By Dani Arielle Schneider
I've heard the facts: 51% of American citizens ages 18-24 are registered to vote and of that, only 65% actually do. I've heard that college students are apathetic and don't care about politics (sound familiar?). I've been accused of being a part of a lazy generation and I'd like to tell you, the critics are wrong.
Our generation, contrary to popular belief, is socially active and politically engaged. I have friends who started soup kitchens from scratch, volunteered at battered women's shelters, and taken the time and energy to lobby our Congress people on issues we support. Most importantly, we are working to engage our peers and our communities in the voting process.
I recently attended the 14th annual Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer B'nai B'rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy, a three-day conference bringing hundreds of Jewish college students together from across North America. The conference theme was responsible citizenship and we learned that it is our obligation as Jews to create justice for the greater good of society.
Over and over again, speakers emphasized that we need to get to the root of social injustice instead of just providing short-term relief. Working at a soup kitchen is a good step -- but it is not enough. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) spoke at Spitzer's opening session and encouraged students to make fundamental change the best way possible, by getting involved in the electoral process. "Not voting is like being a vegetarian and going to a butcher," Frank said.
On the final day of the conference we were able to put Rep. Frank's suggestion into practice. The culmination of the conference was an afternoon in which students had the chance to volunteer with organizations devoted to social change. I found myself knocking on doors and handing out voter information in the Dorchester area of Boston, an urban, African-American neighborhood that has known more than its fair share of problems over the years. We worked with Dunk the Vote, a non-partisan organization promoting social change and encouraging local residents to take an active role in government. By promoting civic participation, director Ron Bell works to strengthen democracy.
"Once you get involved in the cause, you can see how much can be accomplished," said Bell. His organization has registered over 25,000 Massachusetts voters since its creation in 1992. During the weekday afternoon we spent in Dorchester we registered a dozen new voters. Most residents I spoke with were grateful to be reminded about the upcoming primary and were surprised that anyone cared about their votes.
"I had never thought about politics as a way to empower myself before," said University of Maryland student Yael Kletter. A Boston native, Kletter found herself giving back in a meaningful way to a neighborhood that "isn't my community but it's close to home." A few Dorchester residents asked her who was running in the primary elections and Kletter, a soon to be first-time voter, found herself educating people twice her age. "I really made a difference today," said Kletter. "I was taking action and encouraging people to influence change instead of resorting to the band-aid solution."
The Spitzer Forum influenced the attitudes of hundreds of Jewish college students. We didn't just learn about social activism, we learned how to access the political system and how to make real change. Nancy Kaufman, executive director of JCRC of Greater Boston encouraged us to "turn anger into action and know that change is possible."
At Spitzer we learned to be responsible citizens and to take accountability for our privileges. My generation can make great changes in the world and level the playing field for all races, genders, religions, ages, and sexual orientations. Social change is a powerful thing and it is within our grasp. We can make a difference in the world by taking action today instead of waiting for tomorrow. The needs are great, but as I learned in a single afternoon, the rewards are large.
Dani Arielle Schneider, secretary of Hillel Student Board at the University of Colorado - Boulder, participated in the Hillel AJPA Darmstaedter Journalism Track of the Spitzer Forum.