Civic Engagement Isn’t All About Voting

Posted August 2, 2016 by Elle Lu

I spent half of my high school years in New Jersey where students were required to take at least one history or US government class every year. These classes all essentially harped on the same things: civic participation, the three branches of government, and our constitutional rights. We used the same textbooks as the year before us with the same pictures, examples, and quotes. Needless to say, by the time I graduated I could write thousand word essays on the meaning and history of civic participation and US government with my eyes closed. While I had all of the academic terminology to describe what civic participation and engagement meant, I had never witnessed it in action until I began preparing for the YP4 Vote Summit.

While preparing voter registration guides for the Fellows that were attending the Vote Summit, I realized that in order to create substantial amounts of civic engagement and participation within communities, folks need to first understand the process they have to embark on prior to voting.

Not everyone has the drive to continue to pursue the voter registration process nor do most people understand the importance their vote has. My parents have lived in the United States for over 40 years, yet they have not decided to register to vote. Part of the reason is that in Shanghai, the school system and the government never encouraged or even explained what civic engagement and participation meant. When I asked them why they never registered to vote, they said that it was because the Chinese government chose the majority of their representatives so there was no reason for them to even consider those matters.

Being a first generation American citizen, I would come back home from my classes in high school and try and convince my parents about the importance of voting and participating in the government. While they took the time to listen to the new material my classes taught me, they never took my advice to heart. My parents aren’t the only ones from my hometown that didn’t vote. The Asian community in New Jersey is very tight knit; they provide resources and cultural classes that make people feel at home. However, while they provide a safe community that promotes Asian culture, most individuals don’t see the purpose of voting and created an environment that was not conducive to fostering civic engagement.

What the Vote Summit did perfectly was hold space for people to develop leadership, civic engagement, and education skills that are necessary to promote civic engagement across states with different voting requirements. It equipped each fellow with voter registration guides that they can use to help set up mass voter registration events while simultaneously helping them understand individual voting laws.

As I read through the welcome letter and the bios of the fellows attending, what really struck me was how involved and eager each of them were to participate despite the numerous amount of legal barriers that stood in their way. I think that their eagerness and drive to help register people in their communities to vote is what truly demonstrates ideal civic engagement and participation. They are willing to understand the complex and at times ridiculous voting restrictions and Identification laws in order to help members of their communities get involved and getting their voices heard.