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Student Gun Protests (copy)

Ilan Alhadeff, joined at left by his wife Lori Alhadeff, holds a photograph of their daughter, Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, who was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., during a rally by lawmakers and student activists in support of gun control at the U.S. Capitol on March 23, 2018.

About two-thirds of youth aged 18 to 29 did not vote in the 2018 midterm elections, and about a half of them did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. What can we do about it? One solution is to engage youth in our democracy early, even prior to the voting age.

While only 31 percent of eligible people aged 18 to 29 voted in the 2018 midterms, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, this is 10 percent higher than the 2014 midterms. This result is partially from momentum generated by the activism and voter registration drive following the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting. It is highly reassuring that youth across the nation came together and appropriately raised their voices when the country was shaken by tragedy. This proves that we young women and men are not detached and that we do care.

However, we shouldn’t wait — and do not have to wait — until situations turn tragic or until we turn 18. Just because young people might not be old enough to vote, they are not powerless in our democracy. Activism and advocacy are powerful tools for expressing one’s political power and citizenship.

Advocacy involves direct engagement with policymakers to influence them on issues. There are several avenues to engage our government all year round, and none of them require a minimum age.

Pick an issue you care about and research the problem. Write letters, call or meet with your members of Congress to propose a solution or a bill. Use social media or mainstream media to raise public awareness. Attend a town hall meeting or a political campaign and ask questions. Organize or attend a grassroots campaign to increase the strength of the youth voice.

It is time to take political arguments and dissatisfaction out of our classrooms and debate tournaments and move them to state and national legislative offices.

Schools should encourage civic projects alongside science projects. Civic education and engagement deserve a spot of emphasis right next to science, technology, engineering, math and languages in our education system. With a rapidly changing world, the challenges we will face in the future are unpredictable. Yet we can be better prepared to solve them by equipping ourselves with the tools needed to solve any problem.

Results St. Louis has opened its doors to young volunteers, teaching them the skills of advocacy and even providing opportunities for leadership. Results is an advocacy organization with a passion to end poverty.

I’m a Results volunteer. Not only did the organization give me the honor and privilege of meeting with our members of Congress both on Capitol Hill and locally, but I also had the humbling experience of speaking up for millions around the world who are fighting poverty.

It was an opportunity to witness history being made by working with lawmakers on bills such as the Global Partnership for Education, the Maternal and Child Health Act and the Global Fund working to eradicate AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. More organizations need to welcome youth into advocacy and not allow age to serve as an exclusion factor.

My experience as a young advocate has been more than exciting and definitely rewarding. Members of Congress, the public and the news media always seem interested to listen to what we have to say. Early on in my journey, even though I seemed to be too tiny in an oversized black suit seated in an extra-large meeting chair, everyone was open to hearing my point of view and having a discussion. Neither my size nor my age seemed to bother them.

My message to young would-be activists: Get involved in an organization today, one that is working for a cause you care about. Research shows that one of the best predictors of intention to vote is actual civic engagement. Civically engaged youth go on to vote, get involved in policy-making, take ownership of problems and are catalysts for change.

It’s been more than a year since the Florida shooting massacre. The youth momentum that sprung from it must not stop. Even if you are old enough to vote, don’t wait for next November to take action. Remember, your voice can be bigger than your vote.

I ask schools and organizations to encourage and support youth civic involvement. I urge youth to get involved today, long before you have access to a ballot. Don’t let age be a barrier to making a difference.

Sri Jaladi, a student and founder of the Advocacy Club at Parkway West High School, serves as social media manager for Results St. Louis.