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How To Be A Citizen: Being Involved In Civic Life At A Young Age

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This year, as you may have heard, we are celebrating NPR's 50th birthday. That is half a century of trying to keep you informed so you can do your part as a citizen. But that got us thinking about what other things can you do to be a good citizen. For many people, that means making sure you vote when there's an election. But that's not an option for people under the age of 18 who are not yet eligible. So today we want to turn to the question of, how do you get involved when you're not yet old enough to vote?

We found two people to help us with that. They are both in high school. They are both very active around things they care about. Calla Walsh just turned 17. She is an activist and organizer based in Massachusetts. Last fall, along with other youth activists, she launched a digital campaign that helped reelect Senator Ed Markey. Calla Walsh, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

CALLA WALSH: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Thomas Chaplain. He is 15, about to turn 16, and the chair of the Indiana High School Republicans. That's an organization that works to promote Republican values in Indiana through community service and community events. Thomas Chaplain, welcome to you as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS CHAPLAIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to start by asking both of you, what made you get involved? Like, was there a specific moment, like some light bulb experience or somebody who was important to you? So, Calla, why don't we start with you?

WALSH: Yeah, well, I think the driving factor that pushed me to get involved in politics was the climate crisis because I had always grown up, you know, knowing that there was this existential threat to my generation. But it felt so huge that I was simply powerless. And I wanted to stop feeling that way. I wanted to stop feeling hopeless, like I was just sitting back and letting adults, you know, control my entire future and just destroy the planet that I was supposed to live on when I was older.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, Calla, though, to dig in a little bit more? Like, did you read something? Did you see something? Is there something that just lit that fire under you?

WALSH: Yeah. Honestly, the 2018 U.N. report that showed us that we have until 2030 before the effects of climate change are irreversible, I think that demonstrated the urgency. I had been aware of this crisis for a long time, as have I think most people in our generation, but it's hard to figure out how to take tangible action or what we can actually do to combat it. And often we're just told, oh, like drink - like, use - don't use plastic straws, or take shorter showers. And I wanted to feel like I was taking real action that would challenge the systems that had created the climate crisis. And so I found out about the climate strike through social media and reached out to get involved and met a lot of other cool young people through that.

MARTIN: Thomas, what about you? What is it that got you involved?

CHAPLAIN: I think a lot of it was I had been - I would read the news very frequently, and I'd try to discuss this with my friends, but many of them wouldn't have any idea what was going on. So I wanted to find somewhere where I could converse with like-minded individuals about current events, as well as educate other people my age on these issues. And then that kind of led me down the road of, well, now I know about these issues. How can I influence them, particularly within my own community? And so I wanted - I got involved with things with community service and helping with local elections.

MARTIN: But do you remember, like, why? Was there something that - same question to Calla, which is that - do you remember what it was that lit a fire under you?

CHAPLAIN: I'd say a big part of it was when the 2016 elections were happening, I - and which I thought, in my opinion, was a huge deal with the debates to find a candidate for each party. Most of the people within my grade had no idea what was going on, didn't know about the candidates or where their issues were. And I couldn't believe that because these are the people that could be potentially running our country for the next four years. And so I wanted to change that because I think, especially in democracies, it's very important for young people to be engaged and involved in the political climate.

MARTIN: So here's where I want to ask about that. And I don't mean to offend, but this is something that I have observed over time because I've been doing reporting a long time. I find that often when I write about or have reported on young people who are engaged like this, people who don't agree with them dismiss them, saying they don't know what they're talking about, or the adults are telling them what to do. Like, for example, when a lot of the Parkland students in the wake of the shooting at Parkland High School - and you saw that a lot of young people got really engaged around the issue of gun safety - people dismissed them. They said, oh, you know, you don't really know what you're talking about. You're a - you know, they said a lot of ugly things about them. And frankly, I've seen it on the other side, too, where people who are very engaged in conservative movements who are young, people will say, oh, somebody is paying them, or the adults are telling - or they're brainwashed, or people are telling them what to do. Has either of you experienced that?

WALSH: Oh, all the time. I get a lot of dismissiveness. And honestly, I think it only stopped once I was able to prove myself to people by actually securing victories.

