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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

The Future of America is Brighter Than You Think: How YVote Is Helping Students Effective Address Issues in Their Communities

YVote, a New York City-based youth-led civic engagement program, aims to provide support for civically engaged and politically interested high school students across the five boroughs.
Democracy Camp is a YVote-led program which aims to allow civically engaged students an opportunity to research and explore solutions to issues affecting their communities. Democracy Camp aims to help restore faith in American democracy by allowing students to explore the various ways they can make a positive impact in their communities. (Photo credit: Provided by @yvoteny on Instagram)

The United States is often considered an imperial power of the world, and for good reason. The U.S. is an economic powerhouse, with the world’s largest economy and a GDP of over $25 trillion. We have the strongest military in the world and a military presence in 178 countries. U.S. culture dominates the globe, with big brands, pop stars, celebrities, and Hollywood influencing culture around the world. As a result, it’s no surprise that the U.S. faces a lot of scrutiny from the world during election season. 

I still remember watching the results of the 2016 election in real-time. It was the first election in which I remember understanding and following. During the 2016 campaign season, there was a lot of concern over the victory of President Trump, particularly regarding his immigration policy. Trump’s immigration policies have been characterized as “draconian. Some policies include building a wall on our southern border, cutting legal immigration by half, limits on visas and green cards, and enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy which resulted in unprecedented rates of migrant children being separated from their parents. My cousin had just immigrated from Bangladesh a few months earlier, so this was a major concern for my family, especially those who were still in Bangladesh and looking to immigrate here. 

Throughout Trump’s presidency and afterward, political pundits have raised concerns regarding the future of American democracy. In recent years, coinciding with Trump’s onslaught of legal challenges and his 2024 bid for the White House, Trump and many of his allies have begun expressing increasingly anti-democratic rhetoric. The most dramatic example of this occurred on January 6th, 2021, when thousands of pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capital to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. Political analysts have attributed the insurrection to the propaganda promoted by then-president Donald Trump. He had spent his final months in the White House spreading false claims about the election results. 

Governmental institutions that many Americans are losing trust in, combined with growing social, economic, and political divides in the country, which include rising political polarization, tensions between different racial groups, and growing income inequality, are causing young Americans to lose faith in our democracy. A recent poll conducted by the NPR/PBS/Marist found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe that the U.S. faces a threat to democracy. Once considered a beacon of democracy for the world to follow, the U.S. is now more vulnerable than ever to the erosion of this sacred form of government. 

When Bronx Science students were asked about their thoughts regarding the poll, many expressed similar concerns regarding the future of American democracy. 

“It’s hard to say we even have a democracy anymore, as many people have to vote for the ‘lesser of two evils’ in presidential elections. Trump or Hillary [Clinton] and Trump or Biden are the ones I was old enough to understand,” said Asahi Ono ‘25. He explains the events occurring in the war in Gaza and how the majority of Americans support a ceasefire to end the fighting, yet Congress continues to oppose a ceasefire and instead further aid the Israeli attacks on Gaza. He also explains the wealth and power gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. and how people continue to be oppressed despite circumstances outside of their control. This results in the wealthy and the privileged wielding significantly more power compared to the poor and the oppressed, often leading to further oppression among the disadvantaged. 

“I was really surprised that nearly eighty percent of Americans believe that the U.S. faces a threat to democracy, especially since the U.S. is renowned for their democratic ideals. Based on these findings, I think that the state of democracy in the U.S. is fragile and continuously requires cooperation and compromise from different political groups and leaders. Hence why, it is critically important for people, especially young people, to be more politically active and educated in our current world,” said Ashley Chen ’25. 

Today’s youth is undoubtedly concerned about the trajectory of our country, and many find it difficult to make their voices heard. As a result of this sentiment, many programs and organizations have been created to share those voices, including YVote.

YVote is a New York City-based program that aims to provide politically interested high school students an opportunity to express their voices in their communities and make a difference. There are many different youth-led civics programs and initiatives within YVote, including ChangeMakers Institute, Democracy Camp, NYC Youth Agenda, Youth Civic Hub, and NYC Civic Coalition.

