Youth Civic Action Toolkit
If you are 20-years old, you are going to live on this planet—in whatever shape it is—for another 21,655 days on average, or a full 13,871 days longer than the average US Senator. Don’t you owe it to yourself to make it just a little bit better?
From Joan of Arc to Anne Frank to Malala Yousafzai, from the civil rights movement to today’s gun control movement, history has repeatedly shown us that the youngest members of our society can have outsized impact.
This toolkit is for any young American who wants to drive social and political change. It provides resources on seven concrete actions you can take: vote, learn, advocate, intern, run, volunteer, and empower. We challenge you to stop asking what you want to be when you grow up, and instead ask yourself who you are and what are you doing today.
Only 46 percent of eligible Americans aged 18-29 voted in the 2016 election, far less than for any other age group. Indeed, since the US Census began collecting data on voting rates in 1980, no more than 52 percent of those under-30 have ever voted. Voter turnout is particularly low in midterm elections, peaking at just over 25 percent among those under-30 over the past two decades.
Voting is how you as a citizen can express your view on politicians, policies, and ultimately the direction the nation takes. If every American aged 18-29 voted, there would be roughly 29,000,000 additional voters, enough to have swung any past US election.
In every state except for North Dakota, one must register with their state prior to voting in any federal, state, or local election. Most US citizens aged 18 and over are eligible, but some states place limitations on those with felony convictions or mental incapacitation. In some municipalities, one can vote as young as 16.
37 states allow you to register online and many allow you to register in person at your state or local election office, the DMV, armed services recruitment centers, and state and county public assistance offices (such as for SNAP/food stamps). You can also download and mail in the National Mail Voter Registration Form. Depending on your state, the registration deadline could be as much as a month before an election.
Click here to review registration rules for your state, check if you are registered, and register.
Do you read the reviews on Amazon or Yelp before buying something or choosing a restaurant? You should probably research candidates and issues before you vote on them too. Luckily, a lot of people have put together websites with information on candidates and ballot issues across the United States. HeadCount has a great roundup.
The easiest action that you can take is voting when an election comes around. Commit to voting in the 2020 elections here.
Before any election, you should make a specific plan about how and when you will vote. In most states, you are assigned a specific polling place where you must go to vote on election day. States must also allow absentee voting by mail, but eligibility varies by state. Some states also allow you to vote before election day. For more information, visit your state or local election office website.
Only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government in 2016, down from 38 percent in 2011, according to surveys by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Most could not name either vice presidential candidate in 2016. Can you? Can you pass the test we require all immigrants who want to become US citizens to take?
Horace Mann, often considered the founder of US public education, saw public education as the bedrock of democracy, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter argued that it is not hyperbolic to regard teachers as “the priests of our democracy.” Indeed, how can you make effective decisions about policy without understanding the policy or how the government works?
For these reasons, 40 states require high school students to take civics courses and 17 require high school students to pass the citizenship test to graduate. Despite this, only about a quarter of eighth-graders perform at or above proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, with minimal progress since 1998.
Learning more about civics, the government, and policy will make you a more effective changemaker.
The news, books, websites, documentaries, Twitter, and everything in between.
Some of what appears in the news may be depressing, silly, or biased. But being aware of what is going on in the world makes you a more powerful actor. Even just spending five minutes skimming the news every day will give you a sense of key stories and trends after a few months.
Beyond news stories, a lot of smart people have given a lot of thought to fascinating issues and written opinion pieces and books on their ideas. Think tanks and other organizations will also publish white (non-academic) papers on policy topics. Dive deep on the issues that matter most to you, whether education, the environment, national security, or something else. Reading is like a morally good video game cheat code that lets you take skip centuries of thought development and instantly download the best ideas.
Also take advantage of alternate forms of media, such as podcasts and Netflix documentaries.
If you don’t know where to start, check out the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which outline areas where humanity can make progress around a variety of global challenges. Or take a look at Tufts’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which focuses on the political life of young people in the United States.
Just remember that anything written or spoken always has some bias and rarely is completely true—a good rule of thumb is that you should regularly be disagreeing with something you read or hear and always be skeptical.
Your school almost definitely has courses in civics, humanities, social studies, or government. Take them to learn more about your government and the role you can play to make it better.
Learn even more by joining one of many organizations that create spaces for young people to debate ideas or simulate Congressmen, Ambassadors, and other leaders including:
If your school or city is not involved in one of these, consider launching a chapter. A more detailed list of camps, clubs, competitions, and other resources for each subject can be found here. Explore what excites you!
What gets you fired up? If you have an answer to this question, consider pushing for change on a certain issue.
Get your voice out there. Most newspapers have tip and open op-ed submission portals. Do you have a project or opinion? Write about it, google your local newspaper, identify the reporters who work on similar issues, and shoot them an email. Got something big? Shoot big and submit to a national paper.
And anyone can start a blog or a YouTube channel. Today, even a well thought out Facebook post can change the opinions of many in your circles and beyond.
Formal petitions with enough signatories can force leaders to take action, from neighborhoods, to businesses, to local, state, and federal governments. Even the White House will review any petition that receives 100,000 signature in 30 days. Choose your issue. Research. Identify specific actions you want specific people to take. Write it out. Launch your petition through a portal such as change.org.
Lobbying is how constituents tell their policymakers what is important and sway their opinions and votes. You can find tips on how to lobby in-person here. You can also communicate with your elected officials via phone, email, or social media.
All federal congressmen and many state and local congressmen have formal internship programs. Consider applying to learn firsthand how the government works, meet great mentors, and help effect change. Most congressmen will have information on how to apply on their websites. Although some won’t pay you, many will.
Also consider applying to programs run by legislators, including the Page program and the US Senate Youth Program (USSYP).
There are 0 Americans under 30 in the US Senate and House of Representatives, and only a handful of state legislators nationwide are under 30.
Ultimately, leadership can be one of the most effective ways to enact change. Consider running, starting with local offices that deal with issues you care about, such as your school board.
Run for Office allows you to search for upcoming elections you might be eligible for. And many, many organizations will help you with every step of the election process, from declaring to fundraising to winning—some examples include VoteRunLead, which supports women; Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women; Emerge America, which supports Democratic women; and Run for Something, which supports young progressives.
Many nonprofits, cities, and even libraries have youth councils or boards that students can apply or run for to lend their voice to decision-making.
Many organizations and events—including soup kitchens, food banks, homeless shelters, retirement homes, mentorship programs, animal shelters, marathons, and fairs—rely on volunteers. Websites like VolunteerMatch will help you find opportunities based on your interests while organizations like Key Club International will provide you a community of other young volunteers.
A number of organizations help people register and vote, such as 18by18, which focuses on 16- to 18-year olds. These groups often seek volunteers.
If advocacy is how you show your support for an issue, interning on a campaign shows your support for a candidate. If there is someone you feel passionate about, consider giving them your time. Beyond volunteers, campaigns need researchers and organizers. Google the campaign, see if they have public information on their needs, and reach out to them if they do not.
Beyond taking action to drive social and political change yourself, you can inspire and empower others to. If you impact 10 friends, your reach has grown 10-fold; if they each impact 10 more, you’re at 100; if they each impact 10 more, you’re at 1,000; and by the 8th link in the chain, every American under-30 is impacted.
Become a leader by joining an initiative that seeks to expand youth impact or start your own. To get involved with YouthCan, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.