Greater Cleveland’s youth rise to the task of local civic engagement

Phillip Bounthisavath of Safer Heights on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021
Phillip Bounthisavath of Safer Heights on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. [Michael Indriolo / The Land]

By Michael Indriolo, The Land

Jumping into local politics can be especially challenging for young people balancing their early careers and education with positively contributing to their communities, but despite this, young people throughout Greater Cleveland have paved their own roads to local civic engagement.

“There's so much of a focus on national [politics], it's so easy to get drawn in, like, ‘Oh, that's the only thing that makes a difference,’” said Niko Ustin, a high school sophomore at the Hawken School of Mastery. “But in reality, local politics makes more of a difference to you personally.”

Along with the day-to-day pressures young people face, negativity on social media can understandably turn many away from engaging with pervasive and complex social issues. Yet many throughout Greater Cleveland — activists, candidates and podcasters alike — have redirected that broad hopelessness into hyperlocal action. 

Ustin and a group of his classmates, for example, created a website called votecle.com that serves as a one-stop shop for basic information on Cleveland’s upcoming elections. They even created a political alignment survey on the site that matches respondents with candidates based on their answers to questions about hot-button local issues. 

A cynicism toward politics

Now, Ustin and his team made this as part of a school project, and although it was largely independent, teachers still initiated the focus on local politics. Most young people don’t have that kind of incentive to engage with local politics. 

“For me, especially in the beginning [of my political engagement], there was an overwhelming sense of dread about politics,” said Sam Bowen, a high school junior at the Hawken School of Mastery and a member of the votecle.com team. “There's this overwhelming sense of, ‘You can't do anything.’ And I think that idea, that concept, is harmful, especially to young people. I know a lot of people who are very political-minded. They have lots of opinions about politics, but they never engage with politics. I think that comes from this idea that you can't do anything, but in reality, you can. … There's a ton of opportunities for you to change things.” 

But all those local opportunities don’t always pop up on most young people’s social media feeds, Bowen said. Instead, sometimes hopeless-seeming national issues tend to get more traction on apps like Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok. 

“I think there's a cynicism towards politics,” said Phillip Bounthisavath, a Cleveland Heights-based activist and law student. “It's gonna create this perpetual cycle of apathy where we don't really care what's going on. I want to kind of avoid that.” 

It takes time, energy and money that young people don’t usually have 

Bounthisavath is one of a group of Cleveland Heights High School graduates who last year created Safer Heights, a Black youth-led, decentralized activist organization in response to nationwide calls for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder. They’re taking on a pervasive issue: breaking the structural “shackles of oppression” that hold people of color, he said. 

Bounthisavath and his fellow activists constantly battle that political cynicism, but aside from the psychological toll, taking on basic civic responsibilities requires time that most young people are short on, he said. Young people starting their careers have tons to work on, and “grind culture” can often lead to burnout.

“Oftentimes, we just can't think about it on a wider scope because we're just trying to pay rent and trying to survive out here,” he said. “It's this cycle of, you want to care about these things, but it's just not the time and energy for it.”

Pearl Chen

[Pearl Chen]

And it’s not like activism is mindless work, either, said Pearl Chen, a young organizer who works with Cleveland’s chapter of the Sunrise Movement and the InterReligious Task Force on Central America. Chen really dove into community organizing back in 2019, and she has since worked locally to prevent utility shut offs in Cleveland and internationally to free political prisoners in Honduras. 

That kind of work can take an emotional toll, she said. 

“One of the biggest challenges that I face in this work is just being able to reframe my perspective on what can be done,” Chen said. “Sometimes, it does feel like there's so much against us.”

Generating momentum around local issues that might not be as interesting or “sexy” as hot-button national issues can be hard, she said. Addressing local political issues often starts on granular scales and requires those working to change them to really get into the weeds. 

“The more local that you get with whatever issue you're trying to address, the more of an expert you have to become on that issue,” Chen said.

And on top of being physically, mentally and emotionally draining, time and energy spent getting politically engaged can be financially expensive, too, said Isaac Goff-Mitchell. During his freshman year of college, he started a political consulting firm, Necessary and Proper Consulting, with his friend and Cleveland resident, Philipp Corfman. In 2019, they managed both Dontea Gresham’s bid for Euclid City Council and Anton Krieger’s bid for North Royalton City Council. 

Gresham was still earning a bachelor’s degree while running, and Krieger was only 20 years old, two decades younger than his opponent. Every hour spent door knocking meant one less hour of studying or working. Since most young people work lower-paying entry-level jobs, they generally have to spend more time working to make ends meet, leaving them less time for civic engagement. 

For young candidates, recognition and credibility pose challenges as well, Goff-Mitchell said.

Krieger knocked on doors in a suit. “If I show up to people's houses in blue jeans and a T-shirt, they're gonna think I'm 16 years old,” he told Goff-Mitchell at the time. “They're not going to take me seriously.” 

“That's something that, if you're in your 30s, 40s, 50s, you don't have to think about: Will people even consider me a legitimate candidate because of my age?” Goff-Mitchell said.

