Colorado's Millennial Problem: Disaffection, Disillusionment, Issues in Upcoming Elections

In Clements Park in Littleton, Colorado, earlier this month, low turnout at a student-organized rally signaled that the fervor incited by the conservative Jefferson County school board’s proposed curriculum revisions is starting to wane.

Jeffco (Jefferson County) Students for Change, a coalition of leaders from high schools across the district, was hoping for a crowd of 500 — instead it got around 100, most of whom were adults. Those who did show weren’t deterred from giving passionate speeches, waving protest signs and organizing in case of a potential recall effort, but the scene was a far cry from when hundreds of high schoolers in the district walked out of class for two weeks straight last month, becoming the subject of national — even international — headlines.

Usually, when high schoolers skip school, it’s to smoke a cigarette or go for a joyride. Maybe hike or go to a movie if they’re feeling especially restless. But for these kids, it wasn’t just for kicks. It was for politics.

Tensions had already been simmering in the county schools for a while. It started last November when a conservative wave swept into majority on the school board and the superintendent resigned days later. The district has since become a laboratory for neoliberal education reform. The board pushed various moves such as expanding charter schools, increasing testing and switching to a performance-based pay scale for teachers — tactics born straight from the playbooks of conservative think tanks. With every new experiment, tensions between the school board and the community bubbled up more and more.

Then, in late September, board member Julie Williams proposed creating a review committee tasked with chalking up patriotism, downplaying periods of civil unrest and glossing over the less-than-flattering aspects of American history in the district’s AP U.S. History curriculum. Her proposal lit a fire under those it would affect the most — the students — and that’s when it all boiled over.

It started small, with a dozen kids at Evergreen High School walking out of class. But protest spread quickly on social media, and soon hundreds of kids from all over the district were on the sidewalk, demanding that their educations be honest, uncensored and unadulterated by ideology.

Social Media’s Power

“It was actually not that hard once you’re on Facebook to organize people,” said Scott Romano, a junior at Chatfield High School who helped spearhead the protests. “It was like a bomb — once a few people were talking about it, everyone was talking about it.”

“There’s nothing more patriotic than protest,” read some of the hand-drawn signs. Others said, “Teach us the truth” or “Don’t make history a mystery.” A naked boy and girl held a cardboard sign over their bodies that screamed, “Censor this!” There was honking; there was yelling; there was singing. Scrawled in red marker across one boy’s sign was a jab whose target, the Board of Education, almost certainly missed the reference: “I got 99 problems and the B.O.E. is one!”

“One thing I heard a lot was like, ‘When my little brother goes through Jeffco schools, I want him to get the best education possible,’ ” Romano recalls, “and a lot of people understood that if we let them get away with censoring AP U.S. History, it could happen to all our other classes.”

The protest movement reached its apex at a dramatic meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Education in early October. Hundreds of irate high schoolers packed into the boardroom, spilling out into the hallway and pooling up outside to watch a projection of the meeting on hastily erected screens. That night, the board would vote on Williams’ controversial proposal to whitewash the district’s history curriculum.

After a long evening of debate, the board voted 3-2 to approve a watered-down version of the measure that nixed language about using teaching materials that promote “positive aspects” of U.S. history and refrain from encouraging “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” Parents, teachers, administrators and all the reporters from out of town with notebooks and cameras could finally go home — the board had “compromised.”

But not everyone was satisfied by the resolution that night — the recent rally in Clements Park is a testament to the ongoing concern among students, teachers and parents about extreme ideology on the school board.

Even when civic spirit among his peers was most invigorated, Romano worried about the prospect of sustaining it. “In two weeks, it dies out,” he said. “Nobody’s talking about this anymore.”

Low attendance and minimal media coverage of the Clements Park event might mean the movement has entered its inevitable fade-out.

Political engagement (or lack thereof) among young people is the subject of endless speculation. At the turn of the millennium, people thought the Internet would be our savior — information, connection, organization — all at the click of a button. Surely, young people growing up with Internet access would have no excuse for ignorance or inaction.

Now, a decade and a half in, we’re in the thick of it, and the prevailing assessment has gone from innocently optimistic to deeply cynical. Young people are tuned in to everything but politics: It’s a theme woven into one fluffy think piece after another.

Millennials — as we’ve collectively been dubbed for the sake of convenience and condescension — make up an ambiguously defined swath of the population, but you can recognize us by our apathy. As the characterization goes, we’re a bunch of Buzzfeed-scrolling, Adderall-popping, click-happy slackers. Maybe we’ll Occupy, but only to get tagged in Facebook photos the next day. Maybe we’ll vote for Barack Obama, but only because Jay-Z was wearing that dope Shepard Fairey T-shirt.

General Disconnectedness

Chris Edmonds, 22, from Denver admits that the societal realities of 2014 might foster a general kind of disconnectedness. “Does it seem possible that the rise of personal tech and increased screen time and more Internet tubes blocking connections between real live faces would hamper social justice and civic engagement? Yes,” he said. “Could an entire generation be more self-oriented? Yes. Could we pretend to be more worldly by liking a page of a nonprofit in Africa? Yes.”