“In high school, I was interested in social justice but not so much politics. One of my closest friends heard about YVote, and she physically dragged me to the program, and I ended up loving it. I thought it was a great opportunity, and I’ve stayed with YVote throughout the years. I’ve been a facilitator, especially for racial justice and criminal justice in earlier years, and I’ve done a lot of work in different projects,” said Chris-Ann Barnett, co-director, and facilitator of YVote when asked about her reasoning for joining the program.   

“I chose to join YVote because I wanted to become more involved and educate myself regarding the issues,” said Shayera Parvin ’26, who currently attends Townsend Harris High School. “I really appreciate the welcoming setting at YVote.”

When asked about her thoughts on the various programs and initiatives at YVote, she explained, “I think these are really good initiatives. They are really engaging, and each initiative has its own goal and different focus, which makes them a great fit to anyone trying to be involved in their community.” 

The ChangeMakers Institute meets twice a month: on Tuesday evenings via Zoom and on Saturday afternoons in-person (known as Afternoons of Action). In the ChangeMakers Institute, students engage in different activities, including discussions regarding civic engagement, government structure, and current events. Students also participate in problem-solving activities and occasionally go canvassing.  

The Democracy Camp allows students to research and implement solutions to many of society’s issues in the hopes of building civic engagement, increasing media literacy, and strengthening democracy. Students can collaborate and share their ideas. It is incredibly rewarding and enlightening for students who may not be familiar with how our government works. Democracy Campers are encouraged to envision an ideal democracy and to research and identify the skills and resources needed to achieve this model of democracy. After the week-long meetings end, students have the opportunity to work on a research project known as Democracy Projects throughout the school year. The fall semester is mainly focused on performing research, and during the spring semester, Democracy Campers focus on taking action based on their research. Some notable projects these students have worked on include creating pre-registration events in schools, canvassing, creating mini-lessons to help teach media literacy in schools, working with a school’s black student union to increase black student support and comfortability, creating a social media platform dedicated to increasing civic engagement and making it accessible to youth of color. 

The NYC Youth Agenda, created by youth advocates from the Citizen’s Committee for Children (CCC), CUNY’s International Change Initiative (ICI), YVote, and DYCD’s We the Youth Advisory Council, aims to influence policy-making and make sure that the interests of youth are represented in government. They work with many high-level city government officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, and City Council members Chi Osse and Althea Stevens. 

The Youth Civic Hub, currently in testing, is expected to officially launch in Spring 2024. The Hub will provide historically marginalized youth in NYC access to civic programming, resources, and an updated calendar of important civic engagement events and opportunities. This will help these youth communities be better informed and represented in their government. Some specific resources that will be available include an NYC Elections Portal, a Civic Opportunities and Engagement Portal, an NYC Power Map, a Dynamic Directory, and a Civic Glossary. 

The NYC Civic Coalition is a partnership with many different organizations, including NYCLU’s Teen Activist Project, the NYC Department of Education (DOE), the Department of Youth & Community Development, the Mayor’s Office, NYC Votes, the Civic Engagement Commission, etc. This coalition aims to provide and promote civic engagement opportunities for NYC schools. They have recently been working on creating a digital Hub and have been researching how private and public funding can help strengthen youth civic engagement. 

In YVote’s ChangeMakers Institute, students meet once a month in person known as “Afternoons of Action.” In these meetings, students engage in a variety of activities aimed at expanding their knowledge of civic engagement. Here, a group of students are discussing current issues that are important to them. (Photo credit: Provided by @yvoteny on Instagram)

YVote was first launched during the summer of 2017, consisting of 50 students from 20 high schools across all five boroughs participating in various activities such as student discussions and co-design workshops. The program was launched in response to concerns regarding high rates of political apathy, low voter turnout, and large levels of distrust in government among young people. 

Youth voter turnout has historically lagged behind other age groups. For example, in the 2016 election, just 39% of eligible 18-29 year olds compared to 70% of eligible voters over the age of 70 voted. While there was a significant increase in turnout among young voters in the 2020 election (50%), young Americans continued to have the lowest turnout rates in the country. This lack of turnout is especially prevalent in New York, which has consistently trailed behind when it comes to youth voter turnout. Even in the record-breaking election of 2020, youth turnout in New York significantly lagged behind other states. 45% of New Yorkers ages 18-29 voted in the 2020 election, below the national average of 47%. More concerning, just 39% of New Yorkers ages 18-19 voted, significantly below the national average. 

