It was something Zoe Hill said that made me realize how important it is that members of the media do a better job of asking high school kids how they feel about the big social issues of the day.
“It’s hard to even share opinions without someone absolutely tearing us down,” she said.
We were chatting via text message, earlier this year. Zoe was one of 90 or so high school seniors that had taken part in a little experiment in political polling through text messages I had conducted for 100 Days in Appalachia. We wanted to engage students in conversation about pertinent issues of our time.
Zoe was talking about the derisive and starkly oppositional nature of American politics at the moment and how that had trickled down into her school and her every day life, tainting conversations amongst her friends and family members.
“I think it deters a lot of people away from political issues because in some circumstances, it’s just not worth the hassle to discuss with others,” she told me.
That any American teenagers — our next generation of voters — are avoiding engaging in conversations about the real and pressing issues that will shape their lives and define their nation is a worry. Just as restricting access to polling booths is a corruption that threatens democracy, so too does a fearful retreat by everyday people from civic discussion. It increases the already widening gulf between the interests of citizens and those of elected politicians.
The media can encourage young people to get involved in these conversations by making sure their ideas and opinions are an equal part of reporting on communities and politics. To do that, we must wipe away our assumptions about them, the things we think we know. We need to ask them what those opinions are, having first wiped away the things we think we know about them. We need to give them a safe, welcoming space to describe how they feel about these issues, outside of the stifling framework of traditional partisan politics.
So, ahead of the November midterm elections– during which many high school seniors may cast their first ballot– we’re going to ask them.
Next month, 100 Days in Appalachia will launch a polling project to gauge the political and social viewpoints of high school seniors across West Virginia and in several other states in the region. Here’s all the info: www.100daysinappalachia.com/pollingproject
Students will be polled via text message, asked for their thoughts on pivotal election issues such as immigration, health care, taxation, social services, guns and America’s role in the world. The nonpartisan survey will not ask students to identify with or endorse a political party, or to select typical binary “for/against” political categorizations on key issues. Instead, we want to present students with a wider range of choices to allow them to describe more accurately their political and social views.
The project is an expansion of the pilot Zoe participated in earlier this year, which found that young people in the region have their own unique views on these issues. For example, while the young people from Parkland, Florida, sparked a nationwide student movement calling for stricter gun laws, the students we surveyed in West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky were pretty evenly split on the issue.
On other subjects students took positions on both sides of the typical partisan ideological spectrum, such as being fervently opposed to abortion, but supportive of LGBT rights. Almost a third of students didn’t feel that either of the two main political parties represented their values.
The project helped show that this next generation of voters is complex and complicated and may be harder to define than any generation before it.
Our goal is to reach 1,000 students. To do that, we need to hear from teachers, principals and parents interested in having their seniors participate. If this sounds like you, all you have to do is go to www.100daysinappalachia.com/pollingproject and use the sign up form. This doesn’t commit you to participating, it just allows us to send you more information and contact you when we’re ready to launch our survey.