When I first read of the opening for an internship with the National Youth Rights Association, I had to read the name twice. “What are Youth Rights?” I asked myself. I believe that I know at least a little about the world. I know that there are children who suffer from starvation and poverty each day in the United States and across the world. I know that the education that youth receives never seems to steadily improve. Yet what ‘rights’ does a high school sophomore have other than not being forced into labor and saying no to drugs.
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I understood that I had privileges. I was privileged to learn to drive at 16. I was privileged to see movies with ratings between G and P-13. I was privileged to work in a grocery store and save tip money to buy clothes. Actions such as voting, assembly and free speech were important to me, but they didn’t seem that relevant. Who cared what I thought of the state of the government? It wasn’t until I was a high school junior when I actually began to apply the U.S. Constitution to the freedoms I have. So, reading that teenagers were actually upset that they couldn’t vote was a surprise to me.
Then I thought of this very valuable word called incentive, which brought me back to my freshman year in college, 2004. It was November, during the Bush and Kerry race for President. On voting day, I woke up and rushed to my car to pass the building where voting was taking place to get to my psychology class. “I’ll vote on my way home,” I said to myself while driving. I hadn’t chosen a candidate, and honestly I didn’t see that much coming out of my single measly vote. But after a day of classes and an incident that kept me from making it back to the voting polls in time, I came home only to be disgusted at the news broadcasts with the hyperactive graphics on the screen and the bouncy reporters trying to interpret them and declare a winner. I complained to my father for over an hour about my disappointment with politics but only to be silenced when he said, “you still should have voted.” I didn’t vote because throughout my adolescence, I never developed an appreciation for the opportunity, the right and arguably the duty to vote.
I told myself that I would vote later because I would’ve risked missing class if I did it that morning. But if I really valued my right to vote at age 18, in the midst of a critical election, I would’ve left early that morning to do so. But voting didn’t seem like a right or duty to me, it was simply an optional privilege. The National Youth Rights Association is important because it provides young people with that incentive to voice themselves and to take advantage of rights that are not even valued by many adults. As I work this summer to help people across the states in starting chapters, I hope to give them a spark that will keep them focused on using their rights whenever they can.