Politically engaged, though not all of voting age

Student activists do their part in midterm elections

City High/Middle School seniors Kevin Portinga and Qiqi Clark registered student voters and canvassed for candidates

In the midst of an election season strewn with raw partisanship, attack ads and bomb packages mailed to critics of President Trump, some Kent County students have been engaged in politics more constructively and cooperatively.

Once a week, about a dozen students gather after school at Rockford High School to discuss current political issues including the midterm elections being held today. They call themselves the Young Democrats, but their number includes Republicans, including a co-president.

Related Article: Want your voice heard? Then register to vote, teacher tells students

They often debate vigorously, but they keep it more civil than many of the adults seeking election.

“Sometimes it does get a little intense,” said senior Nathaniel Boer, who helped form the club last year. “Other than that, we’re all really good friends. We’re all similar in the fact that we’re all passionate. I think that passion is what brings us together.”

Nathaniel, a self-described independent, campaigned for Craig Beach, a retired Rockford teacher running as a Democrat for the State Senate. Junior Logan Lovall, a Republican, campaigned for David Spencer, who lost his bid in the primary as the GOP nominee for the State House.

Like other student activists across Kent ISD, Logan said others of his generation need to get more involved in elections and informed about candidates.

“It’s very important that you vote,” said Logan, who isn’t old enough to do so today.

School News Network invited students to weigh in on why they’ve been active in the election or seriously engaged in political discussions. Here’s who we heard from.

Raenah Lindsey, East Grand Rapids High School

Raenah Lindsey, East Grand Rapids High School

Junior Raenah Lindsey has been politically active since the 2016 presidential campaign, but the seed was planted a bit earlier.

It was in a Mason Middle School history class that she first thought, “I like hearing how this stuff works.”

She volunteered on Hillary Clinton’s bid for president, and traveled with an aunt after the election to participate the Women’s March in Washington D.C. They marched again in Lansing last year.Raenah has volunteered since February on state Rep. Winnie Brinks’ State Senate campaign. Her duties include putting together mailings, canvassing door-to-door and calling residents.

“It’s been a remarkable learning process thus far, and I’m very excited about this election,” she said.

Raenah estimates she put in about four hours a week on the campaign. That’s in addition to her schoolwork, as well as her participation in We the People, Youth in Government, Rotary Club and as the student representative on the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation. And oh, she’s also a member of the board of the Michigan High School Democrats.

“I see it as a civic duty,” she said of being politically involved. “The work is not particularly (difficult), but you have to have confidence enough to knock on doors and talk to people.”

Qiqi Clark, City High/Middle School

Qiqi Clark and Kevin Portinga, Grand Rapids City High/Middle School

Neither Qiqi Clark nor Kevin Portinga is old enough to vote, but they’ve done their best to see that their classmates do. The seniors circulated voter registration forms to 18-year-olds at City, and about a dozen turned them in.

“There’s a huge incentive because we’re the youngest voting bloc,” Qiqi said. “These things (will) affect us for the longest time.”

She has also volunteered for Rachel Hood’s State House campaign, while Kevin has canvassed for U.S. congressional candidate Cathy Albro. They believe they can make a difference through the electoral system, though they know peers who doubt their votes would matter.

“What’s the alternative, destroy the government?” Kevin said with a chuckle. “I would rather put my energy into something that might effect real change.”

“Voting is the most direct outlet we have for getting our voices out there,” Qiqi agreed. “What makes voting so powerful is when people come together for things they believe in.”

Kevin Portinga, City High/Middle School

Kevin’s activism is largely driven by his summer job, where he saw two co-managers working full-time for minimum wage but unable to support themselves. He calls that reality for many workers “absolutely horrendous.”

For Qiqi, big issues are the burden of college loans and the treatment of immigrants and refugees. The latter hits home for her family: she was adopted from China and her sister from Haiti, by a white father and Chilean mother, a social worker who helps immigrant families. She’s deeply troubled by the country’s political divisiveness and “unhealthy rhetoric” over the issue, including the refugee caravan from Central America.

