Evanston Youth step up, advocate in 2021 municipal elections

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Evanston youth participated in this past year’s elections by voting and engaging with local campaigns. Mayor Daniel Biss’ campaign team was entirely Gen Z, and Sebastian Nalls was 20-years-old when he ran for mayor. High school students organized town hall forums for candidates, created voter guides and stressed the need to hold elected officials accountable.

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LAUREN DAIN: I feel like, within Evanston, there are a lot of liberal ideals that I think align with my beliefs. But at the same time, do I think that young people are represented how they should be in local politics? Not so much.

JORJA SIEMONS: During April’s municipal elections, young people in Evanston were present both on the podium and at the polls. Evanston native and then-Purdue University junior Sebastian Nalls ran for mayor. Mayor Daniel Biss’ team was entirely Gen Z. Community activist groups like Evanston Fight for Black Lives elevated youth perspectives on local issues.

YIMING FU: But do young people in Evanston really feel listened to by local politicians, or is youth inclusion just smoke and mirrors? We spoke with young residents to find out.

JORJA SIEMONS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Jorja Siemons.

YIMING FU: And I’m Yiming Fu. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast on the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern communities.

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LAUREN DAIN: I think that there’s still a ways to go until younger people are fully recognized as being forces to (be) reckoned with.

JORJA SIEMONS: That’s Lauren Dain, the leader of Evanston Township High School’s Community Service Club’s Civic Engagement Committee. Last year, the committee couldn’t facilitate in-person voter registration. So, they relied on Zoom meetings and social media posts to equip students with accurate information about local elections.

YIMING FU: The mayor, city clerk, school board and aldermanic seats were all up for reelection this year. With new candidates challenging incumbents and issues on the ballot such as the reform of Evanston Police Department and climate change policy, this election was especially important for young residents. And for many ETHS students, it was the first time they could go to the polls as eligible voters. Throughout Evanston, these young voters have organized to affect change. One local youth-led organization, Evanston Fight for Black Lives, swung the 80th City Council’s general views on policing last summer by holding sit-ins and having conversations with alderpeople.

ANNA GRANT-BOLTON: True justice isn’t going to be found by politicians. It’s done by the community.

JORJA SIEMONS: That’s Anna Grant-Bolton, an EFBL organizer and recent ETHS graduate. In February, EFBL released a progressive voter guide covering the aldermanic, mayoral and school board races. The guide addressed the importance of voting, how to vote in Evanston and candidate endorsements. EFBL noted that this resource was based on the widely-read “Girl I Guess” voting guide by Stephanie Skora, a Chicago-based genderqueer trans educator and organizer.

YIMING FU: In the guide, EFBL outlined their main concerns for candidates: where they stood on defunding the Evanston Police Department, how they would address climate change and affordable housing, and what their action items were for keeping Black folks in Evanston. They supported newly-elected City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza, 1st Ward alderperson Clare Kelly and 8th Ward alderperson Devon Reid, among others. Sebastian Nalls was EFBL’s mayoral candidate choice. When writing their guide for the aldermanic races, EFBL sat down with each new candidate to discuss their platforms. They also watched footage of different debates and did research on candidates’ political history.

ANNA GRANT-BOLTON: Not everyone is going to have that opportunity, but also we wrote it up so that other people will be able to have a glimpse into those conversations.

JORJA SIEMONS: Anna also said, as a young person, she didn’t feel represented by the last City Council and was disappointed with their lack of action to defund the police, despite EFBL’s work over the past year surrounding defunding and abolition. Anna voted for the first time in this year’s municipal elections.

ANNA GRANT-BOLTON: It was my first time voting, which was a little bit crazy.

JORJA SIEMONS: She said voting has its value, but it’s also important for young people to mobilize and join organizations to further support the issues they care about, especially for those who grew up with privilege.

ANNA GRANT-BOLTON: In White spaces, a lot of times people vote and then just do nothing for the next four years and feel okay with just voting, so I think being intentional about not letting your activism end with voting is really important.

JORJA SIEMONS: Another youth-centered guide for the municipal elections came from The Evanstonian, ETHS’ student newspaper. It included hyperlinks to Cook County information regarding how to vote, as well as a collection of articles interviewing mayoral and aldermanic candidates. Zachary Bahar, the then-executive editor, helped to lead the project. He said the process to publication was a collaborative one.

ZACHARY BAHAR: We started working on that, I want to say, in mid-January, so about a month, or a few weeks before the primary elections. The process was, we went through and reached out to all of the candidates we could, I think there were a few who didn’t respond, and just did interviews with them and and just wrote up little short blurbs on each of them on their policies and what they’re running for.

