Donnavan Dillon has been hosting sit-ins, protests, and walkouts for causes he’s passionate about since he was 14 years old.
Now 20, he has fond memories of advocating for gender-neutral bathrooms, LGBTQ rights, and better mental health resources for students at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kan. That early work pushed him to volunteer and work for political candidates and Loud Light, a political organization focused on increasing youth civic engagement in Kansas.
All of it, Dillon says, stems from a need to help others and enact change in his community.
“At the center of that is people,” Dillon said. “People are politics.”
Dillon is a member of Generation Z—people born between 1997 and 2012—and one of an estimated 27 percent of people aged 18-29 who voted in the 2022 midterm election. It’s the second-highest youth turnout rate for a midterm election in the past 30 years, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.
The highest was in 2018, the first year that many members of Gen Z could vote in a midterm election, and 31 percent of people aged 18-22 voted. Youth turnout was even higher in the 2020 general election, which typically brings in more voters of all ages, with an estimated 50 percent of youth voting, according to the research center.
With President Trump no longer in the picture and young people—who more often vote for Democrats by a wide margin—not being known for high voter turnouts, many pundits and political experts expected 2022 to be different, predicting a so-called “red wave” of Republican representatives.
That all changed on Election Day as it became clear that Democrats were in a strong position to maintain control of the U.S. Senate and Republicans only narrowly maintaining control of the House of Representatives.
But the 2022 turnout didn’t surprise members of Gen Z like Dillon or the researchers who have studied their voting habits. First mobilized by the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, Gen Z has been making sure their voices are heard, both on the streets and in the ballot box, for years now.
“The protests and marches are definitely not a replacement for voting and elections for young people in this generation,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Tufts research center. “It’s actually something that they tied together. They’re active in politics, and of course, they vote, but they also go on the street advocating for change.”
Channeling trauma into action
From the Great Recession to an epidemic of school shootings, worsening news about climate change, and a pandemic that killed millions worldwide and forced them to isolate from peers, there’s been no generation to experience as much acute trauma before their brains are fully mature than Gen Z, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and the author of Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America, a book about Gen Z’s political activism.
The voting turnout shows that, rather than feeling defeated by it, Gen Z has decided to use its collective trauma to push for something better.
“Gen Z had two options,” Della Volpe said. “One is to flee and the other was to lean in and fight and try to change the system. I’m really happy that that’s what they chose to do.”
Gen Z’s connection to politics is very personal, Della Volpe said. That’s why they often vote for Democrats—63 percent of people aged 18-29 voted for Democrat candidates in the 2022 midterm election for the House of Representatives.
“This generation focuses on values first, and the values of the Democratic Party are just more aligned with the values of not just Generation Z but also the Millenial Generation,” he said. “What I mean by that is, they recognize the threat of climate change. They recognize that all Americans’ individual rights and freedoms are under attack.”
The secret to Gen Z’s political action is their ability to mobilize each other. Almost half of the voters aged 18-29 weren’t directly contacted by political campaigns in 2020, according to the Tufts research center, but they still managed to have a high turnout in that election. That’s because they know how to lean on each other through social media, connecting with community groups, and advocating for causes they care about, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
That political skill and savvy were on display in the Kansas primary in August, during which voters in the Republican-leaning state rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have made abortion illegal. Young Kansans used their connections to each other to get organized as a community, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.
“Young people in the community organizations worked together to make sure that they were spreading the message about how this particular ballot item could impact their personal life on a daily basis,” she said. “That’s an important part of this generation’s mobilization style. They’re savvy enough about how the political game works.”
Dillon experienced that work in Kansas firsthand. He worked with Kansas State Rep. Christina Haswood, a Democrat, and Loud Light to educate voters about the potential impact of the abortion amendment. That involved hosting youth-centered events, including a concert fundraiser, and connecting with young people to ensure they were registered and all of their questions about voting and the amendment were answered.
Dillon credits the voter rejection of the amendment to Gen Z.
“With a lot of youth organizing that I saw around the amendment, young people were so excited to vote with other young people,” Dillon said. “I know so many young people who even prompted conversations within their families.”
Schools could do more to ensure students are civically engaged
Schools have undoubtedly played a role in shaping Gen Z’s political action, Kawashima-Ginsberg said. Forty percent of teenagers said they received information about the 2020 election from their teachers or classmates in school, according to a poll of 14 to 17-year-olds conducted by the research center.
In Dillon’s high school experience in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, teachers gave students the opportunity to talk about current events and politics, letting them have free reign to share their opinions. That taught Dillon that civic engagement is important and gave him the agency to be politically active.
But not all students can say the same. At least 30 percent of students don’t have access to American government or civics courses when they want to take them, according to the Tufts research center’s poll.
And, while racial gaps among young voters have started to close in recent years, there is a growing class divide between who votes and who doesn’t, with non-college-educated young people being less likely to vote than their college-educated peers.
The divide between who votes and is civically engaged and who isn’t is “influenced by class,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “That’s influenced by quality of civic education, that’s also influenced by school climate. All of those factors really matter when it comes to how young people see themselves as civic agents or citizens.”
Educators, including teachers and school leaders, can play a major role in helping students become more civically engaged, Kawashima-Ginsberg and Della Volpe said. While American government and civics courses seem like the natural place to hold discussions about current events and politics, there’s also work to be done in the overall school climate.
Kawashima-Ginsberg suggests that educators in all parts of the school system work to develop opportunities for students to talk about their opinions and attitudes surrounding politics and the political spectrum. In a 2020 report titled “Growing Voters,” the research center detailed how educators at every level can help students become more civically engaged before they even reach voting age.
If you ask Dillon, it comes down to respect. While schools should be giving students all the tools to be civically engaged, it’s also important for adults to listen to students and take what they say seriously, he said.
“I think why a lot of young people have apathy to our political system is because young people are told, time and time again, ‘you’re too young to have a say in this,’ or ‘your vote doesn’t matter,’” Dillon said. “When you give young people that respect it gives them the confidence to be involved and to voice their concerns.”
Giving students the chance to process current events and share their opinions on them can also be extremely beneficial to their mental health, Della Volpe said.
“Whether it’s part of the traditional curriculum or whether it’s after school, on evenings, or weekends, having forums to talk about current events, I think can save people’s lives,” Della Volpe said. “There is a correlation between concerns about the future of our country and depression and anxiety. Too often, because it’s controversial, because it’s partisan, because it’s politics, adults—educators, administrators, etc.—shy away from those conversations.”