Civic engagement, young voters, and teaching the next generation of Philadelphia’s leaders

Ahead of the primary, youth engagement has taken many forms, even including those not yet old enough to cast a ballot.

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Savannah, Neematallah, and Samantha table at April's City Council At-Large Candidate Convention

Savannah, Neematallah, and Samantha table at April's City Council At-Large Candidate Convention. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

This story is a part of the Every Voice, Every Vote series.

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On April 13, students from Philadelphia high schools filled the theater space in the National Constitution Center, for Philadelphia’s first annual Civics Day. The event was part of a larger, ongoing movement to increase voter turnout of the youngest Pennsylvanians.

Described by event co-sponsor, Generation Citizen, as similar to “a science fair for civics,” Civics Day students presented projects to a panel of judges and for their peers. Topics included gun violence, transgender rights, and environmental protections.

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State Rep. Chris Rabb’s opening speech encouraged new and upcoming voters to learn about and remember the strength of youth-led movements throughout history.

“How do we respond to these injustices?” he asked. “How do we redefine power? As young people who may not be old enough to drive, may not be old enough to vote, but who have always, always been on the front lines.”

In recent years, voter turnout in the United States has been higher than average among young voters. 2018 saw the highest numbers, with about 31% of eligible voters between 18 and 29 turned out to vote. Pennsylvania was one the states with the highest youth turnout, with a 19.5% increase between 2014 and 2022.

Youth engagement efforts have been underway for months citywide, from voter registration parties and writing letters to lawmakers, to youth-centered voting guides and school-wide assemblies focused on civics.

At a February anti-violence summit, D’Angelo Virgo and his nonprofit Civically Engaged ran a mock election breakout session, complete with candidate platforms and handwritten literature. Virgo said he wants teens to see themselves as part of something bigger.

“[Civics] gives them an outlet,” he said. “It gives them something to do. It gives them ownership in something, it gives them a buy-in.”

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Last month, WHYY co-hosted a City Council At-Large Candidate Convention, where Philadelphians could meet over 20 candidates. Also in attendance were volunteers with PA Youth Vote, a nonpartisan group that works on voter registration.

Neematallah Yusuff and sisters Savannah and Samantha Sandhaus aren’t old enough to vote in Tuesday’s primary elections, but that hasn’t stopped them from getting involved. “We register eligible seniors to vote in our high school [and] we register all eligible members of our community if they’re interested,” said Samantha. “None of us are eligible to vote yet, but we have been able to find multiple outlets for our civic engagement and political interest.”

Neematallah Yusuff and sisters Savannah and Samantha Sandhaus are volunteers with PA Youth Vote
Neematallah Yusuff and sisters Savannah and Samantha Sandhaus are volunteers with PA Youth Vote. They’re working to get students older than them registered to vote. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Neematallah said she’s committed to taking what she learns and passing it on. “I’m doing the exact same things I would do if I could vote, except I just can’t vote. I’m asking questions, I’m getting to know [candidates] … I’m going to go home and tell… my parents, I’m going to my friends who can vote and I’m going to educate them about what they can do.”

Just three years away from voting, Savannah says that learning the process now will make her a better citizen. “I’m 15 years old, and I’m getting prepped to know what kind of questions I want to ask [and] to understand who I am as a person … it gives me a start to know how to get civically engaged in the world when I am able to vote.”

This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.

Sam Searles is a Report for America corps member covering gun violence and prevention for WHYY News.

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