Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Occupy the Capitol: Engaging Teens in Politics

For the purposes of this post, it is really important that we come together as advocates for youth and leave behind our own personal political opinions.  Really, you’ll understand what I mean in a moment.

Regardless of what you may think about the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) and it’s message, I for one am glad that it is happening for one simple reason:  it is good for teens to see politics in action.  It is good for teens to see others engaging in the conversation and to know that they, too, can stand up and be heard.  The bottom line is this: It is important for teens to read, see and hear about politics in action.  They need to know and understand that they have a voice and not only can they use it, but that they should.

For years we have been hearing about low voter turn out.  And there has been a complacency on the part of America’s citizens regarding the politics of our country.  We have freedoms, important freedoms like the freedom to vote and be engaged citizens, but too many of our citizens choose not to.  And as we all know, modeling behavior is a far greater message.  There is truth to the saying that children will do what they see not what they hear.  So it is good for the youth of today to see American citizens engaged in healthy discourse and debate about our future.

For a period of time following 9/11 there was an overwhelming sense of American solidarity that in some ways quashed dissenting opinions.  Unlike the Vietnam War, few spoke out in protest initially against the various wars America engaged in.  To do so seemed un-American.  Those that did speak out were often publicly disgraced so they choose instead to keep quiet.  It is important for us all to remember that the freedom to speak unpopular opinions and challenge current ideals is an important part of who we are as a nation.  It is one of the fundamental rights that our nation was built on, appearing first in our Bill of Rights.

As we enter into the 2012 election season, it is important that we find creative ways to remind teens the importance of using their voice.  We can of course put up a variety of displays, both fiction and non.  But we can also get teens engaged through things like book discussions, mock trials, and simulated voting exercises.  Mtv has been engaged for years in politically empowering young people through their Rock the Vote campaign so be sure and check there for good resources to share, too.

Get teens thinking about the importance of being involved in the political process.  Read and discuss works such as 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, or The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  The message of these, any many other titles, it clear:  what happens when government takes over and the voice of its citizens are silenced?  What happens when those citizens refuse to use their voice, either out of fear and complacency, and government is no longer for the people, by the people?  In comparison, what happens when the voice of the few rise up, as they do in The Hunger Games, and challenge a corrupt government?

Get teens started in the idea of voting by having a Mock Printz Award vote.  Or have teens vote their favorite teen fiction characters into office.  Katniss Everdeen for President!  There are so many ways you can get teens involved in mock voting activities and it is a great way to remind them to use their voice.

Many schools have mock trial contests, find out if your local schools do and ask to be involved.  If they don’t, see about starting one as a part of your teen programming at your library.  You can take some popular teen fiction characters and put them on trail.  Is it okay for the kids in The Hunger Games to use violence to overthrow the corrupt government?  Put Lena on trial for falling in love in Delirium by Lauren Oliver.

Make sure you participate in Banned Books Week.

Have a Teen Advisory Group.  Let them be involved in the planning, organizing, voting, etc. of various activities.

When you share contests, links, news stories, etc. on your web or social media page, make sure some of them demonstrate teens being pro-actively involved in the political process.  You can use the poll feature on Facebook to let teens mock vote.

As long as it is civil and library appropriate, give teens a forum to express themselves and find their political voice.  Remind them that it is okay to change your mind; it is important to be open to new facts and information and grow.  That is why what we do is so important: engaged citizens must be informed citizens.  Keep providing access to a wide variety of information so that teens can learn who they are, what they think, and what their place is in this universe.

As you can see, there are a variety of ways that we can give teens a voice and remind them that using it is important not only for them, but for us all.  For every voice silenced, we may be losing the next great invention or scientific discovery.  Plus, as youth advocates, we must understand that empowering teens creates healthy teens.

Teen Fiction Dealing with Politics:
Vote for Larry (and its sequel) by Janet Tashjian
The Misfits by James Howe
Wide Awake by David Levithan
Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and most dystopian fiction
1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Mock Trial Information
NY Times Article
Lesson Plan, refers to Holes by Louis Sachar
ClassBrain.com Mock Trial Script for Teens

Mock Printz Awards Example
ACPL Mock Printz

Teens and Politics Resources:
Mtv Rock the Vote
Radical Parenting 5 Tips
Teens: Politics is for you, too
Youth Noise

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