Teens to the next presidential administration: Bring people together

By Hannah Lee

Tens of thousands tuned into “We the Young People,” a teen inauguration special spotlighting how teens are navigating a historic time in American democracy. Hosted by PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, in partnership with GBH’s WORLD Channel, the event  featured first-time voters, leading journalists and Gen Z activists.

Focused on youth voice, the event engaged students, teachers and community members across the country, and also included a live panel hosted by host Amna Nawaz of the PBS NewsHour with young activists. Viewers learned about the issues most pressing to young voters and chimed in with questions and comments via live chats across NewsHour digital platforms.

From equal access to education to misinformation, students around the country kicked off the program with shared messages to the next president on the changes they hope to see from the incoming administration. 

Gwen Ifill Legacy fellows Angeline Abrera, Mercedes Ezeji, and Jaylah Moore-Ross discussed the historic nature of Kamala Harris’ vice presidential win with NewsHour’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor. Based on their own experiences as young women of color, fellows resonated with the public scrutiny and obstacles Harris faced during the election period about her race and background.

Ezeji shed light on the lasting positive impacts of Harris’ representation in office for young people watching. “I think about the younger generations,” she said. “For them to see something like that that’s just so positive… and feel like they can also just accomplish things… I really find that just really beautiful.”

Alcindor, too, weighed in, adding that she has faced criticism in her line of work based on her racial background, and offered advice on how to rise above the adversity:

“Find the people who believe in you… who are confident in your ability to grow.”

Historic rates of young voters also gave rise to a number of young people who ran for office. Student reporter Sofia Verani interviewed newly-elected young officials Tony Labranche (D-NH), Kristin O’Shea (R-KS), and Abraham Aiyash (D-MI) on entering public service at a young age due to their personal experiences in their local political communities. 

Despite their differing political views, the elected officials were united in their resolve to represent the voices of the constituents that rely on them for impactful change.

“More people of my generation should be running for office. We need to be actually participating in the political process if we really do want to solve the issues,” 19-year-old Labranche said.

We the Young People also took place days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. As a student and first-time voter, Ashan’te Carr talked with her teacher Greg Smith from W.B. Saul High School in Pennsylvania about the evolving meaning of democracy in America after a series of history-altering events in the past year alone.

Carr still believes in a positive change, even through the pattern of instability in our country.

“I’m really used to all of the negativity… it seemed like since then everything’s been going downhill,” she said. “Hopefully in the future, it will be less conflict and more hope.”

Through Smith’s eyes, people like Carr, who are growing participants of the democratic process, give him hope for our democracy. “You are part of our future leaders,” he said. “The fact that you are so involved and engaged gives me hope that democracy will be restored in the future.”

Misinformation continues to be a pervasive issue following the 2020 election cycle and the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Student reporter Bridgette Adu-Wadier interviewed University of Washington professor Jevin West about the alarming effects of misinformation. As an aspiring journalist, Adu-Wadier connected with West on the importance of using empathy in tough conversations on how to bridge the broken trust between younger generations and the press.

“Our democracy depends on some level of trust in [our] institutions,” said West, who discussed the erosion of trust in generations to come.

To show how teens can actively combat misinformation online, digital journalist Heaven Taylor-Wynn talked to Loren Miranda and Angie Li from MediaWise’s Teen Fact Checking network. Miranda and Li reflected on the fueling of misinformation that led to the Capitol attack and extended their responsibilities of being fact checkers directly to teens. 

Miranda emphasized treating the spread of information on social media with equal importance, regardless of how many followers one has on their account.

“Even if you don’t have a million followers, even if you just have a few hundred, you’re an influencer,” she said. “It’s important that every teen is a fact checker.”

The special ended with a live conversation hosted by NewsHour senior correspondent Amna Nawaz with youth activists Andrea Gonzalez, Benji Backer and Alliyah Logan on what Gen Z is looking forward to and expecting for the upcoming Biden administration. 

From advocating for stricter gun laws to gender equality and climate change, all three activists shared different ways on how to continue making change despite the pandemic and political polarization. Panelists also responded to the criticism that often follows young leaders and offered how to counter them by keeping faith in the unique perspectives of Gen Z. 

“Adults need to be open to change… we’re in a new generation,” Backer said. “As a conservative, seeing how young conservatives and young liberals align in a lot of the issues is a change that older generations need to be more open to.” 

Backer also shared how Gen Z is capable of paving the way for more unity in a time where political differences and age gaps are emphasized more than ever.

Logan ended the panel by emphasizing the importance of attracting all young people to the grounds of activism in order to make meaningful change in this country. 

“Your voice is important, your background is important,” she said. “We’re getting into this movement and recognizing that we are the young people that are going to make the change.”

Positive reactions were posted across the live streams on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Viewers posed questions and posted comments throughout the special and on social media. Students, teachers, and parents shared questions ranging from how to combat misinformation to raising the importance of making sure journalists represent youth voices in the media. Viewers shared their appreciation of the diversity of youth voices provided in the special during each of the segments. 

One viewer on YouTube, Fabiola Okeke, commented, “I love the diversity of these teen representatives and their vision of Biden’s administration.”

Viewers also stressed the importance of media literacy and civics in our daily lives during the special’s discussions on repairing democracy. “Education is the key to uniting us as a country,” viewer Lisa Noetzel wrote. “Civics should be taught every year like English, Math, Science, etc.”

Four encore presentations will be broadcast on Inauguration Day. Check your local listings:

  • WETA Metro Channel, Wednesday, January 20 at 10am ET.
  • WETA PBS Channel, Wednesday, January 20 at 10am ET.
  • WORLD Channel, Wednesday, January 20 at 7pm ET.
  • WORLD Channel, Wednesday, January 20 at 11:59pm ET.

WATCH We the Young People in its entirety here.