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Youth fight for racial justice, and take their convictions to the polls

By Alan Gomez and Pamela Rentz

With the world gripped by a global pandemic and protests over police brutality raging across the U.S., young adults and teenagers played a significant role in the activism work that defined 2020.

Generation Z and Millenials were heavily involved in protests, marches, social media campaigns and the November elections. A majority of people who attended Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 were under the age of 30 and young Americans turned out for the election at levels not seen in nearly 50 years.

Now, the country’s youth - and adults who support them - are trying to keep that momentum going by creating groups, maintaining their high levels of civic engagement and ensuring that their voices remain heard.

"Youth voices are strong, they’re gifted, they’re talented, they’re informed, they’re knowledgeable, they’re caring, they’re energetic, they are all about our community, they’re about uplifting,” Tony Jordan, the director of student engagement for the Rochester City School District, said during a recent virtual meeting focused on empowering youth voices.

The event, part of a series hosted by the Children’s Institute, a Rochester non-profit whose mission is to partner with schools and local organizations to improve children’s overall well-being, is aimed at empowering a group of 10 high school students in seven Monroe County school districts to become youth leaders and push for social change in their communities. Their first meeting, in May, was co-hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people and included 175 youth, parents, teachers and school administrators.

Young Americans Leading Protests

Millions of people took to the streets of American cities in 2020, and polling shows that the majority of them were young.

According to a June 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), about 9 percent of respondents said they had attended a protest over the previous three months either to protest police violence or in support of Black Lives Matter or other anti-racist causes. Of those who attended, more than half were people between the ages of 18 and 29.

Interest in political activism also appears to be on the rise among high school students. In a 2018 study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling, counselors at more than half of the nation’s high schools said their students are showing an increased interest in political activism

And a study by the Education Week Research Center showed that among young first-time voters, 40 percent said they’d become more politically engaged in the past two years. 

Changing Nature of Protests

With multiple crises gripping the nation in recent years, young Americans took to the streets for very different reasons. Racial injustice, however, has remained a consistent focus of protests, according to an analysis conducted by education research company EAB that analyzed hundreds of social media campaigns, formal protests and news reports.

More recently, students have been actively engaged in the COVID-19 responses from their universities while continuing their work fighting back against racial injustice, according to the EAB analysis.

Young Americans Flock to the Polls

All that activism work eventually led to a record number of young Americans casting their ballots in the November 2020 presidential election.

For decades, young Americans have underperformed at the ballot box, turning out at far lower rates than older adults. But 2020 changed all of that.

More than half of young Americans voted in the 2020 election, a 25% increase from the 2016 presidential election and the highest turnout rate for Americans between 18 and 29 since 1972.


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