The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February changed something among many young people in the United States.
First came the March for Our Lives protests on March 24, with teens around the country organizing and speaking out in favor of tighter gun-control laws.
Now those same youngsters, as they turn 18, are registering to vote—and trying to put political pressure on congressional leaders who oppose stricter gun-control laws.
Matthew Chang, a senior at Palm Desert High School, is one of those teens: He helped mount a voter-registration drive among his classmates.
“It was very successful,” Chang said. “During the days we had the drive, we registered about 35 people to vote, and then we worked in conjunction with a club that was planning a walk-out protest, and we helped them register people to vote, too.”
Robert Westwood, the president of the Democrats of the Desert, got to know Chang when the student showed up at a meeting looking for help with his voter-registration efforts. Chang isn’t alone: Westwood said students from Palm Springs High School and Shadow Hills High School have also reached out.
“We had Matthew and four young ladies from Shadow Hills High School come to one of our Democrats of the Desert meetings,” Westwood said. “They really energized our club. They gave us a lot of information about what they’re doing and their enthusiasm for getting young people registered to vote, and then out to vote—which are two very different tasks. We can’t go onto a campus, and (registration) can only be done within a campus with permission from the administration.”
Chang said the school walkouts that have been taking place throughout the country are sending a message.
“Whatever anyone’s stances are on the walkout, we can all agree that it helped to show that we, as teens, have a bigger voice than we originally thought,” Chang said. “I think registering younger people to vote comes from that. If we do things like walkouts, which shows people we have a voice, more people will want to register to vote to enhance their voice and become politically active.”
What made Chang decide to become politically active?
“During my freshman year, I joined a club called Youth in Government, and it was with the YMCA,” he said. “It really changed my perspective, because before, I was really apathetic to what was going on around me, and it showed me that I have a say in what’s going on, and if I have an opinion, I need to share it.”
What do his parents think about his political involvement?
“They’re not really into politics,” Chang said. “I don’t think they even knew that I was doing the voter-registration drive. It was just something that I took on. They’re not really into politically related things.”
Talking to other young people about political subjects is not always easy, Chang said.
“I do think that talking to young people who have not had a government class yet is difficult,” Chang said. “Not many young people keep track of the news as much as people wish that they did. … More-educated young people are easy to talk to about politics. Because of that, I think we should try harder to educate younger people.”
Westwood said Chang’s involvement with the Democrats of the Desert has been inspirational.
“He came and talked to us and led us in the Pledge of Allegiance at one of our meetings where we had 150 people, and everybody got up and cheered him—and some people were crying,” Westwood said. “He also had the student body president from Palm Desert High School come with him, and she gave a rousing talk about the importance of young people keeping this going, and asked for our help. She offered their help to register young people and get young people out to vote. Now we’re moving on projects to get people to vote by mail and show up to vote on June 5.”
Chang’s time at Palm Desert High School is about to come to a close, and he said he plans on remaining active in college.
“Next year, I am going to college at Harvard, and I want to join the Democratic Club at Harvard,” he said. “I’m going to work on some campaigns and help some Democratic candidates I support.”
While Chang is optimistic overall, he did admit he has some concerns about politics.
“I think that we are becoming increasingly polarized in politics. A lot of the exchanges I hear between different parties are often not attempts to work with the other party, but are often trying to degrade the other party as much as possible. I don’t think that’s the direction that we need to be going in. We need bipartisan proposals to make sure that all perspectives are heard, and we can all work together as a nation.”