By Khysir Carter
This story, originally published on April 25, is part of the Kensington Voice’s “Hey, City Hall! It’s us, Kensington” series and has been included in Lenfest’s “Every Voice, Every Voice” series.
Approaching the primary election on May 16, high schools in Kensington are preparing their students to show up and participate at the polls.
During last year’s midterm election, an estimated 27% of youth between the ages of 18-29 participated in voting, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). This marked the second-highest youth voter turnout for midterms in almost three decades, with the highest being in 2018.
Kensington Voice spoke with neighborhood high schools KCAPA, KHSA, and Mastbaum about their methods of engaging their students in voting.
KCAPA: Education and the importance of voting
On April 13, English teacher Jesse Abrams-Morley gathered all the juniors and seniors in KCAPA’s auditorium for a conversation on voter registration with New Pennsylvania Project.
The nonpartisan voting rights organization aims to empower and educate communities of color, immigrant communities, and young voters.
Carrie Fowler, the regional organizing director, told the students that voting is a way to address issues that are important to them, like the public school system.
“The local election is the one that impacts your life the most,” Fowler said. “It is the election with the lowest voter turnout. And it should be one of the highest. We are electing people that make local decisions for our lives.”
Fowler’s goal was to educate the students about the power of voting and the history of laws restricting people’s right to vote, also known as voter disenfranchisement. After Fowler’s presentation, several students filled out voter registration forms to participate in the upcoming election.
Back in the classroom, Abrams-Morley continues engaging students about voting with this year’s senior project.
For the project, students chose one of six topics – gun violence, gentrification, public transit, the opioid crisis, education, or homelessness – for a group presentation on a solution to their issue. While researching, students realized that some of the topics were election issues.
According to Abrams-Morley, his students were eager to learn about voting and to participate in making change happen in their communities.
“A lot of people think young people are either disengaged or apathetic,” he said. “In this case, it is especially untrue. They want to understand the world better, and they want to be participants, but they don’t always know how. A big part of what I’m trying to do this year is to remind them that they are part of that process and to invite them into it as full participants.”
KHSA: Global leadership program and local government
To offer more options to students in the career and technical education (CTE) school, KHSA hired Kristian Ogungbemi to create and teach the Global Leadership program, which she describes as “a mixture of a sociology and a civics course.”
“A lot of our conversations actually are about elections and getting students involved in things that they think can bring change locally,” she said.
KHSA students begin their CTE program in their sophomore year. Global Leadership students start their studies by learning about inequality and the history of social movements like the civil rights era. During their senior year, the program focuses on local government, such as the upcoming election and the dynamic between elected officials like City Councilmembers and the mayor.
Ogungbemi has had her students participate in a voter registration drive where they helped register their 18-year-old classmates to vote. As a collaborative effort among the social studies department, the school has also had students sign up to work at the polls.
“There are definitely lots of ways that we try to make sure students are, at the very least, aware of what’s going on, but as a goal, to be engaged in what’s going on,” Ogungbemi said.
Mastbaum: Social science class and voter registration
For Mastbaum students eligible to vote, election preparations started as early as the beginning of the school year.
According to Catherine McPhilemy, the head of the school’s Humanities Department, the social science class is where students register to vote through PA Youth Vote’s Philly Voter Toolkit, which includes primary election information and voter registration QR codes for high schools.
“There’s a QR code that they can scan,” McPhilemy said. “We have a Mastbaum one, so they can scan that, and then it’ll walk them through.”
For this upcoming election, McPhilemy said students in the social science class researched the candidates to help them decide who to vote for.
While voting isn’t an option for students under 18, the school encourages students to use their voices in other ways. Mastbaum’s student council of 10th and 11th-grade students leads and participates in conversations on issues in the school and neighborhood.
“We’re definitely trying to push our kids to have more of a voice in political activism and figuring out ways to elicit change in and around the city,” McPhilemy said.
Barriers for young voters
In Philadelphia, the primary election is a closed primary, meaning you can only vote for candidates from your registered political party. New, young voters should be aware of this state restriction. According to recent data from Gallup, 52% of Gen Z voters (1997-2012) are independent voters.
KHSA’s Ogungbemi said another obstacle students face that leads to voter hesitancy is the feeling of being unheard. She mentioned hearing from her students all the issues they’ve faced growing up in Kensington and how they’ve grown numb to them. And with that numbness, they’ve also developed a sense of pessimism in voting to make a difference.
“It’s hard to believe that politicians will do what they say they’ll do,” she added. “There’s like this other tension between working within the system and working to [make] change from outside the system.”
But over the years she’s taught Global Leadership, Ogungbemi has been able to reopen the conversation around students voting.
“I’ve tried to have conversations with them that have been received well about how voting can be harm reduction,” she said. “And it can be just one tool out of many tools that we use to make change.”
For Philly voting information, go to vote.phila.gov.
According to Fowler from New Pennsylvania Project, first-time voters may need to show poll workers the following photo identification or non-photo identification at their polling place.
Approved forms of photo identification include:
Pennsylvania driver’s license or PennDOT ID card
ID issued by any Commonwealth agency
ID issued by the U.S. Government
U.S. Armed Forces ID
If you do not have a photo ID, you can use a non-photo identification that includes your name and address.
Confirmation issued by the
County Voter Registration Office
Non-photo ID issued by the Commonwealth
Non-photo ID issued by the U.S. Government
Current utility bill
Current bank statement
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