Tisch College, Generation Citizen host discussion on youth empowerment in politics

Scott Warren, CEO of Generation Citizen, discusses his new book 'Generation Citizen: The Power of Youth in Our Politics' (2019) with the audience in the Rabb Room on March 8. (Mengqi Irina Wang / The Tufts Daily)

Tisch College of Civic Life and Tufts Generation Citizen hosted a discussion on Friday with CEO of Generation Citizen Scott Warren, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu and youth activist Julian Viviescas on the role of youth in politics.

According to the Tisch College website, the event was held in part to celebrate the release of Warren’s new book, “Generation Citizen: The Power of Youth in Our Politics” (2019). Warren signed several copies for the audience following the discussion.

Warren, a former social entrepreneur in residence at Tufts University and CEO and cofounder of the non-profit organization Generation Citizen, began the event by reading two excerpts from his new book.

He said that the excerpts, and his book as a whole, are intended to show the importance of youth engagement with politics and democracy, which Generation Citizen is dedicated to promoting. Generation Citizen’s website states that its main purpose is to work to “ensure that every student in the United States receives an effective action civics education, which provides them with the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our democracy as active citizens.”

“This book is trying to prove two fundamental things. One is that politics can be positive, and can be a way of getting things done. The other is that, in order for that to work, young people have to be at the forefront,” Warren said.

Warren said the book allowed him to trace the historical impact of young people at the forefront of times of change.

Following Warren’s reading, Wu and Viviescas joined him for a conversation on their experiences with politics, their thoughts on youth engagement in politics and their advice for future and aspiring activists.

Wu began the conversation by recounting how her entrance into a challenging and inequitable political system helped her realize the importance of reaching out and getting new people involved.

“The system is set up to keep going on its own with the same people who have always been involved, and it works great for them and not so much for those that have been left out,” Wu said, recalling how her rise in politics shaped her position on inclusiveness. “Politics is how you open up the doors, [get] people to the table and then start to change policy.”

Viviescas, a high school student and member of Generation Citizen, also spoke of his experience organizing a gun buyback program in Massachusetts last May, saying he learned anyone could make a difference.

“Every time a new person came in they were like, ‘I can’t believe you guys are doing this; you guys are too young for all of this,’” Viviescas recalled. “People were skeptical [but] we ended up raising over $4,500 in a month. In the end, we ended up getting 39 guns off the streets of Lowell.”

Warren then asked Wu and Viviescas their beliefs regarding the particular role of youth in political culture.

Wu emphasized the role of youth in addressing today’s critical issues, specifically regarding climate change.

“It’s really on our shoulders to make some changes,” Wu said. “From now to 2030 is going to be the most creative, transformative and collaborative period in human history — just because it has to [be]. We have no other choice but to make it so, and our generation of young people are the only ones who can really make that happen.”

After Warren, Wu and Viviescas finished their discussion, members of the audience were invited to ask their own questions.

When asked what advice they have for young people who are looking to make change in their communities but are unsure of how to get involved, all of the guests stressed the importance of daily practices of staying informed and of consistent political participation.

Warren emphasized the value of small-scale, daily political engagement.

“I would say reading the paper and understanding what’s going on in your own community is a way of staying engaged, picking up the phone and calling someone is a way of being engaged, coming to an event or going to a town hall meeting is a way to stay engaged,” he said. “Those formal ways [like voting] matter, but there’s informal ways to get engaged, too.”

Wu, speaking from her experience as a legislator, emphasized the importance of contacting the local government.

“The disconnect happens when we don’t believe our actions will actually do anything,” Wu said. “Especially at the local level, it doesn’t take that many contact emails, Twitter messages or calls for an issue to be elevated to a level where an elected official is being told by staff.”

Wu also stressed the importance of organizing and working together with officials who can support issues.

“Whenever you have a chance, it’s good not just to point out a problem but to give them something they can support you on or something they can do,” she said.

In an interview with the Daily following the event, Tufts Generation Citizen Executive Director Julia Grier said that the event was exciting for the Tufts chapter.

“I thought this talk was really inspiring, [with] both Councilwoman Wu and Scott Warren and Julian talking about the change they’ve made in their community and the power that youth have,” Grier said. “Just having people talking positively about the potential that we have … is super important and energizing for us … I think it’ll be really exciting to bring this energy back to our chapter.”