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At the beginning of this school year, sisters Emily and Ella Tom were excited to read assignments for their history classes because what they were learning in school finally felt relevant to their lives.
Learning about slavery and Jim Crow laws helped 15-year-old Ella understand the Black Lives Matter Movement, and President George Washington’s warnings about a two-party political system were eye-opening to 17-year-old Emily.
While most people have their political awakening during late adolescence and early adulthood, Generation Z’s foray into civic engagement is set against the backdrop of the largest disturbance to the day-to-day life of an American teenager since young men were drafted into the Vietnam War.
Colin Moore, director of University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, said the events of 2020 will have lasting impacts on how Generation Z views government, politicians and America’s reputation.
“For example, the generation that went through the Great Depression tended to have more liberal views around social welfare spending for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Because of this period of social upheaval I think Generation Z will probably remain very politically active throughout their lives.”
Moore contrasted Generation Z to his generation, Generation X, those who were born between the mid-1960s and early-1980s and came of age during a time of relative peace and prosperity. “We tend to be some of the most conservative and least involved citizens,” he said.
Teenagers in Hawaii say the movement against police brutality, the pandemic response and increased political polarization has made them realize how the government and politicians can directly affect the trajectory of their lives.
“What people don’t understand about being a teenager right now is just how helpless we feel with everything going on,” said 19-year-old Alex Nastase. “It’s like this perfect storm of racial unrest, climate crisis and health crisis.”
In August Civil Beat gave audio recorders to nine teenagers across Oahu to capture their thoughts, experiences and struggles throughout 2020. Many of the audio diaries focused on their political awakenings and showed a clear desire to get involved in the civic process. Read more about their experiences here.
Over the summer, Nastase would log on to Reddit and see politicians spreading lies about the virus. He read about anti-mask rallies in the news and heard about large gatherings and parties across the state.
“It just made me feel like a clown to be an American,” he said.
It was a hard realization because Nastase’s father is in the military and he’s always considered himself to be patriotic. But he said watching how other countries, like New Zealand and Germany, responded to the pandemic made him rethink what he knew about America.
“I’m sick of feeling this like existential dread every day about what Trump said or how bad climate change is and how people are denying it and just feel like there’s nothing I can do besides sit and just get angrier,” he said.
“It’s like this perfect storm of racial unrest, climate crisis and health crisis.” – Alex Nastase, 19
But many of those feelings of hopelessness changed when Nastase voted for the first time this month. It was a cathartic way for him to voice his opinion and he spent a long time researching all the candidates on his mail-in ballot.
“I’ve realized that our local leaders have a huge impact on what can actually be done in government,” he said.
Almost 70% of eligible voters in Hawaii cast a ballot in this year’s general election, and 51% participated in the August primary. Voter turnout in the state hasn’t been that high in 26 years. Although age-specific breakdowns aren’t available yet, a national analysis found youth turnout was up 8 points compared to 2016.
Moore thinks that Generation Z will continue to stay politically engaged for the rest of their lives because the groundwork was laid prior to this year. Young leaders like Greta Thunberg and Leah Namugerwa in the climate movement and anti-school shooting activists David Hogg and Emma González inspired Generation Z to take an active role in politics.
During his sophomore year at McKinley High School, Erwin Laroco was interested in both climate change and gun control. But the events of 2020 made the 16-year-old realize he couldn’t sit on the sidelines.
“Before I wasn’t very political or into the government kind of thing,” he said. “But now I’ve been exposed to how government and politics really affect everything.”
Now he’s spending his junior year researching colleges with strong pre-law and political science programs.
“I don’t think that was mainly due to all-mail ballots,” he said. “People see the connection between actions of the government and their daily lives in a much more direct way than they have in a long time and that absolutely motivates participation, even among young people.”
Laroco’s main political motivator has been the Black Lives Matter movement. When a grand jury in Kentucky didn’t charge any police officers for the March shooting of Breonna Taylor, Laroco realized that he wants to run for public office one day.
“People see the connection between actions of the government and their daily lives in a much more direct way than they have in a long time.” – Colin Moore, University of Hawaii
But right now he’s frustrated because he’s too young to vote and his mom, who works in health care, doesn’t want him attending protests or volunteering for campaigns amid the pandemic.
“The most I can do right now is post information to my [Instagram] story … and in my opinion, that doesn’t feel enough,” he said.
However, Moore said that using Instagram, Twitter, Twitch, TikTok and other websites to organize political action is a really important skill that comes naturally to Generation Z.
“The internet is real life now,” he said. “It was becoming that way before the pandemic but now more than ever online organizing can be done lightning fast and in a really effective, meaningful way.”
Online access to centuries of information and news from all over the world has also allowed Generation Z to have more nuanced political views than teenagers in previous generations, Moore said.
“Today there seems to be a real maturity in the way they approach politics and they really understand what’s at stake, and I wouldn’t have said that about students five years ago,” he said.
Emily Tom, Ella’s 17-year-old sister and a senior at Iolani High School, said the political polarization surrounding public health measures is baffling to people her age.
“Even the classmates that I have who are generally more libertarian or more to the right, they’re not trying to fight anybody on wearing masks because they also know that this isn’t a matter of politics,” she said.
Tom said a hallmark of Generation Z is dissatisfaction with America’s two-party system.
“It goes a lot deeper than this pandemic, too, in the sense that there are a lot of things that I think people just don’t trust Democrats or Republicans on,” she said. “It would be great for the country to move away from that and I do like the idea of us being the start of that change.”
Alāmea Hoppe-Cruz, a sophomore at Waianae High School, wrote off the two main political parties in America as he observed their response, or lack of response, to the climate crisis. Before 2020, his deep interest in reading alternative political theory made him feel like an outsider, but he’s noticed that other people in Generation Z are now looking for new leaders.
“You still have a lot of liberals in my generation but a lot of people are beginning to realize that, hey, this system isn’t working for us,” he said.
Hoppe-Cruz said that nuanced conversations about capitalism, fascism and the difference between a socialist and a democratic-socialist are common among people his age. He credits some of this to the internet and how easy it is for teenagers to find information about different systems of government throughout history. But he pointed out that all you have to do is open up a history book to find examples of people changing how their government works without Instagram.
“Regardless of accessibility, people would still be really motivated because all this has been building for a really long time,” he said. “This isn’t the climax, I guess we’re going to see that soon. But this is just the rising action to that climax.”
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