I’ll be honest. Last week, I was in an incredibly dark place. Between the historical deja vu of the Kavanaugh and Ford hearings, people turning Kavanaugh’s extremely triggering face into a meme and the constant reminders that progress really is a fragile thing if not intentionally reinforced with systematic change, I was in full gloom and doom mode. This was, of course, until I had the honor of attending this year’s inaugural launch of the #WeVoteNext, founded by Grown-ish star and activist Yara Shahidi and activist Michael Skolnik. There are tons of things to be said about what turned out to be, honestly, a reinvigorating experience.  In addition to being assembled by the ingenious minds of Shahidi and Skolnik, and with star-studded attendees and speakers like Laverne Cox, Rosario Dawson, Meena Harris, Storm Reid, David Hogg, Mari Copeny, Shameik Moore, Chandler Kinney and others assembled into one space, #WeVoteNext was a youth summit that brought together over hundreds of young kids and people from all over the country to talk about the future of voting, politics, and, well, America as it concerns young people. And TOMs, recognizing how potentially big this event could be and what impact it would have on youth (an oft-overlooked and over-blamed voting demographic), was cool enough to host the dope event in their classy HQ in downtown LA. Katelyn Faith, TOMS’ Director of Brand Marketing, noted the importance of the historic event: We at TOMS are honored to be part of the EighteenX18 WeVoteNext Summit here at TOMS HQ. Seeing all these like-minded young people eager to learn how they can use their voice (and vote) to change the world is so inspiring. The work Yara and the team are doing to ensure the next generation is equipped with the tools and resources they need when heading to the polls for their first time is really incredible. TOMS has always stood for building a better tomorrow, and these individuals are already proving themselves to be the next generation to lead the charge. One by one we will create a world that works better for all of us. Things didn’t stop there either. Those who would be skeptical about regurgitated messages like “vote or else” or “vote or die” would be surprised to know that that is not at all how this summit was conducted. Instead, there were multiple conversations that kept it real about how to change the American voting landscape in a positive and lasting way. One of the biggest recurring messages during the summit was the reminder that since America’s youth will unfortunately inherit all of its problems, including those sprang upon them by older (and noticeably whiter and homogenous) generations, they should have equal parts in deciding it. Which is true. Because after all, Shahidi would go on to state that a whopping average of 4 million voters gain the right to vote every year, adding up to a potentially big and untapped force at the voting booth. And this potential force is why the current administration has been going so hard when it comes to increasingly eroding voting rights and painting young voters like they are woefully apathetic, unenthusiastic and solely to blame for the results of the previous cycle. Actress, activist, and Voto Latino founder Rosario Dawson spoke at the event and discussed that the backlash was to be expected because of America’s ever-present demographic shift. “There is a huge push to continue the legacy of colonialism and slavery. And right now what we’re seeing is a lot of people in power who are continuing to gerrymander and redistrict and purge people off of polls, shut down polling places. They’re doing anything and everything in their power to make sure that we don’t have a voice. Why? Because they’ve been in power for a long time and they’re no longer the majority,” Dawson said. And that’s the case around the world.

Future, activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, also stressed the intellectual dishonesty in framing young voters (particularly Black and Brown ones) as the unreliable, parochial voting block. And the ones who are blocking progress. “$77,000 was the median income for the average Trump voter. A majority of them had degrees,” they noted.

The other recurring messages that could be heard or felt throughout the event was the incredibly dire and pressing need to not only make voting more accessible to the general public but also stressing that change needed to happen beyond party lines, the latter which is to say there was recognition that the rhetoric around third-party voters needed some work. In regards to the latter, actress and advocate Laverne Cox stressed the urgency of standing in the gap for each other’s rights (even with party reservations) especially when some may be barred from voting—which is markedly important in regards to groups like undocumented immigrants and LGBTQIA+ people, but particularly transgender people, as restrictive and backwards voter ID laws make it nearly impossible to vote with one’s chosen gender: “It becomes really difficult if you have an administration that doesn’t allow trans folk to change their [identity] information. That becomes a really crucial part of it, but also making folk understand that all of these inner issues intersect. Right? That if you are Black and trans and poor or working class, then that makes it way more difficult for you to access the documentation that you need to vote,” Cox noted.

Future stressed the this too, but elaborated how the very American school-to-prison pipeline and prison industrial complex bars hundreds and thousands of Black and brown ex-cons from voting every year. And with this in mind, they added: “When you go into the room, you need to bring others with you” stressing that solidarity for this upcoming election will be more important than it ever was before. I took all of this in, of course, but I was particularly struck by the fervent conversations on accessibility. With a growing number of disabled advocates attaining the platforms they deserve, a number of them have pointed out that voting often turns into a harrowing, all-day ordeal. And while there were no (visually) disabled keynote speakers, attendees like star of the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse film and actor Shameik Moore had loads to say about making voting accessible in the physical sense but in other ways as well:
There needs to be a way for someone to naturally—whether I’m interested in [politics or not]—be able to help with what is important. With what needs to be done. Having to go to a poll or having to go somewhere to register and to vote and being in line and waiting outside [all day]…that is, what I think, really turns off people. We can’t do it electronically, but we have apps like Postmates, we have apps like Uber and Lyft. We even have Weed Maps. They come to you. Why can’t [they] come to us and we sign whatever we need to sign, we fill out our paperwork to [to vote]? We can create an app for people to come to us. It [can be] that simple..if we can take the stress out of [the voting process] It’s important. That’s the point of apps and technology. It’s to make things easier for us and without compromise. …We would obviously have to have funding for such a thing, but if they have funding for…weed deliver apps and for people that can bring your food to you…why can’t you bring my papers that I can vote with?

His comments also point to technology being inseparable from the sociopolitical framework of this country and it is something that should be discussed more, given that tech giants like Mark Zuckerburg (CEO of Facebook), Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter), Travis Kalanick (former CEO and consider themselves to be apolitical (and non-complicit) and are finding out the hard way that they are not. Still. While the summit occurred in a particularly safe space (which was sorely needed), the events speakers, organizers, and attendees were not ignorant of the chaotic world that swirled around. When asked what she would say to all the young (and perhaps older) voters who are feeling apathy and despair under the current administration, and in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings Shahidi stated, “I feel like EighteenX18 in many ways is like a form of reclamation, especially now that it feels as though the government is happening without us, as though they’re going to proceed as business as usual, no matter what we do, no matter how we feel. Eighteen x Eighteen was a way to really spell out how we can be civically engaged in between [the chaos] and the importance of voting.”

Lethal Weapon’s Chandler Kinney added, “I think the answer is in why we’re all here today. Today is all about engaging young people [despite the chaos]. Today is about engaging in collaborating and connecting, to inspire.”

I found myself nodding through their words, remembering what Red Redding said in Shawshank Redemption about hope being “a dangerous thing”. And it’s funny because listening to every young person at this summit advocate for themselves and hype themselves up to literally vote in this next election definitely encouraged my cynical ass to even feel some semblance of hope. Why? Because it’s a reminder that even in as bleak a time as this, hope is necessary. Does this make them dangerous? Perhaps. But maybe that’s exactly the message that America needs to hear right now.


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