Teenagers to Congress: Shut Up and Do Something!

By July 25, 2013 Uncategorized No Comments

Most Americans have a higher opinion of cockroaches than Congress.  According to a Rasmussen poll conducted in June, only 7 percent of likely U.S. voters hold a favorable view of the work Congress is doing.  For many Americans, the Capitol should bear a sign at the entrance: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Most of us don’t wonder “what’s the solution?”  We simply think there isn’t one.  But not everyone agrees that the situation is hopeless.

A restart in Phoenix.

Just ask Tony Cani.  He is 2,300 miles away from his old Sierra Club office just a few blocks from the steps to the Capitol.  For years, Cani toiled in partisan bloodsport inside the Beltway, delivering the one line put-downs that drive publicity and donations. He left his job at the Sierra Club in 2012, where he was Political Director for the nation’s largest environmental advocacy organization.

“Being a part of the political system for so long, it took quite a bit for me to finally realize – oh crap – we are all just yelling at each other.” He decided to move to Phoenix, a fitting move for someone looking for a restart.

“I am a passionate partisan with very strong views, but over the past few years especially I’ve seen an already stressed political conversation turn into yelling back and forth.”  The problem, it seemed, was that the yelling kept getting louder and results dwindled.

“I realized that all of us together had created an environment where winning talking points was more important than solving problems. Looking like we were fighting was more important than creating change.  A witty sign or costume at a political rally which in essence says ‘my side is smart, your side is stupid’ is better than reaching out and trying to find common ground.”

So this year Cani founded Inspire Arizona, a non-profit and non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to bringing high school students together though community engagement projects, leadership workshops, and mentorship programs.  “Arizona,” Cani says “is in a bad shape when it comes to civic health, one of the worst states in the country.” He highlights studies showing that only 12 percent of Arizonans believe their neighbors care about each other, and only 10 percent believe their elected officials actually represent their positions.

“We vote in local elections less, volunteer less, and join organizations less than people in other states.  But we fight with each other online more!  Obviously this pessimism and disconnect has led to dysfunction.”

“Why kids?”

Inspire Arizona seeks to combat the dysfunction by focusing on the demographic that public opinion polls consistently leave out of the conversation.  Tony wants the focus of his work to be on those young people who are still optimistic, who want to be a part of the conversation, and who more closely represent what the future of our country will look like. As Cani neatly summed up, “We think the future in our sunny state is bright, and the grownups who answer these polls are wrong.”

“We know that by working with this age group we can help them become regular voters, have meaningful political conversation, and to be effective community leaders who turn their natural inspiration into concrete action.  Also, high school students are a much more racially and economically diverse group of students than college students, so we will be able to help our students improve a wide array of communities and not a just a few more homogeneous ones.”

Cani has big things planned for these students. The program is still in its infancy, but it’s already garnered the support of elected officials, organizations, and community leaders throughout the state. Admitted students will participate in voter registration initiatives, community service projects, regional trainings and college mentorship. They’ll be eligible for scholarships and receive assistance in preparing their applications.

An “Inspired Year”

Maybe there is an answer to the hyper-partisanship that dominates our politics. Cani points to the “drive-by punditry” that gets mistaken for political discourse. Breaking through the rancor requires us to rethink how we communicate these issues.

And that’s where Tony’s message resonates most. Teenagers have a willingness to listen and to learn. They’re arguably the most open-minded segment of our population, the most likely to have friends of different backgrounds, colors, sexualities and beliefs. Teenagers won’t be ruled by our opinions, and they aren’t afraid of being wrong. You know that—you were one.

We don’t need to convince them to disregard us or to ignore our partisan ways. They already do! And why shouldn’t they?  Because one look at Congress tells them that what we’re doing isn’t exactly working flawlessly.

Like Cani, we need to show them—and remind ourselves—that there’s more to democratic government than the politics of noise. We’ve maintained our democracy because we believe it’s kept our voices from being drowned out. But the louder and more obdurate each side gets, the closer we come to losing that voice. Inspire Arizona is providing a counterweight to that approach. It’s taking a step back to focus on our schools and our communities, and it’s using a new generation to do the meaningful work that the rest of us have neglected.

Inspire Arizona is tapping into a larger shift in public attitude. It’s reflecting the sentiments of a public no longer at ease with the way their politicians talk or the way their debates are played out. By a 2-1 margin, Americans now say the best way to make positive changes in society is by being active in volunteer organizations and charities, not by getting involved in politics. Younger people especially are turning off politics, according to a USA Today/Bipartisan Policy Center poll.

But these numbers are also encouraging because they mean groups like Inspire Arizona have a real shot at changing things. Any way out of this mess will have to start locally through non-partisan efforts like the one led by Cani and his team. Volunteering at school, in community centers or for your neighbors may not settle an immigration reform debate anytime soon, but it will get us talking again.

And that’s exactly the step forward we need. Volunteer work requires that we put our own opinions on the shelf— that we set aside our differences for the sake of our schools and our parks and our neighborhoods. It asks us to recommit ourselves to the problems in our own backyards, to get inspired, stop shouting and to get to work.