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The Times They Are A-Changin: How Gen Z Civic Leaders Are Revolutionizing Our Democracy

By Alex Edgar, Forbes | November 3, 2022

Gen Z voices are powerful, and we refuse to sit back and wait to “grow up” before we become civically engaged. “People see the student vote as very apathetic and unimpactful, and that is completely wrong. We make up the largest and most diverse voting block [in the country]!” said Andres Cubillos, the 20-year-old son of immigrants and junior at Florida State University, who has dedicated much of his college career to engaging student voters through Florida PIRG Students. Fortunately, he’s not alone. Cubillos is one of the thousands of Gen Z civic leaders passionately organizing the student vote on college campuses across the country. Whether seasoned activists like Cubillos or new civic leaders like Dillard University junior and SEAL Civic Engagement Intern Zharia Armstrong, students are taking ownership of their voices and using them to turn out the student vote this election season.

Despite being a midterm election year, student voting group leaders are prepping for what appears to be another record year of youth voter turnout. They hope 2022 turnout follows 2020 trends where college student voter turnout was on par with national voter turnout at 66% versus 67% of eligible voters, respectively, according to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) managed by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. “It’s a midterm, but I don’t think it feels that different from a general election in terms of student awareness. There’s a sense of ‘oh duh,’ I’m going to vote, which is exactly what you want,” says Sarah Batson, senior at The University of Texas at Austin and Chair of the Campus Vote Project Student Advisory Board. Batson’s optimistic outlook on the student vote comes from her unique comprehension of the hard work being accomplished by students on college campuses nationally. Even in our hyper-polarized country, Batson has witnessed incredible levels of engagement and connection among college students that should be seen as an encouraging sign of the importance of our democracy.

Student voting leaders couldn’t reach this level of success without an impressive set of strategies and tactics in their toolkits. Armstrong explains how diversifying their practices to range from tabling on campus with voter information guides to building community coalitions with nonprofit organizations and other student groups has been essential to creating a campus culture that supports student civic engagement. Similarly, since Florida State University’s “campus community is ridiculously connected,” Cubillos shares that his team has found the greatest success by taking advantage of student-to-student organizing and class announcements. Only through a mixture of campus outreach and community engagement can student voting groups ensure they are connecting with every student.

Yet, it is important to keep in mind that not all students have equal access to the ballot as their peers. As an HBCU civic leader, Armstrong emphasizes the essential nature of adapting strategies and focusing resources on minority communities. She explains that despite finding representation on campuses like hers, some Black students “really don’t like to vote because they don’t think that their voice matters” due to a history of disenfranchisement and recent voter suppression laws. Regardless of how diverse an institution is, keeping the principles of Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at the forefront of all civic engagement efforts is a critical aspect of Gen Z civic leadership. Impactful examples of such efforts range from collaborating with Multicultural Centers and organizations on campus to host voter registration drives at identity-based events, providing voting resources for transgender students, or working with international and undocumented student groups to provide methods for them to be civically engaged. These principles are easy to implement through collaboration.

As a 19-year-old student leader coordinating civic engagement at UC Berkeley and across the University of California System, I’ve experienced many of the same victories and struggles as my peers from across the country. Through my interactions with fellow student voting group leaders like Armstrong, Batson, and Cubillos, I have grown to understand the importance of Gen Z civic engagement. When we collaborate to empower our communities, Gen Z has the unparalleled opportunity to transform our democracy – all we need is a seat at the table.

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