MARTIN: But what was it like for - like, how was that communicated to you? Like, I'm saying, I don't know that people would say this to your face, but I know that people said this to me. And I just wondered, like, so has this been communicated to you? How was it communicated to you, Calla? What did people say to you? Or how was it communicated to you, and how do you respond?

WALSH: Yeah. I mean, I think a lot of it is, like, strangers on social media who leave mean comments about how 16 or 17-year-olds are too dumb to have opinions and, you know, shouldn't - we shouldn't be able to vote, and we shouldn't be able to have any influence over elections. And those are very easy to write off because I just - I think that's dumb, and they're just trolls on social media. But I will say, I think getting involved in politics was hard for me. I felt like I had to force my way through the door, that no one had left it open for me or no one had tried to really bring me in because young people, and young women especially, are very often shut out of these spaces, and they're not intended for us to be able to participate in.

And honestly, one thing that I sort of subconsciously started doing was just not telling people how old I am until they directly ask me because I know that when they find out that I'm a teenager, that they will take me less seriously and likely respect me less. And so it's really interesting to see, like, the way people's perception of you changes once they find out that you're younger than they actually assume you are. And so I think just making sure that I don't let anyone shut me down or diminish my voice just because I'm younger, that's something that I've had to learn to do. And it's hard, but it's important.

MARTIN: Thomas, what about you? Has anybody ever kind of blown you off or dismissed you because you're a teenager? And how do you deal - has that ever happened? And if it has, how do you deal with it?

CHAPLAIN: Well, the main instances in my case have mainly been on social media as well, with people just leaving comments like, oh, if you're not of voting age, then your opinion shouldn't matter. Things like - that's the - it's kind of a common theme I've seen. And I usually just kind of respond to it by just blocking it out and getting back to what we're doing because I think what we're - what we as the Indiana High School Republicans are doing in our community kind of legitimizes ourselves on its own because these people are seen as out in our community, knocking on doors, doing community service such as our drug take back day and realize that we are using our time - we're not - on our own will to do these things. And we're not being manipulated by someone or paid by someone or anything like that. And they see - when they see these kids donating their time, I think it's starting to shift opinions and realize that these people do care, and they do deserve to be heard and their opinion should be expressed.

MARTIN: And so before we let you go, what do you think is in your future, each of you? Do you think - running for office, maybe? What do you see? And I'm not asking, like, the college application essay question, I swear. But - I'm not going to hold you to it. I'm just wondering, what do you see now as being the future for you? Do you see yourself running for office? Or how do you see it? Calla, do you want to start?

WALSH: Yeah, I can start. Personally, I don't see myself ever running for office. I kind of like to stay on the back end of things. And I also think that I've probably already said too many controversial things to ever be a viable candidate for office. I won't lie. But really, wherever the movement is calling and wherever the movement needs me, I will go. And I think it'll be really interesting to see, you know, what happens with the midterms. I'm definitely focused on, like, what's happening in my state, but who knows where I'll end up being in, like, five years from now. So whatever I do, I hope that, you know, it's aligned with my values now.

MARTIN: OK. Well, keep my number, and keep in touch. Thomas, what about you? What do you see for yourself?

CHAPLAIN: For the near future, I see myself - regardless of where I am or regardless of where I go to college, I see myself staying in touch with the local politics of the area and finding ways to volunteer and still do that sort of community service and finding ways to volunteer like that. But then farther down the line, I'd like to run for office at some point because I believe that I could be a voice to promote some of the ideas and values that I believe in. But that's obviously quite a bit down the road. But I see politics - I believe politics will continue to be a very large part of my life for the considerable future.

MARTIN: Will you keep my number, too? Especially if you get elected or something, take my call. Don't act like you don't know me.

CHAPLAIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: All right. That is Thomas Chaplain. He's 15 - almost 16 - and he's the chairman of the Indiana High School Republicans. Calla Walsh is 17, and she is a progressive organizer and activist based in Massachusetts. Thank you both so much for talking to us. Good luck to you.

CHAPLAIN: Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.