Yuri Artibise, Senior Policy Analyst, Morrison Institute
Young Steward of Public Policy
PUBLIC POLICY, THE NEXT GENERATION
by Yuri Artibise
Young people are often viewed as uninterested and even ignorant about public policy. This has lead to numerous attempts to reengage youth politically through increased education and awareness campaigns designed to make voting and civic participation “hip.” These efforts have not always been successful as they have largely misdiagnosed the problem. Far from being ignorant or uninterested about policy matters, many of today’s youth are just as, if not more, engaged in public issues than their parents or grandparents.
Engaged, but in a new way
It’s not that today’s youth have dropped out of the political process; rather, they are participating via different means. For many, the formalized structures that previously defined political engagement have become so encumbered by hierarchy and vested interests that they feel they can’t make a difference through traditional political channels. New social media enables many young people to bypass the conventional gate-keepers and engage directly in the civic sphere. Instead of attending civic meetings in church basements, they connect and collaborate online. Speaking at community meetings has been replaced by posting on online forums. Protest marches have been replaced by Facebook petitions.
News consumption has also changed. Instead of getting their knowledge though reading the morning paper or watching the evening news, today’s youth learn about current events online. Podcasts have replaced the evening news and blogs are replacing the morning paper. These 21st century media allow individuals to go beyond simply being consumers of media to being active participants in its creation and distribution. These new outlets, combined with social media like MySpace, have made it easier to harness the shared knowledge of dispersed communities and their various viewpoints, experiences, and expertise. Such exchanges and information can be shared in real time, increasing the urgency and interest-level of political and policy events. As a result, many young people are indeed aware of what is happening in the world around them, if not always the specific stories highlighted by conventional media channels.
Politics is personal again
Just as the method of youth engagement is changing, the purpose of engagement is also in transition. During the heyday of 1960s activism, the personal became political. Today, the political is becoming personal again. Many of today’s youth don’t look at political affairs as partisan issues to be overcome through organized politics, but rather problems to be solved by anyone and everyone with ideas, a bit of savvy and access to the Internet. While past generations expressed their political values through parties, protests, and petitions, today’s youth are increasingly doing it through direct personal actions, such as paying attention to the products they purchase, the e-networks they join, and the employers they work for. While these activities may be smaller in visibility than the actions of previous generations, they can be more effective in their cumulative impacts. To be sure, voting is still important to today’s youth, but they are likely to vote based on personal values rather than on a candidate’s political party affiliation.
Morrison Institute for Public Policy created its Young Steward of Public Policy Program to highlight civic mindedness among Arizona’s high school students and to encourage them to think about public policy issues affecting the state. More importantly, the program hopes to inspire a new generation of civic leaders for Arizona. Ultimately, consideration of public policy is not something that only happens in the hallowed halls of academia or in the back rooms of the Capitol, but instead, it requires the engagement of a wide variety of communities, interests, and issues. The authors of the 2008-2009 winning essays illustrate this way of thinking. Instead of fitting the old model of policy wonks pursuing a degree in political science, economics, or social work, these young people have selected education paths outside the social sciences. Yet, they are still interested in public policy and are committed to making Arizona a quality place to live. As you can read in their essays, far from being disengaged from the policy process, our Young Stewards are more than able to meet the challenge of providing clear and creative solutions for complex and controversial issues.