As a child of the ‘90s, I have grown up in an era where youth involvement in politics has been hard to find. My childhood was split between two countries, and in both I saw political systems dominated by old people. When I entered middle school and started to learn about citizen involvement in the political arena, I could hardly understand what that was supposed to mean.
The first United States presidential election I can really remember was the 2000 race between Al Gore and George Bush. I was in fifth grade. In social studies class, we talked frequently about the importance of that election. I was unimpressed. I can distinctly remember thinking to myself that despite the fact that I had lived through several presidential elections, my life had been unchanged by politics. I couldn’t imagine how the 2000 election would be any different. When my social studies teacher, sensing that she was making little progress with the class, finally just urged us to go home to our parents and tell them to vote for Gore, I scoffed and decided I was a Bush supporter. I didn’t like my social studies teacher, but I did like the way that Bush mildly resembled a monkey.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I really wasn’t a Bush supporter for a plethora of reasons, but it took much longer for me to grow out of my disbelief in my ability to affect political change. Although I was a vocal John Kerry supporter in 2004, a quiet voice in the back of my head told me that the difference between 60 year-old, upper-class, white, male Kerry and 59 year-old, upper-class, white, male Bush could hardly be very substantial.
In 2008, I got caught up in the wave of youth excitement that propelled Barack Obama to a decisive victory over John McCain. Perhaps part of the reason that Obama caught the attention of young people like me was that his message of change was believable, not just because Obama is a convincing speaker, but because he had a history that differentiated him from the mass of previous presidential candidates we had seen. He was not white. He had not yet left his 40s. He had spent time as a community organizer.
He had lived outside of the country as a child. He was different, and that gave us hope.
Now, three years into Obama’s presidency, many of the young people who, like me, were energized by him are now realizing that the expectations we had set for Obama were impossible to reach. One man who is different isn’t enough to shake up an entire system made up of old, white, upper-class men. The average age of Congress is 57 years old.
More than five out every six congress members are white. Nearly half of all members of Congress are millionaires. Just under five out of six are men (senate.gov).
If we want to see real change in this country, we need to change the demographics of our law-making bodies so that they reflect the demographics of our country. We need to start waking up to the political world and supporting candidates who are young and of diverse racial and economic backgrounds.
As our young brothers and sisters across the Middle East have proven over the past few months, when young people make their voices heard, big things happen. Fortunately for us, we do not need to overturn our government to make our voices heard. We have a political system that will hear us if we just speak up, so lets take advantage of that.
We need to consider running in local elections and make sure to support young people who do run. We have to get involved in the political scene before Election Day so that when it comes time to vote we have a diverse selection of people on the ballot.
We are the future; we hear it all of the time and yet we let the future be decided by people of the past.
Let’s change that.
Ayah Kamel is a senior Political Science and Global Studies major from Fargo. She has been verbally spouting opinions since she could talk and is happy to be able to write them down as a member of The Concordian’s opinion staff. Although Ayah does not yet know what the future holds for her, she has latent dreams of becoming the next Nicholas Kristof.