“I’ve always known that I am fortunate to live as I live, and have the opportunities I’ve had. My parents immigrated from Nigeria and worked hard to create a life that was radically different from the one they had.”
“But growing up in Los Angeles, I have only seen things get tougher for the average Angeleno. In one of the most prosperous cities in the nation, makeshift homeless camps are next to commanding skyscrapers of multinational corporations and financial firms. People are struggling to find affordable housing and are finding it impossible to attain the quality of life that generations before them comfortably enjoyed.
“It’s become tougher for young people like me to imagine starting families, buying homes, or holding down well-paying jobs. We are seeing that today, hard work is not enough. When I look at the problems facing us, I don’t want to wait until I’m ‘old enough’ to affect systemic change.
“Today, millions of young people across the country are taking action now, on everything from gun safety and climate change to immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter. As young people, we’re closer to the daily issues we face in our schools and communities; we know what is needed to create a better world that works for all youth. But we won’t make real change, unless we have a real voice.
“We face many barriers to getting involved. The institutions that have the most influence on our lives – school boards, legislatures, city halls – often do not offer us a seat at the table. I want to change that.
“I began getting involved as a teenager to ensure that young people’s voices are heard in the debates and policy discussions where youth are most affected. In high school, I served as president of the Black Student Union and demanded that a teacher be held accountable when she allowed a student to dress up as Hiram Weseley, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard for Historical Figures Day. That action and concerns about my school’s dress code policy led me to found a political action committee with my debate partner to combat structures of injustice on campus.
“In 2018, I was elected to serve as the student member to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Board of Education to represent the needs and interests of over 600,000 young people. I often find myself in the difficult situation of telling adults things they don’t want to hear, such as the need to adopt district-wide policies to advance racial, economic and gender justice.
“I also got involved with Power California, an organization that works to mobilize youth of color to change the voting age to 16 because I firmly believe 16 and 17 are critical ages for young people to empower themselves through organizing and advocacy. Power California is a statewide multiracial civic engagement organization made up of youth and families across the state.
“An initial bill to lower the state’s voting age to 17 is currently pending approval in the California state Senate. This youth voting rights campaign builds off of our earlier efforts to lower the voting age in LAUSD school board district elections to 16. We authored and helped pass a resolution for the school board to research the feasibility of a 2020 ballot measure that would lower the voting age.
“I believe in voting rights because I believe voting represents a first critical step toward making change and holding our leaders accountable. Voting is crucial particularly for people of color who are often and historically excluded from the ballot box, and for young people whose future quality of life depends on the decisions that are being made now. Black and brown youth bear the brunt of this injustice as they are forced to attend schools that are severely underfunded and have more police officers than counselors.
“Yet the percentage of people of color who vote is still lower than the percentage of whites who do – for example, even with historically high turnout among people of color in the 2018 midterms, 57.5 percent of eligible white voters voted while only 40.4 percent of eligible Latinx voters did. Young people of color don’t even have that access, since the voting age is set at 18. The challenge we are faced with is not only getting people off the sidelines of politics but making the ballot accessible for all.
“I’m committed to empowering my generation, making sure we know what’s at stake and have the tools to activate ourselves and our community members to bring about real political change. We’re ready; it’s time to extend the voting age to include young people already creating change.
“We urge the adults who are entrusting us with the future, to listen to young people and follow our lead. Our collective fates may depend on it.”
Tyler Okeke is a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) student board member and Power California youth leader.