Youth express their political views by writing letters to the next president

Letters to the Next President 2.0 provides a way for young people to express their perspectives, opinions and wishes regarding public and civic issues that matter to them.

With the 2016 election season coming into full swing, issues of public debate dominate the top news stories and social media feeds for many Americans. While the candidates, political parties, news media and commentators focus on issues that matter to voters, young people, many of whom are not yet eligible to vote, also have an important role to play in the dialogue surrounding issues of public and civic concern. Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2P 2.0) is an initiative that provides a space for young people to share their views on issues that matter to them, while utilizing the tools of digital media to be active participants in the political process.

L2P 2.0 is geared towards youth ages 13 to 18 and aims “to empower young people to voice their opinions and ideas on the issues that matter to them in the coming election”. The National Writing Project started Letters to the Next President in 2008 and has expanded the platform this year to include resources that allow youth to utilize digital media tools and social media to amplify their voices within the public dialogue surrounding the 2016 election cycle. The L2P 2.0 website includes tools and resources for youth, teachers and other adult mentors who work with youth to use in researching and identifying civic issues that they can highlight in their letters. The website also includes training resources and opportunities for adults and youth to learn different ways of producing and sharing their letters using digital media tools and the internet. The L2P 2.0 website will also be a place where young people can publish their letters to the next president for others to view. The website will become a publishing platform for young people sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2016.

The resources provided by L2P 2.0 provide an excellent way for educators and adult mentors to engage young people in learning about issues of civic and political nature during this election season. Youth can also gain valuable knowledge and skills that will allow them to engage in what is known as “participatory politics”, which are “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern,” according to Cathy Cohen and other members of the Youth Participatory Politics Research Network. Cohen and her colleagues have discovered “that over 40 percent of young people report having engaged in at least one online act of participatory politics.”

Research demonstrates that youth are utilizing the internet and digital media to engage in civics in many different ways. Researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for instance, have identified the different practices and approaches that young people use to engage with new media for the purpose of civic engagement. These include five participatory practices: investigation (researching social issues), circulation (sharing civic content or ideas), production (producing civic content), dialogue and feedback (exchanging ideas with others or giving feedback to elites) and mobilization (encouraging fellow citizens to take action on behalf of a cause). The researchers have found that youth engage in these civic practices online using casual, purposeful and/or strategic approaches depending on the specific practice they are engaged in. The finding of the researchers suggest that “the internet may be changing the where and how of youth civic and political participation.” 

Letters to the Next President 2.0 exemplifies the emerging opportunities available to engage youth online in civic and political dialogue and participation. Resources on the L2P 2.0 website, such as mini-units focused on finding a topic to write about and structuring a letter by focusing on audience and purpose, are valuable tools for educators to use in building online civic engagement knowledge and skills among youth. The mini-unit on finding a topic to write about lays out the steps that young people can go through while engaged in the letter writing process. The mini-unit structures the letter writing process into steps that engage youth in understanding the purpose of letter writing, thinking about how they would like to change the world, examining how other youth have structured their letters, choosing a topic for letter writing, finding sources and gathering information, making arguments, drafting and organizing letters, and editing and publishing their letters online. 

Educators and young people can also explore other resources on the L2P 2.0 website for ideas on utilizing digital media tools and social media to produce and share video, audio and text or image based versions of their letters to the next president. See letters that young people have written by searching with the hashtag #2nextprez now and throughout the upcoming election season.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas. To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 impact report Developing Civically Engaged Leaders. 

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