Engagement across generations

I attended a day-long civic engagement conference on November 12th that was organized by UT’s Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. Many of the presenters were younger and talked about the interests and priorities of the Millennial Generation. We heard a lot about the things that both attract and repel today’s youth.

I learned that these folks are more engaged with each other, parents, educators, and other demographic groups than any other generation. They are well versed in technology — social media are their primary avenues for conversation and coalition. And judging by the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement our youth are just as passionate about politics and more protest-savvy than their 1960’s counterparts.

So why doesn’t a smart, culturally connected population engage more in the mainstream political process? Perhaps because they came of age amidst exchanges of political vitriol, when it was acceptable or even expected that our leaders be duplicitous and self-serving. Perhaps they feel as hopeless, cynical and disempowered as the rest of us, but without the context that older Americans have.

The Millennial generation is cohesive and only needs the confidence, training and tools to become empowered game changers. Seasoned activists with the experience, reputation and gravitas could really help usher the reticent-but-capable Millennial generation into their own style of retail politics. With Millennial energy, we could have an election brimming over with young candidates who are running as much to incite political engagement as they are to win office.

Their message may be about representing the 99% of us who don’t “own” a member of Congress. With Congressional approval in the single digits, consider a new political paradigm, where a slate of new candidates with a populist message would almost certainly get voters’ attention. Imagine if there were several candidates in every Congressional race who were talking about the need for the rest of us to have real representation. Maybe their primary message is about money in politics – a problem familiar to all Americans. If there were three candidates in each congressional district who collected 500 signatures each to get on the ballot, how would voters react? With enough candidates, even in gerrymandered districts there would be at least one candidate who could be geographically close to her/his voters.

This candidate could attend most of the political events to communicate a common message about how politics ought to be. This is much more effective than one lone wolf trying to explain complicated issues. We could get some traction by fostering large numbers of “message candidates” who all stump on “government of by and for the people.” An inspirational candidate with a provocative message will elicit the emotional response from voters.

If this sounds grandiose, I challenge anyone to suggest a way to change politics that isn’t.

Seasoned activists would do well to work with younger folks who really want us to remain engaged even as they put their own mark on politics. The Coffee Party has always been trans-partisan, let’s be sure it’s trans-generational as well. Young and old alike, let’s help create the setting where all generations feel comfortable, supported, and empowered to make the best use of our respective talents.

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