A guest post from Barrett Valentine, a 17 year old senior in high school. She has lived in Oakland her entire life, and represents District 5 on the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission, where she serves as co-chair.
Measure QQ is a reflection of a growing national movement to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in school board elections. Across the country, students are realizing that their lack of voice in their own school boards is not only harmful, but a failure of democracy. From Takoma Park, Maryland to our own neighbor of Berkeley, smaller cities have passed their own versions of Measure QQ, expanding certain voting rights to youth. Even our larger neighbor, San Francisco, has a similar measure on their November ballot. Youth Vote is a movement, and like many before, Oakland is at the front of it.
This movement developed for a reason. Representative democracy is inherently the few having power over the many. The only reason it does not veer into oligarchy territory is that these representatives are supposed to be just that, representative of the people. In school board elections, however, it is impossible for representatives to be true reflections of the people they serve because the people they serve have no ability to choose them.
The Oakland School Board does not exclusively serve youth, that is true. They serve parents, teachers, school staff, and all of Oakland, which will always benefit from good public education. But it also cannot be denied that their primary obligation is to the students. We are the ones whose entire lives center around the school. We are those who ought to be represented on the school board, and denying us representation for no reason other than a two year age difference from an already arbitrarily chosen voting age is antithetical to the ideals of democracy.
Voting is Civic Education in Action
Expanding school board voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds strengthens democracy in more than one way. It would obviously patch up the hole in democracy created by excluding high school students from civic engagement, but it would also create long term benefits. The late teen years are a very formative time. The habits we pick up now, as we enter adulthood, become the habits we maintain for our whole lives. Through Measure QQ, we have an opportunity to make voting into one of these habits, and create a new generation of lifelong voters. Providing a taste of civic engagement to teens before they have access to larger elections also would give them a hands on lesson on the voting process. It would give them valuable experience on how the system works on a smaller scale, making it less overwhelming when we turn 18 and participate in the larger democratic process. Experiencing civic engagement for the first time on the school board level would give future adult voters an understanding of electoral politics not so tightly limited to the two party system, an electoral politics based on the issues. This helps teens develop a critical thinking tool set for future elections, where they can view candidates and issues on a more complex basis than simply party politics.
For me, and many other Oakland youth who have worked on this measure and campaign, Measure QQ holds a personal significance, because as well as being an expansion of our voting rights, it is a promise to hear and value youth voice. Over the course of the next year, I have a lot of huge decisions to make, decisions that will have great impacts on the course my life will take. It’s a strange, scary and uncertain time, made even more intense by coronavirus and its consequences. I am not alone in feeling scared and out of control. Many other people my age are dealing with the same decisions, responsibilities, and pressures that come with being young and on the cusp of adulthood. We have to balance all of our responsibilities while making important decisions about our futures, college, and jobs. Many times, we don’t have any access to the support systems that would make this time less stressful. Often, we don’t have the time or space to build relationships with our teachers, or access to the counseling, or many other school services that could help us make the right decisions and right plans for our futures. We don’t have access to the things that would make us less alone in a very hectic time of our lives.
We Know Better than Anyone What We Need
This is not just a problem caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It is a problem that stems from the voices of young people being excluded from the conversation about our own education. The problems that we, as young people, face in the education system cannot be solved exclusively by ideas chosen by adults for us, they must be solved by solutions coming from the people most affected by these problems. It is not the people who choose our school board representatives who are affected by these problems, it is the young people who attend school every day. We know better than anyone what we need, yet our opinions are discounted. We are the ones who have to encounter the positive or negative consequences of school board decision, yet we are locked out of choosing our representatives. This not only creates policies that do not accurately reflect the needs of the students, but creates a culture where youth voice is not valued even when we are the ones most affected.
To have our voices discounted in education is not only insulting, but harmful. The education we receive and opportunities we are given in high school affect the course of our lives. Things that may seem small to someone outside of school can be life changing for a high school student. Services and programs that may determine important parts of our future can be easily overlooked by an adult far out from high school, and without a voice to the school board, students are left with little to no avenue to express their needs. Decisions that may determine if we graduate, if we go to college, if we get the career we want are made by people who don’t know us, people who we did not choose, people who are not accountable to us. Our educations play a huge part in our futures. When everyone but us gets a say in our educations, it means everyone but us gets a say in our futures.
Youth Are Ready for this Responsibility
Because we care about our futures, we care about our education. Time and time again, the youth of Oakland has demonstrated this. We showed our willingness to fight for our schools and our teachers through protests. Even this measure, which has been created by, championed, and fought for by countless young people, is evidence of how much we care. We have had to fight tooth and nail for the education and voice that we deserve, and we have been ready and willing to do it. But we should have a voice in our education without having to fight for it. We shouldn’t have to put school on hold and protest just to be acknowledged, we should be acknowledged because we are people with opinions that matter. We are the people in our schools every day, experiencing the reality of the decisions that adults make. We deserve a good education and we deserve a voice.
We deserve this voice because we are ready for it. By the time someone is 16 years old, they are not just a child anymore. We have adult responsibilities. Many of us have jobs and pay taxes. We get involved in politics, we take care of our family members. We make huge decisions about our futures. We are not just irresponsible little kids, we are human beings with responsibilities and fully formed opinions and ideas. We are ready to vote in school board elections, and we would not take this responsibility lightly. We know how important school board decisions are, even more than many adults, because we are the ones who live with them.
Passing Measure QQ would not solve all of the problems we face in education. But what it would do is give youth a voice. It would bring new solutions to the table, ones supported by actual young people, not just adults. It allows us to have a say in our representatives, so that they actually represent the student population that they serve rather than the adults who voted them in. It makes our ideas, voices, and opinions matter to the school board. It gives us more control over our own lives, educations, and futures.
The time between childhood and adulthood is a hard one, and we deserve the school services to help us through them. We deserve our voices heard in the education system, because we know what we need from it. We care about our futures, and are willing to fight for them, so we would not take our votes lightly. We are ready for this responsibility.