“It really bothers me a lot,” she said. “We are OK with talking about this human rights issue as if it’s not.”

‘What makes voting so powerful is when people come together for things they believe in.’ – Qiqi Clark, City High/Middle School

Working for issues such as racial and gender justice, universal health care and stronger environmental protections will hopefully shape a better future for his generation, Kevin says.

“I’d just like to create a country where the poorest, most disenfranchised people have more hope, and more trust in it.”

Morgan King, Northview High School

Morgan King, Northview High School

Morgan King planned to be working today as an election inspector at a Plainfield Township polling place, helping to check in voters or monitoring their ballot submissions. She figures it’s the next best thing to voting, which she is too young to do.

“I’m excited to do it,” the senior said. “I think it will be a pretty cool experience to be in the polling place all day, watching what happens there.”

Co-editor of the school newspaper, Morgan this summer attended the American Legion’s Girls State mock government camp at Michigan State University. It prompted her to consider working in politics, though not as an office-holder.

She has encouraged friends to register to vote, but finds some are intimidated or uninformed about the process. From her studies, including a political science course this semester, she’s learned the importance of doing so.

“Because I’ve been a government student, I’ve seen the process through historical perspective,” Morgan said. “I’ve seen how certain people can struggle due to the administration policies.

“Things change after every election. Different people are in office, they’re going to do different things. It’s going to have impact on the citizens no matter what. So this is the citizens’ responsibility, to go out and choose who runs the government, who’s running our country.”

Members of the Rockford Young Democrats, who include Republicans: from left, Logan Lovall, Arthur Ma, Piper Molde, Nathaniel Boer and Leah Wolfgang
Arthur Ma, Rockford High School

Nathaniel Boer, Logan Lovall, Arthur Ma, Piper Molde and Leah Wolfgang, Rockford High School

At a recent after-school meeting in Michelle Williams’ social studies classroom, the disagreements among the Young Democrats club were evident. But they united around one idea: get involved.

“You just have to give your voice, your opinion on how our country should be run – especially young people, because that will determine their future,” said senior Arthur Ma, who can’t vote but has been following elections nationwide.

He is annoyed by others who are eligible to vote but don’t. “People have the power, they just don’t use it – especially young people.”

‘You just have to give your voice, your opinion on how our country should be run – especially young people, because that will determine their future.’ – Arthur Ma, Rockford High School

The notoriously low turnout among young adults also bothers senior Leah Wolfgang, whose family owns the popular Eastown restaurant of that name.

Logan Lovall, Rockford High School

“It’s your country, so you should have a stake in it,” said Leah, citing climate change as an example. “(People) have a responsibility to vote and do what they need to do to save our planet and our country.”

Speaking just after potentially explosive devices were mailed to Trump critics, junior Piper Molde said she’s dismayed by all the controversy and “the fighting between the parties.” She would like to see more compromise and “agreement so we’re getting things done in our country.”

Their club aims to minimize partisanship and thoughtfully discuss issues such as big vs. small government, said co-president Nathaniel Boer. Along with several other Rockford students, he helped out on the campaign for Beach, their former social studies teacher, who retired this year.

“For me it’s less about the issues and more about the person,” said Nathaniel, who planned to vote today. “Any one ideology could work if it’s filled out by the right people, Republican or Democrat.”

Nathaniel Boer, Rockford High School

Logan Lovall said his political activism is motivated by “the greater good, being able to influence the government that’s representing you.”

“I can’t vote but I can go knock on doors,” said Logan, who wants to run for political office someday.

Though firmly a Republican, he hates to see people demonizing those of the opposing party, which he believes has fueled violence.

“Whether you’re the alt-right or the alt-left, you need to do your own research into what the other candidate is proposing,” he said. “You might find it’s not so different from what you believe.”

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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