Baby steps

Even though Krieger lost, Goff-Mitchell points to the fact that he was only three votes behind his opponent as an example of how successful young candidates can be.

Goff-Mitchell dove into Krieger’s campaign on his podcast The Youth Vote, which chronicles the stories of young people who’ve tried their hands at politics. He features city council members in their early 20s and teenage climate activists from all over the country for conversations about current events and explorations into the issues and ideas faced by young people.

“With politics in general, I think that people need to realize that there's not an age you reach where it all of a sudden starts affecting you or mattering to you,” he said. “Politics is in everything.”

And for the majority of young people who don’t want to run for elected office, Goff-Mitchell emphasized that a bevy of engagement opportunities remain. Even people too young to vote can hop onto the campaign trails of candidates they support — candidates and activist organizations alike constantly need the energy and creativity of young campaign staffers. 

From left to right: Philipp Corfman, Dontea Gresham, Anton Krieger and Isaac Goff-Mitchell.

From left to right: Philipp Corfman, Dontea Gresham, Anton Krieger and Isaac Goff-Mitchell. [Isaac Goff-Mitchell]

For those who may feel anxious about direct campaigning like phone banking and door knocking, campaigns and activist organizations often have a need for skills in fields like graphic design and fundraiser organizing, to name a couple. 

While Goff-Mitchell has taken a broad approach to addressing youth civic engagement, Bounthisavath and Safer Heights have sought to break down their overarching goal into smaller, more actionable ones. 

While reallocating public safety dollars is part of their long-term vision for a more racially equitable society, Bounthisavath said they’re also taking more manageable steps like supporting the Issue 69 levy for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, which Safer Heights helped campaign for last year. It passed by just 135 votes after triggering a recount. 

“It felt really good to just kind of work on something and then see a change,” Bounthisavath said. That sense of working together for progress helps with morale, and it’s why Safer Heights emphasizes community empowerment: No one can change the world alone, he said. 

“We're doing things together,” Bounthisavath said. “Your time is valuable, so if you're feeling burnt out, and you know, you're feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, take a step back. It's always OK to take a step back for a little bit, take a breather and delegate things.”

For Chen, getting engaged with local organizing offered the opportunity to build relationships not only within the organizations she worked with, but among other local organizations, too. Those relationships can be a lot easier to maintain between local organizations working on similar issues, she said, and they lend her a sense of hope that she’s not alone. 

But organizing also offered her an opportunity for personal growth. She had briefly worked at an environmental consulting firm for oil and gas companies, and the job didn’t shape up how she thought it would. She wanted to make a more direct impact, so she quit last year and took on organizing full time. This year, she won the rising activist award from Greater Cleveland Community Shares.

“So much of the work that you do in politics is reflected in the work that you do in yourself and also interpersonally with your relationships,” she said. “Oftentimes, the work that we get interested in and stay committed with is the work that resonates with us personally.”

A huge part of that work you do in yourself as an organizer comes down to self care and reflection. Being politically engaged doesn’t mean you have to give 200% of your effort, she said, it means committing long term to causes that matter deeply to you. 

Repairing the roads of engagement 

Finding one specific cause to care about can seem impossible if you’re logged into certain circles on social media where the news cycle can feel overwhelmingly fast paced. However, recent research into how social media has impacted civic engagement among its users shows that it may help young people experiment with their political values. 

In particular, a recent UNICEF report found that “many of today’s youth take to digital spaces to develop their civic identities and express political stances in creative ways, claiming agency that may not be afforded to them in traditional civic spaces.” 

That new ripple in the tempest of young political zeal stormed out of digital spaces in 2020 when just shy of half of Ohio’s young eligible voters hit the polls (on average, 39% more people under 29 years old nationwide voted in 2020 than in 2016).

Ustin and Bowen, the Hawken School of Mastery students, said they’ve seen that positive aspect of social media, too. It helps with spreading awareness about social issues, they said, but not as much with offering actionable steps to address those issues. 

So even though they’re both too young to vote in Cleveland’s upcoming mayoral election, fostering some kind of political action drove them to create votecle.com.

After a few weeks of research, Bowen and Ustin’s group decided to focus their project on engaging drop-off voters, or consistent presidential election voters who generally don’t participate in local elections. The group’s research found that drop-off voters tend to be young, Ustin said, and they stay out of local politics mostly because they don’t feel informed and don’t know the candidates.

“So we thought, ‘OK, how do we target a young population of people and solve those three problems?” Ustin said. “The answer was clearly a website, and from there, it's kind of grown legs and turned into a full organization.”

Beginning in April, the site took about six weeks to build, and a few months later, it got Ustin and Bowen’s group a grant from Cleveland Votes

Hawken’s teachers encouraging students to navigate the murky waters of local politics helps, Ustin said, but driving up youth engagement in Cleveland necessitates internal work. Like dealing with busted roads, city government ought to build new avenues for young people to engage with local politics, and they should work on outreach while they’re at it. 

“You build from within the structures, and then you reach out,” Ustin said. “Young people want to have a say. They don't want to just be told, ‘Great, that's a good idea. Now let the adults go talk about it.’ They want some power and say in what happens.”

Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.

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