My advocacy idols fully understand the context that creates, qualifies, and perpetuates the issues they want to solve and can easily and engagingly share that message. Because we’re teenagers, adults have low expectations of us—ageism is too real.

To prove them wrong, read up on both the nuances of your issue and the political process. Worthwhile Google searches: How bills become laws; UN agenda implementation; list of female politicians; state political representatives. It’s especially helpful to be well versed in the happenings of local politics and current events—check out Vox.com and thank me later. In the end, you want to get SO good at discussing your cause that adults can’t help but listen, and you want to know exactly how to get things done.

3. GO GRASSROOTS

Teens are free to intern politically, lick envelopes, dial phones, or knock on doors. What we can’t do is donate money, sign petitions, or vote. Because of this, canvassing, tabling, phone-calls, protesting, and person-to-person interaction is key to the success of young advocates. Voter registration and regional initiative efforts (like I-1464 for all my Washingtonians) are the easiest to get results for and provide tons of volunteer posts. Overall, this work lets you explore your city and connect with new people.

The best tools to have in your grassroots pockets are an articulate, concise elevator pitch (a 30-second persuasive spiel about your cause and how others can support it), a T-shirt or emblem of your cause, some swag to give away, and take-home material for folks to examine post-interaction. You want to be armed with anything that’ll stick to the short attention span of a stranger.

The hardest part of going grassroots is feeling invisible, and the best lesson activists can learn is to get comfortable being a drop in the ocean. There’s strength in numbers for all issues, and while it can feel like your feet on the ground aren’t making much of a difference, you’re adding to a collective impact.

Teens with unique perspectives are an absolute breath of fresh air.

4. LOBBY HARD

Once you’re an issue expert and you’ve galvanized your local community, you’re going to want some face-to-face time with politicians and their staff. Head to your town hall, your state capitol, or even to Washington, D.C. and make your voice heard. Setting up meetings with political offices can feel impossible if you’re not a part of an advocacy coalition—which typically contract scheduling firms—so be uber-prepared in advance or uber-flexible.

But high risk brings high reward. Uninteresting adults make up the majority of politicians’ constituent meetings, so teens with unique perspectives are an absolute breath of fresh air. I asked a professional lobbyist how many times he thinks that teenagers travel to the Hill to advocate each year, and he estimated that the number could be counted on one hand.

The most important part of lobbying is the “ask,” which is what you want the politician to do with the facts and stories you’ve presented to them. Afterwards, make sure you take staffers’ contact info and follow up with them. Staffers aren’t super exciting, but they’re what keep political engines running.

5. HARNESS SOCIAL MEDIA

It’s easy to write off social media as a never ending feed of memes, musical.lys, insecurity, and slacktivism. I see it as an incredibly underrated political tool, which wields great power in terms of applying pressure and amplifying awareness. Online petitions, participating in action-oriented social media campaigns (e.g. the Arab Spring, Kony 2012, #BlackLivesMatter, & the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge), and emailing candidates are all tried-and-true ways to encourage change-making. Even tagging your Rep. in an Instagram post can pack a punch as a tally for the cumulative enthusiasm around your cause. This spring, a Senator vehemently nodded while telling me this: “the more we hear about an issue from our constituents, the more we care about it and prioritize it in our agenda.” Inundating political offices isn’t like bombarding a group text: it’s an effective way to represent your zeal and earnestness. Also, if your friends judge you for political Tweets, they’re lame.

A quick glance at the newspaper can leave us feeling like the world is going to end and we can’t do anything about it. But we can indirectly influence votes, speak to the politicians that receive them, and drum up significant support; we don’t need a mandated 18th birthday for that. You’ll be golden—good luck out there!

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Bella DeVaan (@BellaDeVaan) is a teenage activist based in Seattle, WA....