Prescott Indivisible is once again pleased to welcome the viewpoint of our intern, Toby Chang. A 15-year-old student from Prescott, Toby provides us with a monthly column that includes his insights, analysis, and commentary on political events and issues that offer up his perspective as a member of today’s Gen Z youth. Toby provides a much-needed voice for his generation and offers important input on the issues confronting today’s youth and on how his generation views many of the issues and concerns facing all of us in these times.
May 2022: Gen Z, Political Discourse and Civic Engagement
About a month ago on April 10, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the contenders in the upcoming midterm elections across Arizona. Two of those candidates included Adrian Fontes and Reginald Bolding—both of whom are running in the Democratic primary for Arizona Secretary of State. I also interviewed U.S. House Representative Tom O’Halleran, who is up for re-election to represent the newly drawn 2nd Congressional District, which includes Yavapai County. All three candidates are on the ballot for the August 2 Democratic primary.
Going in, I hoped to show that the youth have a vested interest in our government, and to hear from the perspective of Arizona’s leaders. The candidates’ insights on issues ranging from outreach to civil discourse reflect our legislators’ interests and goals in truly representing our state.
Stepping into the room, I immediately noticed that I was the only teen present. Most young people have plenty going on—school, work, clubs, social life, extracurriculars—leaving very little time to actively seek engagement with local, let alone national, issues. But this does not mean they don’t care. My peers’ frequent complaints, whether about gas prices or social tension, are proof that these are problems they care strongly for, and that directly impact us as teens. A month prior to this event, Arizona Secretary of State candidate Adrian Fontes tweeted:
“GenZ has SO much power to influence their own future.
Let’s listen to them and ask, “how do we get your generation engaged?”
We’ve got to let the future pull us forward, instead of letting the past anchor us in yesterday.”
(Twitter, 21 March, 2022)
During my interview with Fontes, he reiterated the importance of reaching out and listening to demographics that remain underrepresented, including the youth. He noted that as a candidate, his outreach efforts are focused on working in small, but diverse groups.
For example, Fontes told me about a roundtable project he took part in as Maricopa County Recorder: “…we went to the Latino community, we went to the African American community, we went to voters with disabilities… [I]t doesn’t matter which generation we’re listening to or which demographic—we have to take the time to listen, and actually pay attention.” As I see it, this form of outreach isn’t just campaigning; it’s a chance to make a difference.
Reginald Bolding, who is running against Fontes in the upcoming primary, also emphasized the need for outreach by candidates, lawmakers, and elected officials, particularly to youth, He described how leaders should ensure that “[i]n every conversation, at every meeting, every single time we have it, that we’re opening the floor for young folks to have their voices heard.” Bolding added that it’s important to provide a space and place for young people, and to give them the opportunity to use their voice.
Most would agree that understanding different perspectives is crucial to democracy, and that’s no different for the viewpoints of teens. Yet, doing so is not always easy, and is often overlooked. Bolding, who currently serves as Democratic Leader of the Arizona State House of Representatives, remarked during our conversation that a trend throughout politics is how “…many times, people can’t understand different perspectives because they’ve never put themselves in other peoples’ shoes.” To remedy this disconnect, Bolding encouraged teens to use the power of storytelling. As he explained, storytelling is a poignant and effective method for captivating the attention of policymakers who wouldn’t otherwise understand where they are coming from.
In fact, I noticed candidate Fontes’ use of storytelling, himself, during our interview. To illustrate the difference between Gen Z’s upbringing and that of previous generations, he recounted that, “When I was a kid, I didn’t have active shooter drills, we didn’t really have the incredible emergency with climate, I never had to deal with being shut out of school for a year or more because of a global pandemic. [This] generation did.” Fontes pointed out that the issues that youth today deal with ultimately characterize the unique space they are coming from, which is important for politicians to take into consideration when making policy decisions. For such reasons, he stressed that for him, “listening to 14-year-olds is as important as listening to 44-year-olds, if not more so, because a lot of the decisions that we make today are going to have an impact, decades into the future.”
