Nation's Endangered Species: Young Voters


Today's young voters are not voting--at least not many of them.

"The numbers are dreadful," said Alison Byrne Fields, program director for Rock the Vote, which has been working for eight years to create a new generation of educated voters. "In 1998's midterm national election, only 12% of the eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted," Fields said. "Young people are effectively removing themselves from the whole political agenda."

And although people tend to vote in larger numbers as they get older, she said, this generation has grown up in a post-Watergate period of political cynicism.

"We may be creating an ongoing generation of nonvoters working its way through the system," she said.

As a result, Rock the Vote is stepping up efforts to sell political activism. It has just launched a new public service announcement campaign focusing on grass-roots work. The TV and print messages spotlight a handful of outstanding young activists around the country, including Faith Santilla, a Los Angeles community organizer working with Filipino Americans.

"In the past we have used celebrities, but these are young people everyone can identify with," Fields said.

Based in Culver City, Rock the Vote was originally formed by members of the recording industry to respond to censorship attacks against their music by reminding young people that their votes matter. Over the years its dedication to protecting freedom of expression has gradually expanded in several directions. Rock the Vote still encourages voting but now emphasizes that voting is one of a set of actions necessary for participation in a democracy.

This summer it is expanding its programs, including "1999 Rock the Vote Every Day," a two-year campaign to encourage and enable young people to participate in the civic and political aspects of their communities.

That's why Rock the Vote chose to spotlight young activists in the ads, including Santilla, 22, a community organizer with Search to Involve Philippino Americans and a member of the Balagtasan Collective, a group of Filipino poets.

"I find that young people are very interested in politics, as long as you don't call it that," said Santilla, who has been doing community work since she was 18.

At Search to Involve, she works with a county-funded alcohol and drug prevention program, "to provide alternative activities such as promoting art."

Santilla has been a poet for about six years. The short poem she wrote for the Rock the Vote campaign begins:

Who would have thought

That in the era of the millennium

Oppression and pain would maintain its continuum . . .

Although she is a Los Angeles native and a graduate of Hamilton High, Santilla's poetry focuses largely on what's going on in the Philippines, she said.

"There's a huge economic crisis," she said. "Farmers are being replaced by agribusiness, and there are almost no job opportunities, particularly for women. There are serious issues about women serving as mail-order brides."

The economic problems have extended to Los Angeles, which has the largest Filipino population in the nation, she said, and a growing gang problem.

Santilla is one of four young activists included in the campaign, which has placed ads in RayGun, Bikini, Seventeen, Teen People, Teen, Spin and Thrasher magazines.

Rock the Vote has high hopes for the campaign, Fields said.

"Too many young people are being taught not to trust elected officials and not to trust themselves. Civic responsibility is not taught in schools. Young people don't even know the physical process of voting--they are intimidated by what happens when you go into the voting booth."

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