Dallas high schoolers banded together to help get the vote out in the presidential election, helping to give their peers â€” and their families â€” the knowledge to be able to cast their votes, but their work is hardly over.
In 2020, voters broke records across the spectrum, and young people in Texas were no exception. More people aged 18-29 cast their votes in the early voting period in the 2020 election than the total number of young people who voted in 2016, according to the Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
These Dallas teenagers are partly to thank.
Even during a pandemic, high schoolers from across the Dallas Independent School District in the student-run Student Voter Empowerment Coalition, also known as SVEC, worked tirelessly during the election cycle to inform their peers about their right to vote â€” even though they werenâ€™t old enough to vote themselves.
Providing the resources
Daniela De La Cruz, a senior at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Womenâ€™s Leadership School and one of the student leaders at SVEC, wonâ€™t be eligible to vote until this spring, but she has been involved in the voting process ever since she was a poll worker when she was 16. Thatâ€™s when she realized how little her friends and family knew about how the process worked.
â€œEspecially coming from the Latino community, we donâ€™t all have the privilege of knowing the process and all that stuff,â€ De La Cruz said, â€œso itâ€™s really helpful when you have other people from your own community who are like, â€˜Hey, like look at this resource,â€™ or â€˜This is information that might help you.â€™ Really trying to empower our own people to go out and vote.â€
Students in SVEC provided their peers with both physical and remote resources to empower them to vote, from town halls via zoom, to infographics on their instagram page, @svecdallas, to voter information bags with information about voting locations and protocols.
The voter information bags not only provided resources for students, but for their families as well, said Ãngel GarcÃa DonjuÃ¡n, a senior at Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet and SVEC student leader.
â€œWe know that a lot of students have parents who donâ€™t speak English,â€ GarcÃa said, â€œsoâ€¦ itâ€™ll list numbers that you can call to get a translator or to get an interpreter that you can talk to on the phone while youâ€™re at a polling place.â€
SVEC leaders themselves served as a direct resource for their peers. It was not uncommon for fellow students who were anxious or confused about how to vote to ask De La Cruz questions when they didnâ€™t know where to go for the right information.
â€œOur end goal was to put out information, but make sure people can understand it,â€ she said. â€œI think thatâ€™s something that really does make SVEC and the things that we put out a little bit more special â€” the fact that itâ€™s created by students, made by students and for students.â€
Keeping the momentum going
Just because the presidential election is over does not mean that SVECâ€™s work is done, said Adrian Sanchez, a junior at Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy and SVEC student leader.
â€œRight now weâ€™re actually heavily focusing on local election advocacy because one thing we strongly like to highlight is the importance of local elections,â€ Sanchez said. â€œWe do understand voting for the President of the United States is important, but itâ€™s also your city council people, school district board members, people who make decisions like that as well.â€
Going into the new year, SVEC is focused on the May 2021 local elections. Not only will it be an opportunity for many of their peers (including De La Cruz) to vote for the first time, but it is also a local election in which several city council seats and Dallas school board positions will be up for election.
â€œWeâ€™re working to get the word out that there is going to be such a huge election, such a huge local election, because we know that turnout is going to plummet after this election,â€ GarcÃa said. â€œWe want to make sure that people will continue to be educated and that people are able to be informed of who they will be voting for and what those positions have power over and what they impact.
Part of keeping young people involved is focusing on the things that matter most to them. SVEC most recently held a virtual town hall meeting with Texas State Board of Education Member Aicha Davis and Texas Rep. Carl Sherman to discuss public school education in Texas.
Breaking through obstacles
From staring at a screen for seven hours for online school to worrying about SATs and college applications to dealing with a pandemic, high schoolers have a lot on their minds right now which can be a roadblock to recruiting future SVEC members and inspiring other students.
Being young can be an obstacle to getting involved in student activism, Sanchez said, because many students feel like they are too young to make a difference, or they donâ€™t feel like their voices are heard by the adults in their lives.
â€œItâ€™s somewhat difficult because you have these people who hold office that think that your opinion doesnâ€™t matter because of how young we are,â€ Sanchez said. â€œYou have to also keep in mind that there are people who donâ€™t want to see people that look like us that are as young as us doing what we do. You have to be committed, in a way, because there are definitely going to be obstacles in the way.â€
What keeps Sanchez going is knowing how much their work empowers families and communities that have been ignored.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t end at voting,â€ De La Cruz said. â€œThis is really the first step to creating that progressive change. Sometimes, our leaders donâ€™t accomplish the promises that they say they will, and itâ€™s like â€” no you work for us, so itâ€™s our responsibility to hold you accountable, and if we need to vote you out, then thatâ€™s what weâ€™re going to do.â€