In reflecting on what both Bolding and Fontes have said, it is clear to me that there is a critical need to include space for youth, so that today’s decisions both represent and benefit our state’s future. This is true even beyond the state level; Arizona District 1 U.S. Congressman Tom O’Halleran, who is running for re-election in the new District 2 that encompasses Yavapai County, offered insight into the decision-making process on a national level. He told me during our interview that “Democracy works by listening to all sides.” O’Halleran stressed that as he sees it, the legislative process is designed to incorporate the perspective of all Americans, including teens. He added that it’s the task of elected officials to make sure that they are available to the youth of America, and that politicians shouldn’t be “holed up in some room, say[ing], ‘Try to find us.’”
Yet, as Arizona Secretary of State candidate Bolding pointed out, “[T]here has been a lack of focus on issues that matter most to young people…[e]specially when you talk about things like student loan forgiveness, making sure you have tuition-free college, making sure that we’re focused on the environment.” Why are we seeing this lack of focus across our state, and across our country?
For most, influencing the policy-making process means casting a ballot to make sure that our leaders represent our priorities. Candidate Fontes told me that if young people voted at the same rates that people 65 and above do, they would be running the show and controlling legislation. Yet, according to Fontes, for Gen Z’ers, voting and taking their place as a powerful demographic that demands action on these issues is not yet a priority. That makes us as teens and those issues that matter most to us much more likely to be ignored by elected officials.
When it comes to the question of priorities for young people, I often hear from fellow students that it is hard to find the time to stay involved in political issues and activities:
“And I understand that,” Fontes said. “I wasn’t that engaged when I was a young man, either. But… [y]ou guys are much more well-connected. You’ve had a lot more exposure to different kinds of information. And I think you’re motivated to protect your own future. And guys like me want to listen and help.”
As we spoke, Fontes also drew attention to what minors can do to advance the causes they believe in. “[Y]ou… can knock on doors, you can send text messages to potential voters, you can have a face-to-face influence with your family, your friends, and your neighbors…teens have plenty of power, I think they just need to use it.” He added that as much as candidates can and should reach out to young people, young people also need to reach back.
Especially considering these candidates’ responses, it is clear to me that attention needs to be drawn to existing opportunities for engagement by young people. When teens are aware of these venues, they can realize their tremendous potential for impact. Similarly, youth need to be fostered to take action, and they should be given chances to interact with their representatives, whether through their school districts or individually, in other aspects of their lives. In addition, researching information, visiting the legislature, or writing a letter to officials are all such opportunities for teens to ensure that our lawmakers keep the interests of students in mind by making known what youth have to say.
Legislators, elected officials, and candidates often tour college campuses and speak at local events, giving students great opportunities to engage and learn about their representatives. When asked during our interview about efforts that could be made to reach out to Gen Z, Congressman O’Halleran proposed that, “…instead of having it in a political science class, have it in the auditorium.” Making these events more accessible and spreading the word is a crucial step in fostering engagement, O’Halleran added.
It is clear to me that civic engagement is not meant to be limited to a special club – it’s the duty of each citizen. Most importantly, none of these opportunities are exclusive to those who are heavily involved in politics, or to any one age group. As I see it, as long as we live in this democracy, these are our issues and decisions—all of ours. Gen Z can and should take their place in this space for civic engagement.
In reflection of hearing the candidates’ perspectives on youth engagement, it’s clear to me that now is the time to simply listen. By listening, whether young or old, or left or right, we instinctively draw on our common values, foster bipartisanship, and create conversations. As our political climate grows seemingly grimmer by the day, understanding where differing standpoints are coming from, especially those across generational gaps, is fundamental to revitalizing a compassionate and efficient approach to democracy. And when all is said and done, each of us must lead the upcoming generations towards the countless venues and opportunities available for engagement, so that all might discover their passions, act on them, and become the next changemakers.
External Sources Cited:
@Adrian_Fontes (2022, March 21). “Gen Z has SO much power to influence their own future. Let’s listen to them and ask, ‘how do we get your generation engaged?’ We’ve got to let the future pull us forward, instead of letting the past anchor us in yesterday.” #ProtectDemocracy. [Twitter post]. Retrieved Mar 23 from https://twitter.com/Adrian_Fontes/status/1505898211982000129.
Toby Chang is a student at BASIS Prescott with a passion for civic government and politics. Early on in his life, he was exposed to the partisanship and division that has overrun our media, shaping his values on unity and civil discourse.
As a teenager, Chang knows how easy it is for young people to feel voiceless and powerless to take action against the issues that impact them. He believes that equipping them with the opportunities and skills to be civically engaged is the key to securing the future of our democracy.