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Our democracy has yet to live up to its highest purpose.

From the inception of the great American democratic experiment, a person like me — a first-generation Black woman — was not included. My voice was not represented. It took the work of countless abolitionists, suffragists and activists who dared to question, challenge and expand our democracy for me to be able to exercise my voice at the ballot. If it were not for civil rights giants, many of whom were my age when they faced violence and state-sanctioned persecution for fighting for my right to simply enter the voting booth, I would not be here today.

Yet, despite the voting rights strides we have made, most notably codified by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fight for voting rights is just as pressing today. In the last year, we witnessed states enact more anti-voter laws than in at least a decade. By the end of 2021, 19 states enacted 34 new laws that restrict access to the vote, especially for certain groups like our nation’s young people. At the beginning of 2022, 13 anti-voter bills had been pre-filed in four states, and 152 anti-voters bills in 18 states were set to carry over from 2021.

In 2022, voting rights are still under attack. The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which combined the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would have expanded our right to vote, as well as protected it by restoring key aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But recently our nation failed to make a crucial step forward and pass this act. You may wonder, where is democracy's salvation now? I say, with young people. They are the next generation of civil rights leaders.

In the summer of 1964, Queens College student Andrew “Andy” Goodman joined Freedom Summer, a voter registration project aimed at reaching out to the large poor, Black population of Mississippi. Andy, along with Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, traveled to Mississippi and met another young democracy crusader, James Earl Chaney. All three were eager to partake in the good trouble ahead. Within 24 hours of Andy and Mickey’s arrival to Mississippi, the three young men were brutally murdered by members of the KKK. Andy was 20, Mickey was 24 and James Earl was 21. These young men died because they believed in democracy’s highest purpose and dared to open its doors to all Americans.

This is the legacy, embodying young people’s audacious hope for the future, that I proudly uphold as Director of Programs at The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF), where we strive to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy.

Moving into the 2022 Midterm Elections, I believe young people’s power will shape our nation’s future. According to IDHE’s Democracy Counts 2020 report, 66% of college students voted in the 2020 Election, a 14 percentage point increase from 2016. In this year’s upcoming Senate and Gubernatorial elections, young people’s voices will play a decisive role at the ballot box, according to CIRCLE’S 2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index. Andrew Goodman Ambassadors in Georgia, a state with upcoming Senate and Gubernatorial elections, are strategizing how to increase ballot access for HBCU students by ensuring that all students in the Atlanta University Center can vote at one shared polling location.

These students live Andy’s legacy by using their voices, taking their power back and demanding equal access to the polls. And to add one more example, Andrew Goodman Ambassadors in North Carolina are planning large-scale candidate debates in preparation for a heated Senate race. They are encouraging nonpartisan democratic exchange and will provide a platform for fellow students to voice their opinions directly to candidates.

Young people are the definitive answer to a democracy in decline. We still have the opportunity to make democracy what it was meant to be: a voice for all the people. I am honored to walk alongside the John Lewises, Fannie Lou Hammers and Andy Goodmans of today in service to this great democratic experiment. These young leaders will not stop advocating for a better future and ask that you join them on the right side of history.


Wambui Gatheru is the Director of Programs at the Andrew Goodman Foundation and a proud first-generation Kenyan-American.