But Edmonds remains skeptical that young people today are more apathetic than ever. Sure, he said, “every generation has a multitude of fights they can engage in — one had Jim Crow, another had Vietnam, some had WTO riots, we have climate change, etc.,” but because nobody has firsthand experience in all of these situations, comparisons are hard to justify.

Still, whenever this particular generation of youth gets political, it catches people by surprise. That Jeffco teenagers made such a loud, clear and prolonged political statement is, as news goes, of tremendous local interest. But it also piqued national and international attention. “Students Use Civil Disobedience To Protest Removing It From History Curriculum,” reads a Talking Points Memo headline. “After Censorship Of History Course, Colorado Students & Teachers Give A Lesson In Civil Disobedience,” reads another from DemocracyNow!

What’s going down in west metro Denver couldn’t come at a more apt time or place. Colorado is the darling bellwether of national electoral politics, and Jefferson County is the darling bellwether of Colorado. In 2012, Jeffco was widely considered one of the counties that could determine whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama would ultimately take the presidency.

Turnout among voters ages 18-24 rode the Hope and Change wave in 2008, then receded sharply after it crested early in Obama’s first term. So when baby boomers and Gen X-ers see Jeffco high schoolers holding picket signs and talking about Howard Zinn, they’re eager to nurture that freshly invigorated civic impulse in hopes it’ll translate into a sustained commitment to democratic participation.

Whether young people will turn out to vote there in the upcoming midterms is being closely watched by campaigns; soft-money groups; county, state and national political parties; pundits; and academics — all those whose job it is to stay on top of what’s new in the mostly old-school realm of politics. The political tendencies of kids these days is of interest not only because of the sheer electoral weight we have to throw around but because, after all, we will inherit this country and decide whether to shrink Social Security checks, fund Medicare and look after people in their old age.

Millennial turnout will be especially interesting to watch this cycle, now that Colorado’s new voting laws are in place (save last year’s mail-in ballot debacle during the recalls). Since the election-reform package was passed last year, people can register online and every registered voter with a valid address will receive a mail-in ballot. Procrastinators can even show up at the clerk’s office on election day, register to vote and cast a ballot right then and there.

The hope is that giving voters a broader menu of options will increase turnout, particularly among millennials who notoriously suck at showing up for off-year elections such as this one.

The new laws give hope to advocates such as Steve Fenberg, executive director of voter-engagement group New Era Colorado.

“We’re expecting a larger, more diverse turnout — particularly among young people,” he told The Independent last week. New Era, a nonpartisan nonprofit, has a simple goal this election season: to register as many young folks as possible, then follow through to make sure they cast their ballots. So far, the group has registered more than 21,000 voters, mostly on college campuses, and another 3,000 online. You might recognize the New Era canvassing team by their cowboy-boot rollerblades, naked mannequin mascot and tables full of candy, condoms and voter-registration forms. The strategy is simple: Hire young people who can get other young people psyched about voting. When election season rolls around, New Era is purely a voter-reg machine, but it also does multi-issue advocacy “year-round so that young people can engage in the full spectrum of democracy,” Fenberg said.

Other groups such as CoPIRG, Fair Share and Work for Progress also are big into playing the ground game, sending armies of young folks with clipboards to mill around college campuses and public spaces or hoof it door-to-door. These groups also plaster their message all over social media, job-listings pages and the inside of college bathroom stalls. Mobilizing millennial voters en masse means meeting them where they are and making it as easy as possible.

Single-Issue Theory

The cast-a-wide-net strategy has been popular for a while, but there’s a newly emerging theory that supports a different approach. The theory is that millennials are single-issue voters — that is, specific causes rather than a general sense of civil duty drive them to the polls. (We saw a similar line of reasoning in 2012 with all the speculation that the chance to legalize marijuana would motivate young stoners to go vote. And it proved to be kind of true.)

The Environmental Defense Fund is making that very bet in the form of a $2 million voter-turnout campaign called Defend Our Future being rolled out in Colorado this year as a litmus test for a more national strategy in 2016. The campaign is based on the premise that young people see climate change as one of the most important issues of our time.

But, thus far, it seems recognizing the looming threat of climate change has done more to paralyze than to motivate us. “I honestly believe the situation our generation has been put in is so daunting that we, for our own psychological sanity, tuned out (of politics),” said Alex Suber, student divestment leader at Colorado College, adding, “But I don’t think we talk nearly enough, if it all, about how we vote.”

Though environmentally conscientious, Suber knows that how the issue is framed is key to whether his peers will respond to it. Thhe impetus to act needs to be close to home.

That’s why campaigns such as Defend Our Future estimate that young Coloradans are the perfect guinea pigs, what with how outdoorsy and down-to-earth we are. All the skiing, hiking, biking and fishing we like to do fosters a special connection with the environment, which might translate into a more personal commitment to conservation and sustainability. In short, if kids here care about whether there’ll be snow for their kids to ski on in the future, they might care about electing politicians who will act on climate change. Simple as that.