YVote has continued to expand since its launch in 2017 and supports 120 high school students from over 70 public schools. They grew during the summer of 2020, during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a tense election season. Many young people began to voice their opinions on the state of politics in the U.S. and abroad during this time, and youth engagement on platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube surged. Many young people who previously may not have been very involved in politics became actively engaged, including myself.

“Something I want YVoters to take away is the power in their voice and choice. The main thing is as an individual, sometimes it’s a little bit hard to identify ways that you can influence change,” said Barnett, when asked about lessons she wants YVote members to take away from the program. 

She explains, “You don’t even need 100 people to sign up and do something. You might talk to 100 people but even just two people registering to vote can make a small change.” 

When asked how young people who are not a part of YVote or any civic engagement program can make their voices heard, Barnett said, “Civic engagement looks different for everyone. For people who have that outlet, it might look a little bit tangible to do canvassing or phone banking and things of that sort, but everyone can be civically engaged in their own way even if it is as simple as posting on social media or sending an article to family and friends.”

Barnett explains there are many ways to be civically engaged, 

“I want young people who don’t necessarily have a platform like YVote to understand that there are so many opportunities for you to have some form of civic engagement. Even though politics may be trying and exhausting nowadays, it’s also important to recognize that it’s okay to take a step back.”

“Sometimes taking that step back means that you’re not actively posting on social media every day, or you’re not reading every single thing that happens in the news, but you’re also being aware of those things, and you’re sharing those things with people.”

“It’s really just about what works best for you, and if you want a platform like YVote, you can join summer programs, start your own, or join YVote, but there are programs out there, and it’s just about what works best for you in terms of what you value and what you can commit to.”

Today, YVote is run by a team of enthusiastic, supportive, and dedicated individuals who are committed to helping young New Yorkers find their voice in their communities. 

This team includes individuals such as facilitators Mukilan Muthukumar and Liana Reyes, Director of Youth Research LaTroya Lovell, Director of Strategy & Growth Katie Bates, Associate Director Elisa Mateo-Saja, Associate Program Director Chris-Ann Barnett, and Co-Founder and Director of YVote, Sanda Balaban. 

Thanks to many founding contributors and their generosity and dedication, YVote can thrive and provide support to many high school students around the city today. These contributors include Founding Team Members Andrea Gabor, Ann Weiner, and Marilyn Kleinberg Naimak; Founding Facilitators Andy Snyder, Elizabeth Stein Gray, Jade Nicolette Harriell Arrindell, and Stephen Pacheco; Founding Videographer Gordon Skinner, Photographer Justin Cohen, Co-Founder, and Lead Facilitator Melody Benitez, and Patron Saint and Summer Site Host 2017 & 2018 Michelle Fine. 

While only a small fraction of New York City public high school students are in YVote, many students are involved in political and civic engagement in their own ways and have their own advocations for change. 

When asked about areas of improvement for the U.S., Ono explains, “Gun control, diversity, and general social political reform because there’s a lot of anti-trans legislation being passed right now. I think America is unique in that it is really diverse, but the inner workings of it are very much based in the past and the history of white supremacy and elitism that have been set up and are still affecting people today.”

“There are many areas for improvement in the U.S., but I think a wise start would be to make healthcare universally free for everyone. Free healthcare would ensure that all citizens, regardless of their income level, have access to the medical services that they need, leading to a healthier overall population. In the context of public health crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic, free healthcare could ensure that everyone receives necessary treatments and vaccinations, helping to effectively control the spread of disease. In addition, free healthcare could provide financial stability to millions of Americans, reducing the stress and anxiety associated with high medical costs,” explains Chen

Many students also have their own ideas and advocacies to help address issues that matter to them and their communities. 

“I think generally making an effort for inclusivity, diversity, like social reform is important,” said Ono.

 “Little things like changing your day-to-day speech. There’s a lot of teachers who say ‘ladies and gentlemen’ but that obviously doesn’t include people who don’t identify as either a lady or a gentleman,” he explains.

 “I’m going to be talking a lot about the trans experience because I’m trans. Also, It’s important to ask people their pronouns and genders before assuming. I think that’s the biggest thing for me because a lot of people assume others’ identities.”

