Gina Genovese is the only candidate who has endorsed the NJ Gubernatorial Youth Council
Source: Getty, Teen Vogue
Running! is a Teen Vogue series on getting involved in the government. This profile follows high school students in New Jersey who are trying to create a gubernatorial youth council in their state.
After witnessing what they considered dismal political participation overall from young people in their state, some teens in New Jersey are hoping to get their peers involved — and have politicians take them more seriously — by creating a youth council to advise the governor on the policy matters that affect them the most.
James Wellemeyer, a 17-year-old rising high school senior, got the idea after the 2016 election to reach out to other New Jersey students who'd been involved in political endeavors to see if they wanted to help form a youth council on a state level. Initially, he reached out to people he'd known from earlier involvement in a movement that was trying to establish a presidential youth council, but it wasn't completed by the end of former president Barack Obama's term. Upon realizing that the current administration would likely not enact a national youth council, the idea of a more-localized council took shape, and James's initiative has grown to include more than 80 students."The narrative in the media [is] that young people didn't care about politics and young people didn’t vote, and the statistics back them up," James tells Teen Vogue. "I thought the reason for that might be that many people around me had opportunities to get involved that other people haven’t had, so the best way to get more young people involved and to motivate them and to give them a voice in government where they haven’t really had a voice would be to create an advisory council to the governor."
If the council is created, the group hopes to use online ballots to elect 24 high school students — two from each congressional district — to one-year terms. There would be a two-term limit, which organizers say would ensure fairness, representation, and participation. The council would meet four times a year to write policy recommendations for the governor and the New Jersey legislature, and organizers hope that during the months between those sessions, members would be meeting with their local representatives to drum up support and talking to their peers about what they'd like to see the council recommend in the future.When he began such a large undertaking, James first decided to try getting endorsements from candidates running for governor, since the election is in November. But he realized that even that would be a challenge. So he decided to use his team to first gain support from other key players in the state. "Gubernatorial candidates don’t have any incentive to talk to us or endorse us if we don’t already have some sort of influence," he explains. "So the endorsements from organizations, mayors, and legislators give us more backing when we go into conversations with the governor. [We can] show the governor that it’s not just this group of kids who wants [this council] but it’s a lot of people who also believe that this is a good cause."
The process of gaining those endorsements is a long one. Neha Lund, a 17-year-old rising senior who oversees outreach to mayors throughout the state, says that she is often not taken seriously, and often, her requests to mayors and their staffs are ignored. "I’m a rising senior in high school and not really the most 'official' person; you wouldn’t typically expect legislators to respect you as much as [they do] their colleagues," Neha tells Teen Vogue.But she says support from legislators and their teams has been largely overwhelming and that people's attitudes toward young people are changing. "I think this campaign puts me in a really cool position to get people to respect us as teenagers and understand that we have more to say than what’s stereotypical and that we want to make a real change," Neha says. The team has also made some impressive gains, earning support from independent gubernatorial candidate Gina Genovese and large, youth-related organizations like Rock The Vote. James says he's been in contact with Republican and Democratic gubernatorial campaigns as well.
Vicki Xie, a 17-year-old rising senior whose duty is to organize gubernatorial endorsements for the campaign, says the group will be nonpartisan and flexible, and will work on issues decided by its members. "It’s really up to what the representatives care about," she explains to Teen Vogue. James says one example is environmental initiatives: Most students in the state learn about recycling at a young age, but very few public and private schools actually practice the effort, James says, so the council could propose a recycling program to the governor.The organizers have gained endorsements from more than a dozen mayors, 12 New Jersey General Assembly members, three state senators, and one gubernatorial candidate. It took numerous persistent phone calls, emails, and meetings, and there's still plenty of work to be done. "I call the campaign, they direct me to the right people, I email, I call again, it’s a long process," Vicki notes.
Neha believes that the great conversations and support have made the ongoing obstacles worth it. "[The people we talk to] are just really excited that we’re doing something a little more local, and a lot of them are really on board with it," she says. "The support and the outstanding yeses we get are really rewarding and reassuring that it’s all being done for a greater good."Through it all, the group has its eyes on the prize. "The ultimate goal of the council is to give youth a voice in government and address what’s important in their community," James says.
[Originally posted on Teen Vogue here on Sept 3, 2017]