Teenagers cannot vote until they are 18, but that doesn’t mean they need to wait until adulthood to shape the world around them. Many ways exist to get involved in teen civic engagement, whether in politics or other aspects of community leadership.
“I used to think stuff like civic engagement … was for old people and grown-ups,” said Andrew Le, a recent Southeast High graduate. “But when given the chance, I realized that the power lies in all of us, regardless of our age.”
Le grew up thinking he wanted to be an airline pilot. That changed during the pandemic when he had his first experience with civic engagement.
Because he was his student body president, he was invited to join a Kansas Beats the Virus effort led by the Kansas Leadership Center. He and other teens brainstormed ideas to help homeless Wichita students during COVID and to combat misinformation directed at minority populations on social media.
“It gave me a sense of purpose,” said Le.
He quickly began seizing opportunities to get involved in similar ways. “I’d like to say it was easy, however, like many people, it was hard to know where to start.”
A friend made him aware of the Wichita Mayor’s Youth Council, so he applied and was accepted. “It was from that I learned about the other various ways I could get involved in my community,” he said. For example, he learned that Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell was looking for high school students to serve on his District 5 Citizens Advisory Board.
“All in all, most of the time, it spreads by ear and word of mouth, and while I’m fortunate to have picked up these opportunities, there are many others who have no idea about them,” he said.
Le’s also gone door-knocking for political campaigns and get-out-the vote efforts. In the fall, Le plans to attend Kansas State University to major in political science, with an eye toward a master’s degree in public administration and career in public service first, then maybe elected office.
Last month, he took a graduation trip to Washington, D.C., where he met privately with Kansas’ U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran.
“We had a great discussion about his journey to the Senate, the federal issues that face Kansans, political polarization on Capitol Hill, and what it means to serve,” Le wrote in a public Facebook post after the meeting.
Le said he and Moran do not agree on many political issues. But Le said they share common ground in believing it’s the responsibility of citizens to get involved in making the country better for everyone.
To make it easier for young people to become civically engaged, The Beacon has compiled the following explainer and list of potential opportunities:
What do you mean by ‘civic engagement’?
Civic engagement is the active participation of citizens in the political, economic and social life of their communities. It can include activities such as voting, volunteering, attending public meetings, participating in advocacy campaigns, engaging with elected officials and even running for office.
Join an organization
Created in 2008 by then-Mayor Carl Brewer, the Mayor’s Youth Council allows high school students an opportunity to weigh in on community issues involving city government. Teens must apply. Academic record, demonstrated leadership and prior community service are weighed. MYC members develop leadership skills by coordinating projects on local policy issues and engaging with the community through public service. Each fall, a few members are selected to represent Wichita’s youth delegation at the National League of Cities’ City Summit.
Founded in 2016, Root the Power is a youth advocacy group that trains youth for teen civic engagement and motivates others to take part in registering to vote, going to the polls, becoming actively involved in elections and taking part in conversations with elected officials so they hear youth voices. Participating students are eligible for paid internships as well. Teens need to apply to join. Contact Jondalyn Marshall at email@example.com for more information.
Get training online
Another way to be engaged in the conversation by gaining knowledge is to watch the Loud Light weekly training videos. Loud Light is a nonprofit organization that engages, educates and empowers individuals from underrepresented populations to exert influence on elected officials. The organization focuses on voter registration, youth voter turnout, issue education and coalition building.
Get training in person
The city of Wichita is offering a two-day Civic Engagement Academy on Aug. 2-3 at City Hall, 455 N. Main. The purpose is to invite, inspire and empower individuals to civically engage with their municipal government.The minicourse is free but requires a time commitment of 10 hours.
It meets from 1 to 6 p.m. on Aug. 2 and Aug. 3. Participants become acquainted with general city operations and an understanding of the work of various city departments. Space is limited. Submit an application by July 7. Questions? Email Cory Buchta at firstname.lastname@example.org or Becca Johnson at email@example.com or call 316-268-4371.
Graduates will earn a certificate of civic leadership recognized by the city of Wichita and the Kansas Leadership Center.
Attend a public meeting or serve on a public board
Every week there are a variety of public meetings that anyone may attend. The Wichita Beacon offers this DIY Democracy guide for finding different boards, their meeting times and how to speak during the public comment period.
You can also apply to serve on a city board. There are many boards but if you are interested in being involved in a particular part of the city, consider a District Advisory Board (DAB). Each City Council member is represented by one. The DABs offer advice and recommendations on matters of public policy, citizen involvement and problems or issues specific to that district. Visit District Advisory Boards for meeting dates and times.
Be a poll worker
Teens who are at least 16 years old on Election Day can earn money serving as poll workers. This is a great way to learn firsthand how elections are run and to play a vital role in democracy. There is a special application for poll workers who are ages 16 or 17. Poll workers must attend trainings — you are paid for this time — and must be available on election day from 4:45 a.m. to 9 p.m. or until all of the closing procedures have been completed. The pay rate is $8.50 per hour. If you have questions, contact the Sedgwick County Election Office at 316-660-7119 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Campaign for a candidate
Interested in campaigning on behalf of a local candidate? Candidates currently seeking office are competing in nonpartisan local elections for mayor, City Council and school board. To ask if you can help their campaign, visit the Sedgwick County Election Office website to find names of candidates, the offices they are seeking and contact information.
Register to vote
You don’t need to wait until you are 18 to register to vote, but you must be 18 by election day. The next election day is Aug. 1 and the deadline to register is July 11. The general election will be Nov. 7 and the deadline to register before that election is Oct. 17.
Start your online registration on Kansas’ election website. Once you have registered, you can confirm your status here. To be eligible, in addition to being 18 by election day you must be a resident of Kansas, a citizen of the United States and not currently serving a sentence for a felony. You also must not be registered in any other jurisdiction or under any other name.
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