Jahnavi Rao was 6 when a friend’s father predicted she’d one day be president. She remembers brushing it off, figuring she’d more likely be a musician or an FBI agent or a mermaid.More than a decade later, Rao is a senior at Conestoga High School, where last year she led an effort to get more than 100 of her classmates to register to vote by enlisting dozens of volunteers to go to homerooms and hound eligible friends.The club, started in part as a response to the 2016 presidential election, has swelled to more than 50 members at the Tredyffrin Township school and has connected with students from 90 other schools across the country so they, too, can run successful voter registration drives.“Never again will our interests be ignored due to a lack of voter registration,” said Rao, 17, who heads the 2018 New Voters initiative in between taking advanced classes, leading her section in the marching band, and deciding whether she wants to accept a college admission offer from Harvard, Stanford or Princeton.Now, the students are taking the next steps. They’re managing partnerships with such national organizations as High School Democrats of America and National Teen Age Republicans with the idea that more partnerships will make it easier to build sustainability, even past 2018. Most recently, the students partnered with a New York-based initiative called #WeAreAll18, a new, nonpartisan collective of adults and teenagers aiming to get young people excited about voting.The program is something like Rock the Vote, the MTV messaging campaign founded in 1990 to make voting cool, but it’s more geared toward connecting teenagers with adults who can amplify their messages in-person and online.Jonathan Pillot, 63, a filmmaker from New York, leads the nonprofit #WeAreAll18 and said the primary goal is empowering young people to not only register to vote, but also to actually make it to the voting booth, addressing what some call “the registration gap.” (The deadline to register to vote in the Pennsylvania primary is April 16. In New Jersey, the deadline is May 15.) He said more adults should be engaging with teens, asking them what it is that keeps them from making it to their precincts on Election Day.“They might have eight or 10 different reasons,” he said. “What matters is adults have never been good at figuring out how to transcend those.”The #WeAreAll18 group, which is seeking to mobilize voters by the November general election, pairs the Conestoga students who lead 2018 New Voters with design-oriented students from the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. The idea is that the politically oriented minds can share ideas with artistic students to generate creative campaign messaging.These movements to mobilize teenagers come at a time when activism by high school students is being legitimized on a national scale. Following the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., students there led well-publicized efforts calling for stricter gun safety laws, launching some of them to celebrity status.Their efforts sparked walkouts at schools across the country — Conestoga held its own March 14 — as well as the March 24 March for Our Lives in Washington to advocate for gun control. There were hundreds of affiliated marches around the world.The #WeAreAll18 group isn’t a response to the shooting in Parkland. Pillot said volunteers were working on the effort before the shooting, but the level of engagement from high school students following Parkland can only serve to inspire more teenagers to get involved and more adults to listen.“We think it’s critical to translate the energy from marches and walkouts into votes,” Rao said.
Deb Ciamacca, an Advanced Placement government teacher at Conestoga who partnered with Pillot and serves as an adviser for the club that runs the 2018 New Voters initiative, has become something of an activist herself, appearing in a Time feature about teachers fighting for stricter gun control laws following Parkland. She said her students — some of the most politically engaged she has seen in 15 years teaching government — are “like the Parkland kids, without the shooting.”“They’ve started a movement here,” she said. “It reminds me of the ’60s in the sense that you see movements happening and young people are starting to see that they can change things.”Ciamacca’s students see their mission as larger than Conestoga. They hope to one day share their high school voter registration system with every school in America. Kent Hjelm, an 18-year-old senior and the 2018 New Voters director of programs, said it’s all about incorporating good messaging and a little peer pressure (the only kind that’s really effective). He tells them: “Their vote is their voice.”
Rao said she has plans to remain involved with efforts to register teenage voters no matter which college she decides to attend. She hopes to study government, so one day she can be the politician her friend’s father predicted. Like any savvy politician, she won’t say whether she wants to one day sit in the Oval Office.
But she’s quick to say what kind of politician she’d be: “A good one.”