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According to the UC Davis Center for Regional Change, turnout overall for the 2014 general election was only 18% of eligible voters, the lowest in California history. While the youth population, ages 18-24, represents about 15 % of the total eligible population, only 3% actually voted, the lowest demographic representation of all.
With the decline in Civics education in our schools, a trend that began in the 1970s, the understanding of how democracy operates, both in voting and in the role of citizen advocacy, is quite low. Too many people express the opinion that their vote doesn’t matter or that large interests are heeded but not citizens. Neither point is accurate unless people do nothing at all. It is dangerous for citizens to abdicate responsible engagement with the processes of democracy since that does open the door for those who are active to have undue say over policy and electoral outcomes.
California Church IMPACT has led over 1.5 million people to engage on issues of concern to them in social and economic justice. Over the past decade we have been part of significant changes. Alone and in coalitions, we have gained important victories against even powerful corporate interests that make life better for our people in this state.
We were central to passing the Affordable Care Act, pushed back a far less just state proposal from the state legislature, moved high sugar sodas out of our school vending machines, and were part of a faith coalition that secured the path-breaking Clean Air Act that was for a time headed to defeat. This was the work of grassroots advocacy. Those voices also have gotten key votes on critical budget matters and helped staunch the flow of money away from key social programs.
We also know that any project you may have from food pantries to community gardens can be enhanced or destroyed by good or bad legislation. As community activists, a link to those who can keep your work moving forward is essential. Speaking up for what you do is imperative.
That is how democracy works. Show up, speak your mind, and we can move mountains. Sit back, be passive, and the world runs over us all.
We know that our activists tend to be older, and that is a problem for our future. If we do not engage our young people in the work of bearing witness in our democracy, they will be less active in social justice issues as work and family life demands their attention and less well informed as they confront new concerns that impact their lives without their understanding or intervention.
This must change. California Council of Churches sees a way to make that happen.
We are applying to the Irvine Foundation for a grant to begin the work of engaging the youth in our communities to be vocal even before they can vote. We do not want them to have arid “how a bill becomes a law” kinds of lectures but to discover how effective they can be on issues from local homelessness to world peace.
What we want to know from you and your congregation is whether you would be interested in having your youth groups engage with California Council of Churches to learn how to be effective social change activists by learning how to ‘speak truth to power’. We will provide both study guide materials and training for youth leaders to help move your social justice teachings into hands on grassroots actions that can be effective and transformative.
Please let us know within the next two weeks if your youth groups or community service programs serving young people would be interested in this program. “Youth Speaking Truth to Power” as we have started to name this work will function well if and only if we have enough people interested in our helping you to help your youth learn to be effective advocates and informed voters.
We look forward to hearing from you about this project. If you think this has value to your congregation or justice organization, we will pursue the funding to make it happen. Thank you for considering working with us on this important issue.
The Rev Dr Rick Schlosser