Nicole Hensel is the Executive Director of New Era Colorado, Colorado’s largest and most effective youth civic engagement organization. She lives in Denver, Colorado.
Last Tuesday, we saw election results in Colorado like we have never seen before. The people have spoken: but more importantly, young people have spoken. Young adults ages 18–34 turned out at record levels across the country, most notably here in Colorado where young people turned out at 70% and made up 27% of the vote share (final numbers still pending). Youth turnout is 9 percentage points higher than the last presidential election and our vote share makes us the largest voting bloc in the state.
Young people defied all the odds — a global pandemic, disinformation, intimidation at the polls — and made their voices heard at the ballot box. Yet, young people did not turn out for a political party or a candidate: we turned out for our future.
To understand why young people turned out in droves, you need to understand this generation and what we’ve experienced. We are the most diverse generation that has ever existed in America. We came of age during the Occupy Wallstreet movement while many of our families were suffering economic ruin from the 2008 recession; we realized our power through movements for justice, with young Black activists leading the Movement for Black Lives and the young Parkland students leading the March for our Lives. We’ve watched our planet burn while corporations get richer; we see our communities suffering from a global pandemic without healthcare, child care, nor a social safety net to hold us in place. And when many of us voted for the first time in 2016, we lost faith in our country to deliver on its founding ideals of justice and equality.
Throughout history, young people have been the first to call out injustice, the first to demand change. We are the first line of defense in upholding our democratic values. Young people are hopeful, imaginative, optimistic, and creative.
Many call us radicals, but in actuality, we understand the scale of the problems we are inheriting, and therefore the scale of response these problems necessitate. It’s not radical to demand that public goods — healthcare, education, housing, a clean planet — remain in the hands of the public instead of the market. It’s not radical to demand a fair tax system where the wealthiest pay their fair share and do their part to uphold our social contract. It’s not radical to pay reparations to Black and Indigenous peoples for years of slavery, genocide, and systemic racism that persist to this day. It’s not radical to demand debt-free college when a college degree has become necessary for a living wage. It’s not radical to fight for the dignity and humanity of all.
Young people turned out and we voted our values. Now, it’s time for our elected officials and our elders to listen earnestly and take action with intention. We have a mandate to center the youth agenda: COVID recovery, climate change, healthcare, student debt, and economic justice. But the #1 issue that young people care about is racial justice, because we believe in the notion that when one of us thrives, we all thrive. Therefore, the way we solve all other issues must center justice: environmental justice, health justice, and economic justice.
Our country is in desperate need of reimagining itself. 2020 brought a global pandemic, an economic recession, destructive wildfires, and national cries for racial justice. Now is the time for our country and our state to rebuild anew and live up to its founding ideals of justice and equality. And young people, we’re the ones to reimagine our future.
Next year, New Era Colorado will embark on a statewide listening tour to hear young people’s vision for the world and for Colorado. We will use this visioning process to shape and move forward the Youth Agenda: a roadmap for how we rebuild our social contract with love, justice, and equality at the center. We will continue to connect young people’s vote to the issues they care about by centering student debt reform in the state legislature and giving young people a platform at the capitol. New Era will organize young people, year after year, as a political home for young people until we achieve the vision of the world we want to create.
It’s time to pass the mic to the next generation, and let us design the solutions to the problems we are inheriting. This election, we chose us — and now, we choose our future.