A few days ago, I was scrolling through some older tweets and remembered I still had my TED talk pinned to the top of my feed. I sort of forgot it was there, and I hadn’t seen it in a year. I don’t come back to it at all, but on a random afternoon, I decided to rewatch and listen to what I had to say in March of 2019. It had been right around the start of the primary and I had been chronicling my own thoughts and ideas on the blog at the time. I was looking at how low youth voter turnout was, and I was frustrated and contemplating how to increase turnout with people my age. I saw disinterest in politics from people my age as a symptom to a greater problem about young people not knowing how to get involved in politics and schools failing them to not teach civics in a beneficial manner. I saw voting and getting involved in electoral politics as the only way to enact the change we want to see in the world.
A little over a year later, however, I see nearly all of the topics I mentioned in a completely different way, from voting to interpreting how people my age feel about politics to civics education. In many ways, it’s sort of the power of the blog and everything that’s spurred my growth as a person and thinker that got me to see the world a different way. I’m not here to say at all that I don’t stand by what I knew then because that’s all I did know. But now, my horizons and my view on the world as a whole has dramatically shifted in allowing me to have a more nuanced understanding of why I believe in the things I do.
With respect to youth voting and youth activism, I’m realizing how disconnected and detached politics is from the material conditions of many students like me, particularly students of color. What we’ve seen as of late on a national scale are young people leading organizations and policy initiatives outside the realm of solely backing a candidate or working on a campaign. These movements that we see on the national stage today have existed for several years, even decades, yet the nation is just learning about their fights. It’s detached from the idea that we must rely upon electing someone that does what they ran on but rather asks that whoever is in office, they advance our agenda. That’s vastly different, but I believe, a more effective way to think about why young people may not be as interested in the political processes. Electoral politics has failed young Black and brown students, and thanks to social media, they can better connect with others that have similar visions for their communities. It’s not that voting is completely unimportant because of course, you need to ensure a candidate may even want to take up your demand. But what is important about the organizing we’re seeing today is that it is not electoral politics-centered.
Another aspect of my TED talk that I feel as though I’ve transformed my perspective on is recognizing how many barriers there are too young people, heck, anyone, actually being able to vote. Without national automatic voter registration, without national mail-in ballots, without complete enfranchisement of all people incarcerated and on parole, how can we expect people to want to get involved if they know they’re politically being pushed away? We of course have to fight for universal voter access, but we also need to acknowledge in this fight that racist policies that restrict voting access are intentionally designed to prevent people from wanting to get to the polls. The reason also why we don’t have universal civics education isn’t just because we don’t think it’s important; we don’t have civics education because it prevents people from realizing their own political leverage or the even broader argument that there are parts of political action that exist beyond the voting booth.
It’s hypocritical for older Americans to call out or denounce young people, particularly young people of color, for not showing up to vote or get involved in politics while they simultaneously choose to back and push policies that prevent people from voting. In fact, they continuously blame us and tell us that the only way for us to be involved in politics is if we use our right to vote. And, if we know and have seen anything of the past four weeks of policy shifts, that is nowhere near the case. Sure, political action does take the form of voting. But it is perhaps more necessary to get people on a similar ideological and policy-based coalition that then can be effective in enacting sed change whether through grassroots organizing or at the polls. It is the organizations like the Black Organizing Project in Oakland that end policing in their schools. It is groups that are fighting day in and day out to meet the needs of the people in their communities that will move the needle, not an individual politician or a political party.
What the past month has exposed to more people than ever is that while we do need to be conscious and aware of electoral politics, it is more important to support local policy initiatives and groups focused on uplifting equality and equity to all of the people in our proximity. Is this to say that you just completely forget and absolve responsibility in electing better people in office? Not at all. But the past few weeks have shown us that elections cannot be utilized for change if we don’t know what we want and we don’t have the organizing leverage to demand what we want to be changed. That’s what’s been giving me hope more now than I may have ever had about society. I’m crazy or delusional enough to believe that somehow, amidst whatever is happening in the world, that we are seeing the mass mobilization of people against a system that they’ve seen deny them equality. I have hope that this mobilization will lead to change, how much we don’t know, but things can change for the better.
I’m proud and grateful to see how I’ve grown in my understanding of the topics I shared in my TED talk. I didn’t rest and rely solely upon the conclusions I came to a year ago. I pushed myself to continuously evolve as a thinker, and as a result, I’m more confident in what I believe in. But I also recognize as I did a year ago, that even now I’m not an expert. I’m a lifelong learner who’s always looking for new perspectives and new information that better shapes what I know and how I can live my life. I hope this week, I can tell you that it is okay to admit that you don’t know everything. It is okay to change your opinions and realize that you were incorrect on something before, but that you’re working to understand why you were wrong. It’s the most empowering way I’ve lived my life: someone who is actively and consciously not letting myself have set beliefs on what I know. I expose myself to ideas that I disagree with and people who I may not believe in because I know it can help me better ground my own worldview. If there’s anything we can do as people living through a pandemic and quarantining, seek out what you don’t know and try to understand it better. Whether it’s a new hobby or a political position, try it out. You may never know what it could do to change your life.
Being Noah Tesfaye #137: Reflecting on my TED Talk a Year Later
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