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Teens Gathering In Kansas City Hopeful About Reversing Young Voter Apathy

Laura Ziegler

As the future of our country, millennials have not distinguished themselves as a group vitally enthusiastic about participating in the electoral process.

Last week's mid-term elections proved to be no exception with young people turning out in significantly lower numbers than older voters.

Seventeen-year-old Ricardo Gonzales, a senior at Sumner Academy in Kansas City, Kan., blames part of the apathy on grown-ups who talk down to teenagers.

He said he's been told not to take elections seriously until he's of voting age.  He believes that's a mistake.

"It’s like a test coming up in a few months, just don't worry about it yet," Gonzales said. 

Exit polls from The Wall Street Journal and the Pew Research Centerreported 13 percent of 18- to 29- year-olds voted, while those older than 65 voted in numbers almost twice as high.

To explore the issue of voting among young people, I went to thePeople To People International Global Youth Forum held in Kansas City, Mo., on Nov. 6.

Sixty-two young people from the United States and around the world came together for educational seminars and community service through the weekend.

Shawnee Mission South High School junior Rose Smithson says she learned by watching and listening to the way her parents engaged in politics.

"They're  just not as interested," she said. "(There was) so much conflict in our generation. My parents didn’t like the war in Iraq. They felt they had no say. So I was raised to feel I 'don’t have a say ... what’s (the) point in trying ... if it doesn’t make a difference.'"

Smithson says her peers who do get involved focus mainly on issues that affect them, like legalizing marijuana and gay marriage.  Those who speak out, she says, are viewed as “radicals,” and trying to be morally superior.

But Smithson makes no apologies for her activism or her moral commitment.

She was forced to grow up when, at the age of 6, her father died, leaving her alone with her mother. Luckily, she had a wonderful godmother, Terri LaManno.

But on April 13, LaManno was shot and killed at the Village Shalom retirement community in Leawood, Kan. The tragedy, which was tied to a spree of deaths that law enforcement described as hate crimes, was a wake-up call that inspired the teenager to become politically and socially active.

"My aunt Terry was like my other mother, and she (did so much for others.)  She helped blind children," Smithson. "I realized (through her) there are terrible things in the world, and I need to be involved. I thought I was in my own bubble of terribleness with my dad dying."

But the picture of the youth vote is less grim if you listen to Zephanii Smith.

She’s a 24-year-old working in politics in Washington.

She addressed the conference as a 10-year alumna of the People to People organization.

She said she's optimistic.

"I think there is a generation rising up realizing that we’ve inherited economic chaos, and that it’s time for us not to be leaders of tomorrow, but to be leaders of today."

Smith of Washington, Rose Smithson and Richard Gonzales all were participants in the recent Global Youth Conference sponsored by the People to People organization in Kansas City. 

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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