The first time I cast a vote in a real election, I was 16. That doesn’t sound right as the legal federal voting age is 18. However, my city was the first in America to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. I had the opportunity to pick my city council member and mayor, but the real impact of that day was far deeper. That was the day that I truly became a citizen. Democracies thrive on action and a refusal to fall into passive acceptance of what those in higher positions say. This system asks us to be alert, to be informed, to embrace as we critique, to shape the future of our countries through love and attention.
Every human has the inherent need to be independent and to be free. In a seeming contradiction, every society has the need to be organized. The only solution that satisfies both is a democracy. When people are given a choice in how they are organized, in what the systems around them look like and how they function, they will be truly part of the group in a way that authoritarianism will never muster. At the first city council meeting I ever attended, I was shocked by how long people were allowed to ramble for. The main topic on the agenda was nominating members for the council yet we heard about leaky pipes, late buses, and international peace movements from citizens who walked up to the microphone. Part of me was exasperated but for all my frustration over the length of the meeting, I was equally exhilarated. The passion in the voices of my neighbors united us. Everyone at the podium felt that they had something important to say and everyone in the audience thought it was important enough to stay. I left the meeting with a much better understanding of what democracy actually looks like. I had read Locke and Rousseau in tenth grade but to watch it play out in front of me was a whole different story. Yes, it was messy and inefficient. Yes, some people over shared. And yes, I got home far later than expected. But at the same time, I realized how much power the voice of a citizen has. My city and my country’s laws are dedicated to giving time and space for constituents to speak. I had never appreciated it fully until I was in the midst of the shouting and the laughter and the pure energy that emanated from the room on that night.
Years before my first city council meeting, I attended my first protest. It wasn’t actually a protest, but a counter-protest. My friend and I gathered with hundreds of others outside of a high school to outweigh the voices of a handful of hateful men and women dedicated to shaming a gay principal for coming out to his students. Somebody passed me a cheat sheet about halfway through the gathering with some of the chants. One that I would see again and again over the years, from gun control walkouts to the National Women’s March, was a call and response. ‘Show me what democracy looks like!’ a sole voice would call out. ‘This is what democracy looks like!’ hundreds called back. I’ve chanted this in the middle of the road, on the steps of the Capitol building, and while linking arms with activists outside of the White House. Unfortunately, the right to protest granted so easily to me hasn’t always been available to my fellow citizens. Members of the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock were strip-searched, blasted with sound cannons, and blinded by pepper spray for refusing to give up the right to clean water just two years ago. No democracy is perfect and America certainly has a long way to go on many levels, especially concerning protests, the deeply inappropriate flow of money into politics, and government transparency. But we have the basic tenents in place and that allows for a foundation to build a more perfect society. For the longest time, America wasn’t technically a democracy. Until the 1970s, voting rights were so heavily restricted that no one could say that every voice was represented in good faith. With so much progress made in the past few decades, it’s invigorating to consider what America will look like in years to come. We can continue to expand the abilities of the average citizen to participate in civic life. By knocking down barriers to voting, by increasing access to politicians, and allowing for protests to thrive, America will be doing itself a favor. There are many benefits to a thriving democracy, not least of all being the self-fulfilling aspect. Each act of engagement leads to a feeling of joy and satisfaction that encourages more and more acts of citizenry. Go to one protest, and I promise you’ll want to go back for more. Voting once made me infinitely more excited to vote again in years to come. And why stop there? People of all ages can write letters to the editor of their local newspaper, call their representatives, advocate for a cause on social media, register voters, attend city council meetings, and fight for more universal suffrage, at home and abroad.
To be a good citizen in a democracy also means growing. It’s not easy but it’s deeply important to engage with those we disagree with. In a country where we’re allowed to think for ourselves, to not challenge our own beliefs is a neglectful act. We can enjoy the freedom of the press by reading articles by authors of various political orientations and appreciate our right to vote by researching the policies of each candidate on the ballot. A democracy begins in one’s mind and ends with millions engaged. A democracy is a place where all can be heard. A democracy is a living, thriving organism fueled by the active participation of citizens. Constant growth is not only possible but deeply necessary for the continuing success and health of our great experiment.