“Young voters of both parties understand climate change is a threat to their future. This campaign is about showing them they have the power to make politicians listen,” said Dr. Alicia Kolar Prevost, who’s running the effort for EDF, in a press release. Prevost, a political-science professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs specializing in electoral politics and voter turnout, noted that “80 percent of millennial voters understand that we need to deal with climate change, but they don’t always turn out to vote — especially in midterm elections. We believe that climate change can motivate these voters, and that will make candidates take notice.”

Indeed, “the turning point could be a political one,” Suber mused. “Maybe it’s idealistic, but I think our generation should focus more on collective and less on individual actions.”

Defend Our Future is using a mixed bag of strategies to reach voters, including some good old-fashioned canvassing on the ground at Colorado State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder to complement a data-driven social-media takeover (per the new standard set by the pioneering 2012 Obama campaign). EDF also released an arsenal of Web ads centered on the millennial trope “… said no one ever.” And if that doesn’t make sense, just go see them for yourself.

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer is also getting his feet wet in Colorado, launching a multimillion-dollar effort along the same lines as EDF. His national advocacy group, NextGen Climate, is ramping up efforts in the state, primarily targeting the U.S. Senate race through door-to-door canvassing and TV ad buys. If young voters really can be singularly motivated by environmental issues, then the choice between climate-change-denying U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner and EPA-defending U.S. Sen. Mark Udall should be pretty clear.

Right Also Woos Young

But just because millennials tend to be more progressive, secular and racially diverse than older generations hasn’t stopped the right from also trying to woo the coveted voting bloc. Generation Opportunity, the Koch-funded 501c(4) that targets the youth vote, has spent $900,000 in Colorado this cycle, mostly on ads that tell young folks that the government is taking their money and doesn’t get the Internet. Past highlights also include the squirm-worthy Uncle Sam ad series (including this actually kind of awesome one). The message here goes something like this: Government is dysfunctional, outdated and doesn’t care about you, so don’t vote for Democrats.

Then there’s the gloriously absurd governor-as-wedding-dress ad out from the College Republican National Campaign that encourages young women to choose the “Bob Boo-pray” strapless gown (Fresh! New! Pretty!) over the John Hickenlooper frumpy frock (been there; done that). The Colorado Independent already dealt with this one, filed under: I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-the-Onion. In March, the Republican National Committee released a series of ads featuring hipsters reciting GOP talking points to a mysterious, off-camera source while doing what can only be described as “millennial things” such as getting coffee or going for runs.

For those of us being targeted, these ads feel like they’re coming from that 52-year-old uncle we all have who tries to stay hip and with it but can’t seem to say or do anything that doesn’t merit an eyeroll, sigh and subject change.

Local pols have been mostly mum on the Jeffco protests, addressing them only when poked and prodded. At a candidate forum on the Auraria campus in Denver in late September, Gov. John Hickenlooper and his Republican challenger Bob Beauprez were forced to weigh in. Hickenlooper — the self-styled everyman — lightly criticized the school board’s proposed changes to the history curriculum from the vantage point of a concerned parent, saying, “The question is: Do you want your kids to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Boston Tea Party? Personally, my answer is ‘yes.’ ” Beauprez, who used to represent Jefferson County in Congress, said that “(the board has) every right to discuss curriculum” and that if people don’t like what’s going on, they can express dissent at the polls. The board members who make up the controversial majority — Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk — will be up for re-election in three years. “What this is really about is the continuing tiff between the teachers union and the elected majority,” Beauprez added.

Udall called the protests “inspiring,” while his Republican challenger, Gardner, declined to comment on what he considers a local issue.

Save some minor lip service from Dems, the response Jeffco students have seen from their elected officials has been pretty clumsy.

“Unfortunately, it’s a perpetual problem,” said Fenberg, of New Era. “Politicians aren’t talking about issues that young people care about because young people aren’t well represented at the polls. When more young people participate in the election, their views will be better addressed by candidates, but that isn’t currently the precedent.”

For now, the Jeffco youth — galvanized by their Board of Ed’s attempts not only to whitewash the history of political dissent but also to quash their own expressions of it — can channel this nascent civic spirit by pre-registering to vote. Under Colorado’s new voting laws, anyone ages 16 and older can pre-register. “This school-board meeting was a great opportunity for people to become aware of what is going on in these elections,” said Romano, from Chatfield. “I’m making sure all of my friends are pre-registered to vote.” That means that even if most of these kids aren’t old enough to earn one of those iconic “I voted” stickers this November, next time around they’ll be more than ready to flex their voting muscles as 18-year-olds when everything from the local school-board membership to the presidency will be in flux.

Whether there’ll be candidates who understand millennial concerns — and can speak to us without stereotypes or condescension — remains to be seen. But for now, stirrings on Colorado’s college campuses and in the packed hallways of Jeffco’s Board of Ed hint that our call to have a voice in politics grows increasingly louder.

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