In the past decade, students have become the face of change. Greta Thunberg and climate change activism, Emma Gonzalez and gun control advocacy, Malala Yousafzai and youth educational rights — these are just a few of the young people who have made a change in the world today, who are living proof that age isn’t an indicator of naïveté, but of United-Nation-presenting, law-reforming, and Nobel-Prize-winning passion.
The 2020 Presidential Election is the most significant opportunity students have to make their voices heard, but with the majority of high school populations under the voting age, they might be wondering: How, exactly, can we affect the results of this year’s most anticipated political event?
Henna Hundal, a Harvard College ‘19 graduate, has the answer. Since last year, Hundal has been interviewing 2020 Presidential candidates (which includes — but is not limited to — Andrew Yang, Rep. Joe Walsh, and the now dropped-out Rep. John Delaney) on her eponymous radio show about pressing issues, ranging from climate change to criminal justice reform.
“The Henna Hundal Show,” however, has distinguished itself from another CNN or Fox News summary by tackling issues from the perspective of a youth and asking the questions that matter to us — real-life students of high schools and colleges who are concerned about our future.
Austin Nguyen: The gravitas that student voices possess has magnified in the last three years. It almost feels like an understatement to say that this generation has been forced to grow up early due to the problems they face (vaping epidemic, climate change, active shooter drills, and more). How does this compare to when you were in high school yourself?
Henna Hundal: A lot of these issues have roots that trace back to when I was in high school, and you see much carryover between the challenges that high school students and college students are facing today.
Vaping is a huge issue on both high school and college campuses and is in part structural, because vaping devices were long marketed as the safe alternative to traditional cigarettes, even when the science hadn’t quite caught up to confirm that conclusion. As the research increasingly suggests that a host of health risks are associated with vaping, and we see greater numbers of youth e-cigarette users succumbing to lung injuries, it’s critical that we have the relevant policy conversations.
What I hope for in the future is that we can be more proactive about opening up these kinds of policy discussions instead of retroactive.
What topics do you think are most significant to students today that some adults/older generations might not understand or support?
I think youth are especially concerned about policy proposals on issues with long arcs of impact. When we try to imagine what our lives might look like a decade or five from now, we’re concerned about the issues that, if left unresolved, would adversely alter prospects for ourselves and our future children.
When we think about the fact that the life expectancy rate just started to recover after the 2015-2017 dip, owing in part to the opioid epidemic that’s been ravaging communities around this country, it’s no wonder why youth are rising up to demand action on healthcare reform and predatory big pharma practices. When climate change, by all indications of science, promises to wreak irreversible havoc on our planet, it’s clear why youth see a pressing need for substantive action.
With the dissemination that social media enables (not to mention its accessibility), opinions are easy to come by in story posts, retweets, and hashtags — regardless of age. How can students specifically distinguish their voices from the white noise online?
It is true that there’s a deluge of unvetted content that’s generated daily online. Despite this information avalanche, I hold onto the age-old adage that “content is king.” Stated otherwise, quality still matters—and it likely always will.
Gaining meaningful traction online requires a dedication to producing consistent and quality content, as opposed to getting vortexed into the rabble-rousing that might generate a few extra retweets but won’t lead to lasting impact. What’s clear is that political and social reform on youth-centered issues requires youth input for best results, so there’s an existent space for youth to make their voices heard where others are already listening.
Students often see 18 as the age when our voices are truly heard through voting, but what can we do before that time to make an impact on politics — in general, and specifically for the 2020 presidential election?
I think it’s easy to forget that becoming and staying informed is a crucial first step. Read widely and lean into the resources at your school to gather additional knowledge.
For example, I remember staying after class to have conversations with my high school biology teacher about her thoughts on GMO food labeling policies after we first covered the textbook chapter on GMOs. Build a knowledge bank for yourself from which you can develop informed opinions. This is simultaneously a mechanism for you to identify the policy areas that particularly resonate for you so that you can start to engage in issue-specific advocacy, which can take the form of volunteering for an organization, organizing demonstrations, or writing to your elected officials to press for action.
Besides the more common ways of contributing to politics, such as volunteering at the polls and telling others to pre-register to vote, what are some ways that students have already taken a substantial role in the 2020 election?
I think what’s been overlooked is how much youth have been raising the profile of certain issues leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
For example, I’ve been speaking about the health impacts of climate change with many of the presidential candidates in my interview series, and what I’ve gathered is an exigency around action on climate catastrophe that I frankly haven’t sensed to this level before. These policy promises are clearly in step with the vociferous youth climate movements around the country.
How do you think the power/place of student voices will evolve in the future?
I think the power will only magnify. There are so examples of students who are taking matters into their own hands in advocating for change, whether it be on issues like bringing clean water back to Flint or repealing the tampon tax to promote menstrual equity. Even when all facets of the desired goal aren’t expressly achieved, the ideological momentum that youth have proven to be able to build time and time again is potent. And we’ll be needing it more than ever in 2020.