Had you asked a year ago, many high school students might not have been inclined to think of themselves as politically engaged.
Politically aware, yes. Gen Z youth – those born after 1996 – live online and swipe through data of the day in significant measure.
But a year ago, the economy was booming, the unemployment rate was low, the world was open and the future looked boundless and bright.
A year ago, they might not have felt the urgency to take an activist role in social changes they believe in such as climate change and gun violence and civil rights that generations before them had left undone.
A year ago, they might have thought there was more time, enough time, to deal with all that.
But 2020 and COVID-19 changed all that.
And this year many of those same young folks know that the time is now.
But the question is how.
Galicia Monforte, a senior at ASK Academy in Rio Rancho, said she knows one way – by voting.
“We no longer can think of the White House as a hypothetical place thousands of miles away and that the government’s policies don’t affect us and our futures,” Monforte said. “We are seeing that we can and we need to make a difference. And one of the ways we make a difference is to vote.”
But, she said, in talking to fellow students who will have turned 18 by November she has come to realize that the very act of registering to vote is perplexing to some.
“That’s not something we’re taught in school,” she said. “And some kids grow up with parents who aren’t politically engaged and don’t vote so there’s no one at home to ask for help.”
So this Tuesday, she plans to hold a Zoom rally for her fellow Gen Zers to discuss the how of it – how to register to vote, the various ways to vote, the reasons to vote.
Although initially her plan was to focus on bringing together students from West Side high schools, so far she’s connected with 16 high schools from Alamogordo to the Navajo reservation but is hoping even more teens will tune in to hear from and ask questions of a few keynote speakers, including a representative of the Secretary of State’s Office and Pamelya Herndon of the New Mexico Black Voters Collaborative.
Monforte said she was inspired to organize the rally after listening to former first lady Michelle Obama speak on the importance of voting, but she added that the rally is not about who to vote for or what party to support.
“It’s just about how to execute your right to vote,” she said. “I think this is more impactful coming from someone their age like me than someone on the news.”
That, even though she will not be eligible to vote in the general election.
“I will not turn 18 until next May,” she said. “But that’s part of the reason I’m even more motivated to do this. I will not be able to voice my opinion and my right to vote. But I hope those seniors who are 18 will.”
Her belief that Gen Zers – projected to be one in 10 eligible voters in November – are ready to take up their power at the polls is born out by a recent survey of youths ages 18 to 29 by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
The survey found that 83% of Gen Zers believe young people have the power to change the country, 60% say they are part of a movement that will vote to express its views and 79% say that COVID-19 helped them realize that politics and the decisions of the people they vote into office affect their daily lives.
But the same survey found that 32% said they did not know whether their state allows them to register to vote online.
(And yes, in New Mexico you can register to vote online at the Secretary of State’s NMVote.org site – by Oct. 6 in order to vote in the November general election.)
A separate survey – this one conducted by professors at Stanford University, Washington College, Goucher College and the president of Ignite, which trains young women to be political leaders – found that more than 75% of participants ages 18 to 24 see voting as a duty, yet more than 40% say a major reason more of them don’t vote is because they believe their vote won’t change anything.
Monforte is here to say it can. It will. It must. In a strange and unexpected way, she believes the COVID-19 shutdown has helped crystallize that for many of her peers.
“If there is anything positive you can say about the pandemic it’s that we have been made to see that we can no longer just live in our high school bubble anymore,” she said. “COVID-19 popped that bubble. It was comfortable, but sadly we cannot live there anymore.”
Which is to say that thinking outside the bubble means, in part, thinking inside a voting booth.
Monforte plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, after she graduates next year. She said she hopes to attend law school after that.
And after that, she envisions a career in politics.
Maybe those who elect her someday will have registered to vote for the first time because of her.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, email@example.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.