View Point
Wednesday, December 22, 1999

By Linda Smith

Youth need to
apply their own
political influence

Editor's note: In the past five years, social studies teacher Linda Smith has sent four students -- Benjamin Burroughs, Andrew Ching, Elizabeth Burroughs and Michelle Sauque -- to the RespecTeen National Youth Forum in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Lutheran Brotherhood. These students were winners of the RespecTeen Speak for Yourself letter-writing contest. In Washington, they learned more about the democratic process and how to interact with government officials.


Every year, first-year students at more than 1,600 colleges and universities nationwide are polled as part of the Freshmen Survey. This survey seeks to evaluate students' professional, financial and social goals, and their involvement in community action, leadership and politics.

As a middle school teacher of social students and government, I find this year's survey results to be disheartening.

According to the 1998 survey, only 26 percent of college freshmen said keeping up-to-date with political affairs and information is a very important or essential life goal -- a record low since the survey was first administered in 1966.

And just 16 percent thought it was very important to influence the political process or structure.

As U.S. citizens, we live in a country that offers one of the most revered political systems in the world. Yet every year, people become more ambivalent about politics.

They don't vote, don't communicate with elected officials and don't get involved in issues that are important to them. People are disenchanted with the political process because they don't believe they can effect change.

They're wrong.

Every year, I use a program called the RespecTeen Speak for Yourself curriculum to teach 12- and 13-year-old students that they can influence public policy, even though they're not old enough to vote.

I am one of hundreds of educators nationwide who use this curriculum to teach students that their opinions are important to elected officials at all levels of the government, from city council members to the president.

As part of this curriculum, students are encouraged to write letters to their U.S. representatives about issues of national importance.

Writing a letter to an elected official is a simple way for young people to express their opinions and concerns.

Elected officials or members of their staff do read and keep those letters. And, if the issue comes up for debate, chances are good that the students' input will be used during policy-making and debate.

This may sound hokey but it's true. If all people -- no matter how old they are -- recognize that they can influence lawmakers, they'll become more involved with the political process.

Our young people need to learn at an early age that their opinions are important to elected officials. But adults need to remember this, too.

Write letters to elected officials. Write letters to newspaper editors. Attend city council meetings, congressional district meetings, debates and other political forums. And vote! Your vote does count; it always has and always will.

If you want to start by writing an effective letter, and you need some good advice, check out RespecTeen's Web site at (or call 1-888-376-1876 to receive the curriculum). On the site, kids, parents, teachers, anyone can find information on how to effectively communicate with elected officials.

The bottom line is this: You can have a profound impact on the policy-making that affects your life. Let's do what we can to reverse the downward spiral in political interest and teach our young people that getting involved is the only way to preserve the democracy we hold so dear.

Linda Smith is a middle school teacher
at Kahuku High and Intermediate School.

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