The making of tomorrow’s voters

There were only 11 days left in Philadelphia’s contentious mayoral race. The entire Philadelphia media scrum had descended on a small classroom at Olney High School.

Bright-eyed students in the Advanced Placement History class filled the desks. There were cameramen from all the network stations, there were radio reporters from WHYY and KYW. There was a reporter and a photographer from the Inquirer. Even The Daily Pennsylvanian was there.

They had all come because Sam Katz, the Republican candidate for mayor, was there to talk to the students. I was there because Phyllis Kaniss had invited the Current to see her remarkable experiment in civic education, Student Voices, in action. The Olney students ignored the media circus and asked thoughtful questions about jobs and crime and the environment, which the candidates answered carefully and seriously.

Several days later, I sat down with Kaniss to talk about Student Voices and how it is transforming how students view their elected officials one school at a time.

Q. What is Student Voices?
The project was an initiative of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Surveys had shown that young people weren’t voting because they didn’t think they knew enough about the issues to make an informed decision and they didn’t feel the candidates were addressing them or their concerns. Our aim was to encourage young people to become more active voters.

We started in 1999 in 33 Philadelphia high schools. We wanted to try to get students to become more civically engaged in that year’s mayoral campaign.

Q. What makes the program unique?
We went into those first schools and gave the classes brand-new computers that were hooked up to the Internet—in some classes we had to hook them up—and we worked with to create a web site through which kids could follow the campaign and learn about the candidates and the issues. We thought they would find that much more interesting than picking up a newspaper or watching TV news. Since then, the web site has become not just a place where kids can find information, but where kids can communicate. Every week or so we ask them questions about issues and ask, What do you think?

We bring the candidates and students together in forums and in classroom visits, and by answering their questions candidates are addressing youth concerns. The students really react to seeing in person the people who they see in those campaign ads or in news stories.

That first project was successful beyond our dreams. In 2000, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Annenberg Foundation provided funds for Student Voices to be a nationwide project and I became the director.

Q. Is the idea to roll the project out to more cities?
We are in seven cities—Philadelphia, Newark [N.J.] and Denver as well as Los Angeles, San Antonio, Detroit, and Seattle. We just received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to try a pilot version in the state of Pennsylvania next year with rural and suburban districts. Students from all over the state will be communicating on state-wide issues.

There is a sense that there should be more civic education in schools, but people don’t have a good sense of what that should be. We have a great model of experiential education. By learning to pay attention to the issues, by learning to research both sides of an issue, by finding out what candidates stand for and by voting in mock elections, students learn how to become good citizens by becoming good citizens in their class.

Q. Do you mainly focus on local races?
Absolutely. We found that kids can relate most directly to issues that are local in their city government. You know the old expression, “All politics are local”? We think that is very true. We have kids start by thinking about what issues they care about in their neighborhoods. Then we show them how the things that they would like to see improved are tied to who is running in elections and that government can make a difference about the problems that they care about. We also focus on local issues because those are the people who are easiest to bring into direct contact with students.

In Denver, last year, we had all nine candidates running for mayor, including one homeless person. There were 1600 students present. It was the largest forum in Denver. In Newark, where Sharpe James was running against Cory Booker, we brought one representative from each class together and New Jersey Network hosted us at their studios and the kids asked questions on behalf of their class.

Q. Was the Olney High School program the culmination of this year’s election cycle in Philadelphia?
In this campaign the candidates’ time availability was very scarce so we weren’t able to do a televised forum. Sam Katz was able to do it; John Staggs, the Socialist Workers party candidate was able to do it. The mayor was not able to make any of the sessions that we proposed, so he sent a representative, [City Council member] Blondell Reynolds Brown. We weren’t able to bring all the kids physically together, so we came up with a plan where the kids from Olney would ask questions on behalf of kids in all 26 high schools involved in the project.

Q. Do kids ask different questions?
I’ve listened to all the televised debates [this year] and [at Olney High School] that was the first time I heard a question about the environment. Reporters don’t ask many questions about education. I did not hear a single question about homelessness. Students ask questions about SEPTA and what can the city do to bring the fares down.

Everybody asks questions about jobs, but students ask about how to create jobs for young people and how can you have after-school jobs for teenagers. It may be that when you bring citizens together with candidates they would ask those same questions, but those are not the questions that reporters typically ask.

Q. What did you think about that big media turn-out?
As someone who used to watch the media quite closely [Kaniss is the author of two books that critiqued the media, “Making Local News” (University of Chicago Press, 1991) and “The Media and the Mayor’s Race: The Failure of Urban Political Reporting” (Indiana University Press, 1995)], it was interesting to see how many members of the media showed up for Sam Katz. When Vernon Odom [political reporter for WPVI-TV] walked in with the newspaper under his arm, I realized that they were there because the Daily News had endorsed John Street that morning and they needed to catch Sam Katz for a comment.

As a media critic, what was disappointing to me was that the media didn’t stop and realize that something unique was going on in that classroom. They didn’t realize that the way to encourage young people to vote in the future and become members of the democracy is point your camera at the kids and show on the evening news a question that a kid asked a candidate.

In order to get young people to vote and become civically engaged, the media, the candidates, public officials and the general public really need to listen to them when they speak.

Phyllis Kaniss