JORJA SIEMONS: The Evanstonian team put the guide up on their website and their Instagram page to reach even more youth voters.

ZACHARY BAHAR: It just felt important to make sure that we were covering the municipal elections in some way. Obviously, the way we cover it is certainly very different than the way The Daily Northwestern covers it or Evanston Now or the (Evanston) RoundTable or whatever else. But we just wanted to let ETHS students who might not have been paying attention as much just get it maybe on their social media feeds. .

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YIMING FU: If nothing else, Evanston teens are committed to the cause. Anna and a couple other students from the high school hosted a town hall forum in April where they asked Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school board candidates to discuss ways they would address inequities in education. ETHS senior Meena Sharma was one of those students. She stressed the importance of holding elected officials — including the mayor, alderpeople and school board members — accountable. She said those who have the power and resources to make change need to remain transparent with the people they represent.

MEENA SHARMA: Because, when it comes down to it, the people that you’re having these conversations with (are) the ones representing you, and they’re the ones that need to hear your concerns.

YIMING FU: Meena said hosting the forum was initially intimidating because she wasn’t sure how the candidates would respond.

MEENA SHARMA: It was hard, yeah. It felt like a lot of pressure. It definitely felt weird as a younger person to be doing it. And kind of a lot of pressure. But, as it happened, it seemed like the candidates were all very eager to give their answers, which made it definitely feel a lot better.

YIMING FU: Meena said it was important for her to be direct and clear with the questions so that viewers could distinguish between different candidate platforms and ideologies.

MEENA SHARMA: And I also think when they’re better informed they can hold these leaders accountable.

YIMING FU: Anna said the town hall event centered race in the school board elections, which had previously been discussed tangentially in many conversations about reopening schools, but had never been explicitly addressed. Many candidates, like D65 school board member Elisabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan and ETHS District 202 school board member Pat Savage-Williams, complimented the students on their thorough questions.

BIZ LINDSAY-RYAN: This is, like, our seventh forum, but definitely my favorite.

PAT SAVAGE-WILLIAMS: ETHS students. Wow. You never cease to impress me. So, thank you.

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ELI STONE: What I found is that these hyperlocal races, young people can really plug in and make a difference. Because a lot of times on these larger races, you know, the consultants make the decisions and the people who have 10, 20, 30 years of experience, they’re the ones making these choices. But what I’ve found is that these local opportunities are really awesome for young people.

JORJA SIEMONS: This is Eli Stone, Mayor Daniel Biss’ 20-year-old campaign manager. That’s right — Eli is a college student who took a gap year to help local political campaigns and increase voter turnout. He first worked with Biss in 2017 and 2018 as the community coordinator in Biss’ campaign for governor. Three years later, he was helping Biss win the Evanston mayoral race and prioritized getting other young people involved.

ELI STONE: I believe that young people’s voices are essential in managing this campaign. I realized that it couldn’t just be my voice that our campaign was amplifying, because, you know, my job was to amplify Daniel’s voice, but I wanted our campaign to not just have young people making the calls, but also having young people advising on our policy. So we had folks, many of our interns, sit in on policy meetings, when we were grappling with these ideas of how to develop our policy. We had young people, meaning our interns and other folks involved, sit down in those conversations, and really center their voices, because that is essential to Daniel.

JORJA SIEMONS: According to Eli, the entirety of Biss’ campaign team was under 21. Eli said the team also had 30 interns — all of whom were high school students. He also said the team members joined for different reasons.

ELI STONE: Some of them got involved because they had a specific issue that Daniel was talking about that they cared about, so a lot of folks got involved because of Daniel’s stances on things like the climate and police reform, and all that good stuff. But also some folks wanted to get involved because they knew Daniel, or they had some connection to Daniel or to me or someone else in the campaign.

JORJA SIEMONS: With Biss securing 73% of the vote in the municipal election, Eli said young people showing up to the polls made a difference.

ELI STONE: It really showed people that young people aren’t just going to talk about things, they’re going to actually get up and do things and again, make their voices heard.

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YIMING FU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Yiming Fu.

JORJA SIEMONS: And I’m Jorja Siemons. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by Yiming Fu and myself. The audio editor of The Daily is Jordan Mangi, the digital managing editors are Alex Chun and Sammi Boas, and the editor-in-chief is Isabelle Sarraf.

Email: [email protected], [email protected] 

Twitter: @yimingfuu, @JorjaSiemons

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