Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal addresses Democracy Summer students.
Credit: Democracy Summer/Courtesy

At nearly eight o’clock on a warm summer night in Silver Spring, Maryland, a group of teenagers were spending time in the last place you’d expect: a high school classroom. They were there to watch Heather Booth: Changing the World, a documentary about the veteran progressive activist who led landmark initiatives on health care rights and financial reform.

This was for summer school, of a sort—a typical evening for the 2018 Democracy Summer Project. Founded in 2006 by Jamie Raskin, a freshman congressman from Maryland, Democracy Summer consists of two five-week sessions in which students learn how to influence government through political advocacy. The program combines classroom instruction with field experience canvassing for progressive candidates. More than 200 college and high school students participated this summer at programs in Silver Spring, Charlottesville, Des Moines, and Philadelphia.

The idea came about by accident. During his first bid for public office—a seat in the Maryland state legislature—Raskin asked his children, nieces, and nephews to work on his campaign. One by one, they all demurred. “We can’t work on our uncle’s campaign because we can’t put that on our resume,” they told him.

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Raskin realized their concern reflected that of a lot of young people—they wanted to participate in politics, but they needed to spend their time on something that would help them get into college or land a job. He came back to his nieces and nephews with a proposal: “I said, ‘You’re not working on my campaign, you’re working on Democracy Summer.”

Now that Raskin is a member of Congress, he has begun expanding the program beyond Maryland. A former constitutional law professor at American University, he wrote the curriculum himself. “We treat them as mature thinkers,” he said. “They start right off with the history of the civil rights movement.” He has also brought in other Capitol Hill lawmakers, like Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren, to address the students.

But politics isn’t just theoretical. Democracy Summer students get experience on the front lines of the democratic process. For Democrats to be successful in November, they will have to turn out voters that don’t typically show up during the midterms, including some who are skeptical of the party. That is the mission these high-schoolers have taken up. “You do get people who won’t even open the door to you,” said Zoe McIntosh, a 17-year-old from Silver Spring. Other times, she said, she has succeeded in registering voters who likely wouldn’t have otherwise.

Of course, young people are themselves the most conspicuously underperforming part of the left-leaning electorate. Democracy Summer was designed, in part, to convince students that America’s government belongs to them. If good people abdicate their responsibility to run for office or influence policy-makers, the character of our nation will be determined by the worst among us. “I had been really interested in politics from a very non-activism standpoint before this,” said Ben Harris, a 17-year-old from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. “Now I feel guilty for not doing enough before.”

Polling shows that it won’t be easy to scale up experiences like Harris’s. While young people are passionate about certain issues, they are disillusioned with the politics in general. A recent NBC News poll, for instance, found that only 55 percent of millennials said they definitely or probably will vote, and just 29 percent said it was more important to vote this year than in past midterms.

That challenge was exactly what excited Elliot Davey, a 17-year-old from Wheaton, Maryland. “By making sure that people are registered to vote, we can eliminate things like gerrymandering and voter suppression,” they said. “And on a national level, making sure foreign countries don’t interfere with our elections.”

Young people have the potential to reshape the American political landscape. Indeed, the activism of Parkland High School Students following the gun massacre at their school seems to have already shifted discourse around gun violence. The question is whether the rise in youth activism will translate into votes.

If programs like Democracy Summer help move the needle, it will be by giving young people confidence in participating in the political process.

“Before this summer, Washington D.C. and politicians were this big mystery for me,” said Maddy Frank, a 17-year-old from Bethesda. “I knew it existed and kept up with it, but it was so many steps removed from me. Now I see that I can actually get into it, and that there is a path, and that I can become one of those politicians.”

Matt Bernardini

Follow Matt on Twitter @MattBernardini7. Matt Bernardini is a Washington reporter for Law360.