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An Unconventional Opportunity for Political Change

A year after its selection, it is as clear as ever that Boston is the perfect home for the 2004 Democratic National Convention. This is where the country started and the story of America began. It is the gateway to the future, where cutting-edge advances in science, medicine, and technology happen every day. And, hey, Massachusetts has always been friendly to Democrats.

But it’s no coincidence that Boston also happens to be the premier college town in America. More than ever before, our party understands the need to engage young voters and next summer’s Convention is the perfect opportunity to do it. After all, if you’re having trouble bringing young people to politics, why not bring politics to young people?

The truth is, as the election draws closer, both parties will be competing to attract young Americans. As a group of voters, you are viewed as a high risk, high reward constituency. Because so many of you are outside the political process right now as an untapped resource, the potential reward is huge for a candidate who pays attention to you. The risk, of course, is that even if a candidate reaches out, you still won’t care enough to turn out at the polls. There is a perception out there that young people don’t vote their interests—or vote at all—because they don’t care enough to know them.

But I think apathy is too simple a way to describe the phenomenon of low voter turnout among young people. When 60 percent of college students participate in some kind of community service, as a study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found last year, it is hard to say that young people don’t care about the issues that face our country. And when 60 percent also believe this voluntarism more effectively combats social problems than the political process, it is wrong to say they don’t think they can make a difference. They do—just not through politics.

So, no, apathy is not the right way to characterize young Americans’ regard for the issues that face them. Maybe they care so much that they become all the more frustrated—and apt to give up altogether on politics—when they don’t feel they are listened to. Maybe they then decide to fight the only way that they know how, the only way that they can witness results, the only way that they feel their efforts make an immediate difference, and so turn to community service.

But to confront national issues through volunteerism and never engage in politics is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. For every bit of difference you make through your efforts with the Phillips Brooks House Association, the reach of the counterproductive decisions that the Bush administration makes every day is that much greater.

While some of you are tutoring high school students for the SAT through the CHANCE program, the Bush education cuts and tax cut agenda, which has contributed to a rise in state college tuitions of 14 percent, has made it that much harder for their families to afford a college education.

While others of you spend one day a week reading to preschool children through the Harvard Emerging Literacy Project, President Bush, who wants to end 38 years of guaranteed federal funding for Head Start, is jeopardizing those kids’ chance to be there with you.

And while still others of you in the South Boston Adult Education program are helping welfare mothers earn their GED to get them on the path to employment, the Bush Administration’s economic policy has led to the evaporation of 3 million jobs.

Clearly, the challenge for our party is not to get you to care about the issues facing our country. You already do. The challenge is to convince you that politics is the most effective means to make a difference.

The first step in doing this is to gain your trust that your voice will be heard if only you raise it. So make no mistake: The Democratic Party is coming to Boston for many reasons, but it is also coming because this, more than any place else, is where the youth of America lives and learns.

And we need you. Historically, it’s been the youngest members of our party who most ably prod our collective conscience and embody our idealism at its rawest and purest. Many of your parents belong to the generation that helped to lead the civil rights movement when they were no older than you are now. Two decades later, in 1992, young people reversed a 20-year downward trend in their age group’s voter turnout, successfully paving the way for eight years of promise and prosperity.

There is reason for Democrats to believe that the finest hour for America’s young people is still to come. The IOP’s most recent survey discovered that 50 percent of you would volunteer to help on a political campaign if only you were asked.

Well, I am asking you now: Help us end the vicious cycle that keeps young people shut out of the political process.

We at the Democratic National Convention Committee are doing our best to take the first step. Just last week, we hosted a breakfast with 50 youth leaders from area colleges to discuss their ideas on how to bring young people back to the political process. In the months ahead, we will continue to hear out more young people from local campuses to better gauge your interests and concerns. In addition, through our first-ever “Speak out for the Future” essay contest, we have committed to awarding one college-aged student the chance to address the Convention in prime time next July.

In 260 days, the Democratic Party will gather inside the FleetCenter and nominate the next president of the United States. It will be a showcase of the best that our party has to offer.

In so many ways, that means you. You, the nation’s young people, are our party’s greatest hope—in 2004 and beyond. Now is the time to give up your skepticism and take back your country. You already know what’s at stake; what you need to know is how much power you have to do something about it.

Roderick J. O’Connor, a 2003 graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, is chief executive officer of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He will be speaking in Assistant Professor of Government D. Sunshine Hillygus’ class “Government 1352: Campaigns and Elections” in Sever Hall 213 at 10 a.m. this morning.

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