Op/Ed: The power of young people

This piece was originally published in the Durham Herald-Sun.


As we wander through the maze of political TV ads and lawn signs, radio spots and phone calls leading up to Election Day, it’s nearly impossible not to shake our heads and wonder if it’s really worth it. I’m a political organizer, and trust me when I say the doubt that it makes a difference — that things can change — is never further than my own shadow.

From dysfunction in Washington to new laws that add obstacles to student voting here in North Carolina, you don’t have to look far to find reasons to be discouraged. A 12 percent approval rating for Congress, lack of action on our most pressing social issues, leaders that spend more time cultivating the appearance of taking action than actually doing it. It begs a question I hear all too often: Why should I vote?

As millennials, we were called “The Worst. Generation. Ever.” in the pilot of HBO’s “The Newsroom” because we’re seen as less politically involved. Some people call us lazy. Some, apathetic. Disengaged. Disenfranchised. The use of these words has become commonplace, and I’m writing to say that they’re wrong.

I’ve seen the power of people when they work together. In my first election, I joined thousands of students waiting in line for more than three hours to cast our ballots in 2008. I’ve watched young people swallow their fear and deliver testimony before intimidating government panels. For six years, I’ve worked to empower hundreds of young people across the country to raise their voices, and I’ve learned that they aren’t lazy.

As a nation, we wake up every day to stories of fear. We’re bombarded with beheadings, bombings and bigotry. We’re warned of economic calamity, climate disaster and deadly epidemics.

That alone is enough to make even the most stalwart optimist run for the hills.

Add the pressure of ever-increasing student debt and the universal struggle of growing up, and it’s no wonder that so many students and young people have chosen to relinquish their stake in the system — to throw their hands in the air out of hopelessness. From California to North Carolina, I’ve heard comments such as, “I wouldn’t know where to start,” or “I don’t know enough!”

It’s not laziness. It’s not apathy. It’s just that the world today is so complex, so full of fear, and the problems we face are so large that we don’t even know how to tackle them. Practically speaking, there’s no way we could handle today’s issues alone. But in the course of my work, I’ve learned that we can rise above the fear. I’ve learned that we can overcome the greatest challenges – but only by sharing the weight with others.

In times when I’ve stood together, shoulder-to-shoulder, with hundreds, even thousands, of young people to raise our voices and call for action, I’ve discovered it’s impossible not to know hope.

I realize now that the most important reason to vote is that by doing so, I recognize my stake in the system. By voting, we admit that these problems are not so far off our campuses or outside our living rooms, so overarching that they’re beyond our control. We recognize that we must share the yolk of responsibility — if not because of the impact on our lives, then because the weight of deciding our future is too great to let our peers shoulder alone.

So to the students, to the young people, to all the millennials and anyone else who wants to fix things but doesn’t know where to start — let this be my call to action.

Don’t stay home on Election Day. Don’t let errands get in the way. Don’t let classes or homework become reasons not to speak up. Join me at the polls on Nov. 4th. Let’s take these problems on together.

Ethan Senack is the organizing director for NC PIRG.