Students aim to educate young voters

Wilton High School students Grace Bracken, Isabella Segall, Elizabeth Yoon, and Vignesh Subramanian shared ideas about how to encourage more young people to vote at a meeting of the Wilton League of Voters on Dec. 13.

The four agreed that students need more education about the political process in order to become more engaged in voting.

Grace Bracken explained that it took a rally in Washington to raise her political awareness. She attended the Women’s March with her aunt in Washington D.C., the day after President Trump’s inauguration.,

At the march, she had a sign that said “Lead With Love.” She told her followers on Instagram that she marched to encourage others to set an example of “compassion, inclusion, empathy and to lead with love.”

To her surprise, she got negative reactions from some classmates. “I was called unpatriotic by classmates who thought my advocacy was ineffective. They wanted me to give the new president a chance,” she said.

She said this was the first time she learned that her popularity would be diminished because she took a strong stance and was vocal about her political views.

But she decided to not let negativity from her peers discourage her. “After that, I became determined to find a place where activism is not only tolerated but encouraged,” she said.

To that end, she applied and was accepted to the American Civil Liberties Union Summer Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C. There, she learned about the mechanism of politics from ACLU lawyers, lobbyists and civil rights experts.

“I felt at home around people, who I felt, were representative of America as a whole and shared my values and passion for politics,” she said.

Putting her new political education to the test, Grace worked as an intern on 22-year-old Democrat Will Haskell’s successful state Senate campaign this year. She was so inspired by Haskell, that she invited him to speak to AP (Advance Placement) government classes to encourage youth involvement in politics. But while working on the campaign, she noted the tension and polarization that is present in heated political races.  

“The experience led me to realize that when I think about my future, I’m not interested in fighting against anything or anyone, I want to fight for things,” she said.

Her plan when she goes to college is to study political communication.

Grace gave top marks to Wilton High School’s AP government classes for providing a good background and insight into national politics, the court system, presidential power, and the media.

She said it was too bad those classes were limited to AP students, because she believes all students would benefit from learning about the political process.

She said she used to believe some young people were just apathetic about voting, but now she believes it is more a lack of education.

“Young people should be taught about political issues in order to care enough to become active voters. This is why I often take my views on politics to social media and post about current events and issues. I want people to understand that if they have voting rights it is their civic duty to use that right to express themselves politically,” she said.

Parkland influence

An animated Isabella Segall, who was joined by her supportive friend Ariana Jarrett, said her political awareness was raised by the Parkland shooting tragedy which claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers.

“I felt hurt and scared after Parkland and I wanted to make a change,” she said.

To that end, she became one of the the founders of CT Teens Against Gun Violence, The mission of the group is to combat gun violence on a state level.

“We are working tirelessly to educate and mobilize young people, so we can make impactful change,” she said.

Segall has arranged gun violence rallies and meetings, and was part of a letter-writing campaign  asking legislators to support bans on bump stocks and ghost guns. She said activism can be “trendy.”

“It was very cool and empowering to be an activist last year, but as the ‘hype’ around gun violence prevention died down and other issues took the spotlight, just like with all other trends, people stopped caring. It has been very hard to keep people engaged and wanting to create change. We just had a great election cycle and that for sure got people excited, so we are doing our best to work fast now and get people involved,” she said.

Like Grace, Isabella said she, too, has been subjected to backlash on social media for her views. “Teenagers don’t love listening to or respecting other teenagers,” she said.

She said her goal is to keep people interested and involved in the gun violence issue. For a while, she said, she was a one-woman show, creating the group’s website, handling email and press announcements, organizing a board that was committed to the cause, arranging meetings and rallies, and securing funding.

“I think the best way to get young people involved is to be persistent and consistent. It has to be ingrained in people’s brain that the only option is to vote. Social media is so extremely popular and has so much influence, putting campaigns on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter can really help,” she said.

Model Congress

Elizabeth Yoon and Vignesh Subramanian, members of Wilton High School’s Model Congress club, explained the club provides students the opportunity to simulate the U.S. Congress’s legislative process.

The club recently was awarded distinguished honors at Yale University’s 2018 Model Congress conference. Elizabeth and Vignesh received Best Legislation awards for having the best-written bills in their committees.

Unlike Grace and Isabella’s endeavors, Model Congress is not for or against any political party or issue.

“The purpose of the club is to make kids aware of issues,” said Elizabeth.

The club has helped the league with its debates and town forums. Some members also write Warrior Words columns for The Wilton Bulletin. In 2016, Model Congress held a mock presidential election at Wilton High School.

“Model Congress gives kids knowledge of the issues they will face as adults,” Vignesh said.