It is said time and time again that students and young people are the ones that hold an incredible amount of power to create lasting political change. But to many students, this power seems too abstract. It may seem that there are too many things working against our efforts. Or it can feel like the work being done is too small to make an impact.
There’s also a sense that as just one person, what can you even do?
All of these things were points of discussion last Sunday, Feb. 6, during the 21st annual Democracy Matters National Student Summit held virtually from 12:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The goal of the afternoon was to inform students and incite discussions about the connection between the issues we are facing today such as climate change, COVID-19, racial injustice, and how they are impacted at large by voter suppression and money in politics.
Democracy Matters is a non-partisan, national organization devoted to getting students involved with these issues and protecting our democracy. The organization has student-led chapters in high schools and colleges across the country.
Yes, it is true that student power in politics is often hard for us to immediately see, but the summit aimed at showing students what we can do. Still, there was an acknowledgment paid towards the often disheartening effects of working to create this change. Change is often slow and the work takes a long time, but anything is progress, and the work can be done.
“Students are feeling exhausted because they don’t see much political change,” expressed Melaina Ness co-president of New Paltz’s chapter of Democracy Matters and fourth-year economics and political science major. “Changing the political climate is a slow process that is not as immediately gratifying as students wish.”
“The fact is, progress isn’t always linear,” summit guest speaker, New York Congressman Mondaire Jones emphasized regarding the process of change and progress in our political landscape. “It is messy, there are false starts, there are setbacks.”
Jones serves in the House of Representatives for New York’s 17th Congressional District. He is a member of the NAACP’s Board of Directors, one of two openly gay, Black members of Congress and sits on the House Judiciary Committee advocating for voting rights, campaign voting reform and democracy.
When addressing the setbacks we have seen in the progress of securing voting rights and protections for people of color, he spoke about the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
This Act, named for the late John R. Lewis a U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights activist who fought to expand and protect the voting rights of Black voters and other voters of color, would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were previously overturned. This reversal directly allowed for voter suppression laws to be passed that disproportionately prevented people of color, the eldery and the youth from voting. However, the passing of this Act was recently blocked by a Senate filibuster.
“Like all of you last month, I was hoping that our story would end with the majority of senators doing the right thing. So I feel your pain right now, but I do not despair,” said Congressman Jones. “No story in the history of our quest for racial justice has ever ended with ‘and then they gave up.’ The story of building a true multiracial democracy in the 21st century is no exception.”
Jones was one of the Congress members present at the Capitol on Jan 6., 2021, the date of the insurrection. He described the horrifying experience but resolved to say, “I have carried my memories of January 6th with me and my advocacy for the legislation that we need to protect our democracy.”
Following Congressman Jones’ speech, students entered breakout workshops. During a breakout room led by Director of Political Engagement for Democracy Matters, Max Stahl, one student from a high school chapter of Democracy Matters brought up the point of how difficult it can seem to enact change as just one student.
“I’m 15, and I have no idea how to apply this full, large expansive discussion into my small community,” the student said. “What are your thoughts on how small people in small spaces can enact big change?”
Stahl responded with an example of how during the 2016 elections, they were able to put Democracy Matters students in front of politicians, have them ask about money in politics and begin to change the conversation around these issues. He also suggested starting at a local level and speaking to local representatives about issues. Or, he said students could sign petitions about these issues, or volunteer for a politician’s campaign.
At a campus level, joining organizations such as Democracy Matters can allow students to learn about what issues in our democracy we are facing and begin to suggest solutions.
“I strongly believe that politicians thrive off the ignorance of young people,” stated Miles Palminteri, co-president of the New Paltz chapter and second-year, international relations major. “The number one thing you can do is stay informed.”
Our campus’ chapter of Democracy Matters was recently restarted and is working to become rechartered this spring. To get into contact reach out on Instagram at @democracymattersnp or email email@example.com.