SILVER SPRING, Md.— Political activism among youth is blossoming in and around the city that allows 16-year-olds to vote: Takoma Park.
In 2013, Takoma Park was the first city in the US to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. In the first election to include minors, the under-18 age group had a turnout rate of 16.9 percent, which was almost double the 8.9 percent turnout rate of the over-18 age group.
Many youth in Takoma Park are active in political campaigns.
Caroline Danielski, a sophomore at Blair High School from Takoma Park, volunteers with the campaign of Samir Paul, who is running to represent District 16 in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Danielski decided to volunteer with Paul because she is passionate about the future of public education.
“They’re voting on this big education reform within the next two years,” Danielski said. “I think it’s really important that we have someone who understands the public school priorities in the room when that’s happening.”
Prayag Gordy, a 16-year-old Takoma Park resident and Blair student, volunteers for Shruti Bhatnagar, a candidate running for County Council At Large. Gordy participates in doorknocking, coordinates other youth in doorknock campaigning, helps with outreach, and works with another students to set up and maintain Bhatnagar’s campaign website. Gordy estimates that he has gone to about 200 doors in the past several weeks as part of the Bhatnagar campaign.
Gordy explained why he chose to volunteer for Bhatnagar, saying, “This is a really good opportunity to get new voices. We’ve had the same voices, the same white male voices, for many years and it’s time to change that up… In addition, I myself am really interested in politics.” Gordy sees involvement in political campaigns as the beginning of his path to even more political engagement in the future.
Montgomery Blair High School, near Takoma Park, is a hotspot of political activism among youth. There have been two walkouts staged at the high school just this year to advocate for gun control legislation, in addition to a walkout last year following the presidential election. The school also boasts a Young Democrats club, a Young Republicans club and a Youth and Government club.
Alison Russell, a teacher at Blair, is the sponsor for the Young Democrats club and the Young Republicans club. According to Russell, the purpose of these two clubs is to provide a space for students to discuss politics, allow for political activism within the scope of political parties, and to connect students with policymakers through issue-based panels. Though the club memberships are small, Russell said, “They get between 20 and 60 or 70 people for their events, which I think indicates political activism throughout the school.”
Russell, who teaches AP US Politics and Government, explained the importance of political engagement among youth. “I think that it is very important… it creates some sense of civic duty, the idea that people feel an obligation to help improve and solve problems in their community.” Russell said.
She believes that the youth in and around Takoma Park are more politically active than many of their peers elsewhere. Russell recently attended a conference in San Antonio with teachers from across the country. Laughing, Russell said, “I think that we are famous for how politically active our kids are. We make other school districts jealous.”
Comparing Blair students to other students she has taught, “students are really politically informed. They seem to be aware of ways that they can make change and particularly this year and last year have been very inspired to do so.” Russell said.
Lintaro Donovan, a sophomore in the Communication Arts Program(CAP) at Blair High School, participates in the Youth and Government club. According to Donovan, “Youth and Government has been stronger than ever before.” Although Donovan began participating in the club because his friends did it, he said he grew to realize that the club gave him the opportunity to have his voice heard and inspired him to be more active in politics.
Kiran Kochar McCabe, a junior in the CAP program at Blair High School, is also a member of Youth and Government. McCabe is the head lobbyist this year and plans to continue holding the post as a senior next year.
In addition, McCabe serves as the chairperson of Takoma Park’s Youth Council. The council, which consists of nine students in grades seven through twelve, was established last year, according to the Takoma Park government website. McCabe serves as the primary contact for the council and sets the agenda for the council’s meetings.
Of the youth council, McCabe said, “We do our best to promote policies created by the city that promote youth interests. We’re there to really represent the opinions of the youth in Takoma Park and to serve the youth.”
Kiran Kochar McCabe’s political activity expands beyond her school and even her city. Since age seven, McCabe has attended annual conferences by CARE, an international development organization. This year will mark her tenth conference. On the last day of the CARE conference, attendees lobby on Capitol Hill. McCabe said she has travelled to Capitol Hill to lobby her lawmakers a total of 12 or 13 times over the years.
McCabe said, “I would say that I am very politically active and involved. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that, which not many people have. And I am very grateful for these opportunities.” McCabe believes she would not have had so many opportunities to be politically engaged if she did not live in Takoma Park.
Of Takoma Park, McCabe said, “I think that being so close to DC and Capitol Hill, where policies are made, it’s hard to ignore whatever’s going on there. So you have to have those conversations and you have to take some sort of action, because that’s just the community we live in. You can’t ignore what’s happening at your front door.”