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When the May 2018 primary election was held, Philly citizens didn’t much care. Just 17 percent of registered voters in the city bothered to show up to help decide the major party candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and federal and state legislatures.
With midterm elections fast approaching, politicians and activist groups are working to ramp up voter turnout across Philadelphia.
So are two 16-year-old girls.
Meet Beyonce Brown and Amaya Williams, two high school juniors studying at Girard College.
On Tuesday, Sept. 25 (which happens to be National Voter Registration Day), they’re hosting a registration drive outside the front door of their school. No, they can’t yet vote, but the event is designed to engage the North Philadelphia community in which their school is located. To make it even more attractive, anyone who registers gets free refreshments — the perfect complement to a sense of civic pride.
Of course, the drive will have to work around Brown and Williams’ class schedule. It’ll begin before the school day normally starts, with a push from 6:30 to 8 a.m. Then they’ll break to spend the day learning, and return to the drive from 3:30 to 8 p.m.
What inspired the effort? These two students take low voter turnout personally.
“There’s so many things in this country going on that we have a chance to change,” Williams told Billy Penn. “It’s frustrating that people aren’t taking advantage of this privilege…when Beyonce and I can’t even vote yet.”
This isn’t the pair’s first foray into activism. They helped lead Girard College’s iteration of the National School Walkout, which protested gun violence following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Encouraged by the response, over the summer they came up with the idea to host a voter registration drive — it turns out that the ward in which their school is located is one of those with the lowest voter registration numbers.
When they returned to school after break, the two students asked for some help putting it all together. A.J. Ernst, who works in Girard’s development department, helped them track down the right forms from state Rep. Donna Bullock, and get involved with activist groups like Rock the Vote and Planned Parenthood. Though Ernst provided some muscle, he insists Williams and Brown were “the brains of the operation.”
“They see the things they want to change,” Ernst added, “and that’s what we need to cultivate as educators.”
Gun violence, the students said, is the main issue they’re looking to address by registering people to vote.
“After us planning the Walkout, a lot of people felt like it would be a one-and-done thing,” Brown said. “This was our way to build on that.”
“We’re not able to vote because we’re underage,” Brown added. “This way, we’re bringing people in to vote, and they get to add action to our voice.”
To them, their age isn’t a barrier to inspiring change.
“A lot of people look at us like, you’re only 16, how do you know so much?” Williams said. “I’ve spoken to so many uneducated adults on voting and politics, and they’re so surprised when I speak with such knowledge about it.”