Education

These New Jersey Teens Bring Political Engagement to the Next Level

Bring this innovative idea to your home state.

Our generation is at an all time low in terms of political participation. We may care about social issues more than our parents, and we may express these sentiments on our Insta pages, but we haven’t quite grasped the concept of true political engagement. This means voting, this means activism, this means resistance. And that’s why we were so shocked to see these New Jersey teens doing all those things at once.

As a high school senior, James Wellemeyer set out on a mission. He organized 80 young students and peers in an effort to start a local youth council. James told Teen Vogue, “I thought the reason for [low youth participation] might be that many people around me had opportunities to get involved that other people haven’t had, so the best way to get more young people involved and to motivate them and to give them a voice in government where they haven’t really had a voice would be to create an advisory council to the governor.”

So that’s what James did.

If the November election produces a governor in favor of the council, the group will elect 24 representatives — two from each congressional district — for one-year terms. They will meet four times a year to write policy recommendations for governors and local representatives. In between those scheduled meeting times, the 24 representatives will be required to stay in the know and talk politics with peers, family members, and the like.

The success of the initiative relies on endorsements from mayors, government officials, and candidates, so the council needs as much support as it can get. 17 year old council member Neha Lund told Teen Vogue about the obstacles she faces in the hopes of being taken seriously:

“I’m a rising senior in high school and not really the most ‘official’ person; you wouldn’t typically expect legislators to respect you as much as [they do] their colleagues.” Despite these initial barriers, Neha said that many people are open minded, and “just really excited that we’re doing something a little more local.”

The youth council has gained endorsement from more than a dozen mayors, 12 New Jersey General Assembly members, three state senators, and one gubernatorial candidate.

In other words, this thing is actually working.

The endorsement process is tedious and repetitive; representative Vicki Xie told Teen Vogue, “I call the campaign, they direct me to the right people, I email, I call again, it’s a long process.” But all the representatives agree that the feeling of gaining endorsement is incomparable.

Does social media allow us to feel exempt from participating in real political engagement?

We all use social media to make ourselves feel included in the political process. After retweeting something that denounces Trump, after posting a Facebook status expressing my political sentiments, something happens — I feel like a “good person.” But how valuable is this type of rhetoric? Does social media allow our generation to feel exempt from participating in real political engagement?

This isn’t to say that political micro action is pointless. But next time you post a political Insta, check in with your own intentions. If you feel like a social media post gives you jurisdiction to stop engaging in politics for the day, think of the New Jersey youth council. Think of James Wellemeyer, and remember there is always more you can do.

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Also published on Medium.

Journalism/Op-Ed Intern for Metiza. Originally from Providence, Rhode...