How student political involvement will flip the script in 2020

Zachary Bahar and Rebecca Lustig

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On Jan. 17, 45 ETHS students traveled to Iowa to experience first-hand political activity. With the Iowa caucuses approaching on Feb. 3, many Democratic presidential candidates focus their attention on the state.
“I went to a teacher training two summers ago and I met a lot of teachers who have taken their students to the Iowa caucus. It seemed like a cool idea, so I brought it up around the department and other people agreed, so we decided to try and make it happen,” history teacher Andrew Ginsberg said.
Teachers involved in the planning process met almost weekly for about three months to plan the trip.
“The overarching goal was to show kids how the Iowa caucus works and how the political process works for a presidential campaign,” history teacher Amanda Slefo explained.

In Iowa City, students were split up into groups to campaign for Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang. Students volunteered with local campaign offices to door knock and phone bank.

“I’ve door-knocked for my mom before because she’s an alderman, so I knew how to do it, but it was a bigger scale,” junior Genevieve Fleming explained. “It felt like we were helping out a lot.”
Students campaigning for Yang and Klobuchar helped them set up for town halls where they met the candidates.
At the University of Iowa, those on the ETHS Iowa trip engaged with College Democrats and Republicans.
“One of the things that blew me away the most was when we got to interview the University of Iowa Republicans…. The kids asked these poignant, researched, beautifully worded questions time after time after time… and they all went up afterwards and thanked them,” Slefo said.
Another main activity was participating in a Mikva Challenge student caucus in Des Moines. Instead of advocating for candidates, hundreds of high school students from across the country advocated for issues they were passionate about such as climate change, local corruption and healthcare.
Organized like an actual presidential caucus, students tried to convince each other their cause was the most important and gather the most supporters.
“My group did local corruption… we wanted to express how corruption plays a role in every single factor and doesn’t allow any other things like healthcare or climate change to actually be changed,” senior Ulo Freitas explained.
Traveling to Iowa provided an opportunity for ETHS students to engage with many people about critical issues and learn from hands-on experience in a more memorable way.
“You shouldn’t think you’re too young to voice your opinion or work for the things you’re passionate about. We had kids who were 15 who went out in the snow and ice and talked to strangers in Iowa and enjoyed it. I think it just shows you can do it if you really want to,” Ginsberg said.
The Iowa trip is just one way that ETHS has encouraged student political involvement, something of vital importance in an election year; however, it is far from the only way that students can get involved.
“The first way to be involved civically is always to vote,” AP U.S. Government and Politics teacher David Feeley said. “With [students] who are going to be 18 before November, we tell them to get registered to vote for the primary and for the general or midterm election.”
Voting, as Feeley said, is the most practical way for students to get involved, and as such, groups throughout the school have always encouraged students to register as soon as possible. One of these groups is the Community Service Club’s Civic Engagement Committee.
“In elections in the past, we’ve seen that the youth vote isn’t as high as other age groups, and there’s a lot of confusion about when you have to register by because it varies by state… so it’s important to make sure that people know that they can vote,” senior and committee leader Jessica Rogers said.
To combat this at a state-wide level, Governor Pritzker recently passed a law that allows students to miss up to two hours of school to vote, a bill proposed by students.
At ETHS, the Civic Engagement Committee is staffing voter registration booths around the school community, first at a series of basketball games on Jan. 10 and 17 and, upcoming, between Feb. 10 and 14.
Rogers also hopes to lead a program discussing the remaining primary candidates as the March 17 date approaches.
“We really want to do an event later in February when we’re getting closer to the primaries about the different candidates who are still left and just to provide information about what they’re advocating for and what they’ve done,” Rogers said.
Ensuring that students understand what platforms candidates are running on is vital since it allows students, many of whom are very issue focused, to elect people who care about the same issues as them.
“A lot of students are very issue focused, but don’t understand the connection between issue advocacy and getting the right people elected…. If you elect representatives who share your values, that really helps with your issue advocacy,” Emilie Hogan, the executive director of the Democratic Party of Evanston (DPoE), said.
Groups such as the DPoE have a plethora of opportunities for student engagement, such as phone banking and marketing.
“We have a lot of great ways for students to get involved…. [but our] main political activity that we’re doing is phone banking,” Hogan said.
Beyond phone banking, youth involvement with the DPoE can range from marketing and graphic design to organizing educational events and running social media accounts.
The mission, for all of these groups, is to ensure that students understand their ability to take action and influence the nation that they live in using the mechanisms of power that define what makes our nation a democracy.
“Getting youth more engaged with politics is really important because obviously it can feel far when you have these old, white men; it feels very disconnected to a lot of students who feel unrepresented, so the least that the school can be doing is informing who’s running and what they’re running for,” Rogers said.
Regardless of how students get involved with political activities, Feeley believes they walk away with a “passion for [civic involvement]:” an experience that will remain with them for years to come.