“Boundaries too, like some people can make jokes that can be taken [offensively] and even if some of your friends are okay with it because you know that they’re okay with it, or maybe you don’t, some people can make jokes that can be offensive and then get upset when other people are like ‘hey I don’t like that because of this and this,’” he explains.

“A lot of us are brainwashed into thinking that things have to be a certain way, and I think with that comes educating yourself on a lot of matters, because I think it’s very easy to just kind of say ‘oh I don’t know much about that not my problem’ but … just because the issues don’t touch you personally, doesn’t mean that it isn’t affecting your peers around you,” Ono said.

“There are many actions that individuals can take to advance free healthcare without the need for government assistance,” Chen said. “For example, communities can organize health initiatives, such as free clinics, health education programs, and preventative care campaigns. These initiatives can help in improving the overall health of the community and reduce the reliance on expensive healthcare services,” she explains. “Another way is by redirecting money spent by citizens on their healthcare to other social support systems in America, like expanding access to nutritious foods. This can help in preventing health issues that arise due to poor nutrition.” 

While most high school students are not old enough to vote, many still emphasize the importance of voting and participating in other forms of civic engagement for people who aren’t able to vote.

“I feel like a lot of people are discouraged from voting because they feel that their individual vote doesn’t matter,” said Ono. However, he emphasizes the importance of people being active in their communities, since every action makes a difference.

He explained his experiences volunteering at the Sixth Street Community Center, which engages in many activities to help give back, including food distribution, stocking community fridges, and participating in activities related to environmental justice.

This one experience when he was helping stock community fridges and a sweet old lady thanked the community for providing food and told them, “Thank you sweethearts. You don’t know how happy you make us.” He explained that while it may seem as if one person doing a small act doesn’t make a difference, it absolutely can and that can be applied to voting as well. 

When asked about YVote and the activities members participate in, Ono said, “Obviously I don’t have the full picture of what YVote does, but I think a really important part of political activism and getting youth to interact with the political sphere is getting them to understand the extent to which legislation and laws affect people,” he says. 

“Based on your brief description of YVote, this program does appear to be a significant initiative for high schoolers to connect their passions and beliefs with ways to make a difference in our society,” says Chen. “The program addresses the obstacles young people face in becoming informed, engaged voters and civic leaders.”

She continued by explaining, “In terms of future directions, it could be beneficial for the program to continue expanding its reach to more high schools across New York City, perhaps even extending to other cities or states. It might also be more helpful to provide more resources for students to learn about the legislative process, how to effectively communicate with elected officials, and how to organize around issues they care about. Additionally, the program could consider partnering with local colleges and universities to offer workshops or courses on civic engagement and political science. Doing the following could create opportunities for students to meet with local politicians and community leaders could provide valuable real-world experience.” 

In a world where the future seems bleak, given the rising political polarization, persisting inequities in society, the worsening climate crisis, the rollback of human rights, peace, and more, many young people often feel overwhelmed and hopeless. YVote serves as a shining example of how everyday young Americans, many of whom aren’t even old enough to vote, can work together and identify tangible solutions to issues plaguing their communities. 

Ultimately, it is important to use the power and resources we do have to create a positive change in the world, however minuscule it may be. If everyone manages to make a small difference, we can overcome the issues plaguing our nation and evoke a new nation of freedom, liberty, and equity for all. 

“I want young people who don’t necessarily have a platform like YVote to understand that there are so many opportunities for you to have some form of civic engagement,” says Chris-Ann Barnett, co-director, and facilitator of YVote.

About the Contributor
Maheen Alam, Staff Reporter
Maheen Alam is a News Editor for ‘The Science Survey,’ using his writing and editing skills to effectively convey important news events impacting his community. He believes that journalism is key in communicating with his community in making sure they are aware of important issues that are relevant to them. He uses journalistic photography to help readers visualize real-life events occurring around the world. He enjoys traveling around New York City, and asking students about their thoughts on important events in the city and in the world. Outside of school, Maheen enjoys watching documentaries, cooking videos, skits, and he enjoys listening to political commentary. He also likes volunteering and traveling around the city. While Maheen is still contemplating his future, he hopes to pursue a career related to the social sciences and to become a change maker in his community.