Voices of Youth: Washtenaw teens share opinions on elections and community during COVID-19

Wren Wilson, 16, isn't old enough to cast a ballot yet. But the Ann Arbor teenager, who uses gender neutral pronouns, does like to accompany their mother when she votes. As with so many things lately, this August's primaries went a little differently than usual. Instead of going to the voting booth, the two of them dropped off an absentee ballot at the City Clerk's office. 

"I usually go over with her to the polling places," says Wilson, "and to see her not do that this year, it's just strange."  Wren Wilson

Like other Michigan cities, Ann Arbor had to adapt its primary procedures to adjust to the new reality created by COVID-19. While the polls remained open on August 4 with socially distant precautions in place, many Ann Arbor residents opted to cast their vote by absentee ballots, which could be left in dropboxes at the city clerk's office or delivered through the mail. 

This new way of handling the vote went over pretty well in Washtenaw County. In fact, the county clerk reported a record-setting 37 percent primary turnout, with thousands more Washtenaw County voters participating than in a typical even-numbered primary year and 79 percent of them voting by absentee ballot.

Wilson is no stranger to county government; this fall the 16-year-old will be starting their second term with the Washtenaw County Youth Commission, a group that advises the county's Board of Commissioners on issues impacting young people. Although the teen is pretty satisfied with how the primary election was conducted in Ann Arbor this month, Wilson still wonders about how smoothly the presidential elections will go this November.

"I really hope that they can make sure that it's safe and effective voting," the teenager says. "I heard that the mail has been slowed down. I really hope that people can get their votes in, if they're voting by mail."

Community and COVID-19

As with most Michiganders, the last few months have been anything but ordinary for Wilson, who describes the time since the arrival of COVID-19 in Southeast Michigan as a "roller coaster ride."

Lori RoddyA student at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Wilson found the transition to online schooling to be a little shaky but manageable. And, although the neighborhood where Wilson lives in Southeast Ann Arbor is relatively quiet right now, there were a couple of large Black Lives Matters protests there several weeks ago. In a show of solidarity with that movement, Wilson joined in the marches carrying signs with slogans like "I Can't Breathe," a reference to the police-related death of George Floyd in Minnesota on Memorial Day. The reactions they got from bystanders were a mixed bag; some brought water bottles to the marchers, while others shouted out rude comments from their cars. 
To keep occupied during the pandemic, Wilson has been bicycling, gardening with their mom, and keeping in touch with friends through texting and video chatting. A couple times, the teen even met up in-person with friends for activities like bonfires and backyard movie gatherings. 

Beyond this, Wilson has also been trying to help the broader community. Back in March, the teenager organized with four friends to send out 100 personalized cards to long-term residents of a local nursing home.

"It was in the beginning of the pandemic when things were getting shut down and reorganized to keep people safe from COVID-19," Wilson says. "I thought it would be nice to send cards since visits in many places were restricted to stop the spread to more vulnerable residents in these facilities."

In addition to reaching out to friends for help, Wilson also put a call out for help with the project on the Instagram platform of a teen center she's connected to called the Neutral Zone. 

The 16-year-old became acquainted with the Neutral Zone via the Washtenaw County Youth Commission. Up until the pandemic started really impacting Southeast Michigan in March, meetings for the youth advisory group had been held there and facilitated by staff from the teen center and MSU Extension's 4-H Program.  

Neutral Zone director Lori Roddy describes the Neutral Zone as a youth-driven arts and leadership center. 

"We really try to listen and lean into our youth's inputs and passions and support them to lead their own program experiences," she says. 

Neutral Zone offers a variety of programming in areas like literary arts, music technology, tutoring, and leadership development. Teens at the space do things like producing music albums and poetry books and hosting their own music festivals. The center also conducts training for youth-driven programming and other topics.

Traditionally the Neutral Zone's programs have supported about 400 young people a week throughout the school year, as well as an additional 250 to 500 youth who come for repeated visits through community and school-based partnerships. 

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the Neutral Zone has had to temporarily close its doors. And, though it initially responded to the pandemic by offering virtual programming, it had to furlough its staff in April.  

Right now, Neutral Zone is reorganizing itself for a fall reopening. Initially the teen center will offer virtual programming and, when it's deemed safe, plans to resume in-person programming at a reduced scale with social distancing measures set in place to keep people safe. 

"Our kids are going to be struggling in really deep ways over the coming year, especially as winter comes into play in Ann Arbor," says Roddy. "It's highly unlikely they'll have any in-person school, so we need to find other ways for them to have social connection."

Zoom Calls and Free Speech

With the Neutral Zone currently closed, it looks like meetings for the fall session of the Washtenaw County Youth Commission will continue online.

Tiaja Barfield, a recent graduate of Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, served as a secretary with the commission during its lastTiaja Barfield session, which ended in June. During her time with the group, the 18-year-old really enjoyed the diversity of people and perspectives she encountered there.

"Our purpose was to better our county in ways that were geared towards our peers," she says. "During quarantine we did still continue on with our meetings through Zoom calls, and it was heavily focused on the pandemic and how we are handling that." 

For Barfield, the pandemic has been a time of reflection and spiritual growth. At first, the 18-year-old stayed connected with friends and family through FaceTime calls. Recently she's started to hang out with people in-person again. And, over the last couple months, she's also become an organizer with the Black Lives Matters movement.

"I had a friend who asked me if I would like to help organize a protest with him and we did," she says. "There are a lot of murderings happening by law enforcement, so we felt we should be taking some sort of actions by using our first amendment right to freedom of speech."

Barfield, who recently moved to Belleville, is currently planning a protest in downtown Plymouth later this month.  

Campaigns and Creativity

Elijah Hatcher-Kay has also been active with the Washtenaw County Youth Commission. The 15-year-old Ann Arbor resident first became involved about three years ago with the task force that originally created the group. He's also been involved with the Neutral Zone through a local performance group called Spinning Dot Theatre, which puts on plays centered around teens and social justice concerns.

Elijah Hatcher-KayAt the moment, the youth commission is on summer break. But Hatcher-Kay, who's on the leadership team, has met with adult leaders connected to the group a few times to help plan its fall orientation.

"We went through our first Washtenaw County Youth Commission last year and are engaging in a similar process to welcome even more new members for the second year that's just starting up," he says.

Even with the commission's hiatus and the pandemic still going on, however, the 15-year-old has had a pretty busy summer so far. On the artistic side, he's been filming a sci-fi short at his house called "The Messenger," which stars his father and older sister. 

Hatcher-Kay has also been diving deep into activism and electoral politics with the Ann Arbor chapter  of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization that's known for its advocacy around climate change and support for a Green New Deal.

He's particularly geeked about the group's efforts to support Eli Savit's progressive campaign for Washtenaw County prosecutor. Savit, who currently serves as City of Detroit’s senior legal counsel, has pledged to take on corporate polluters and to work for criminal justice reform.

In ordinary times, volunteers working with a political campaign would probably spend a lot of time knocking on doors. Because of COVID-19, however, Hatcher-Kay and other volunteers have focused more on efforts like phone calls and putting door hanger signs on people's homes. 

"We did phone banking and get-out-the-vote work on social media, spreading the word for Eli," says Hatcher-Kay. "And we ended up winning by eight points, which was pretty exciting. It's a pretty strong mandate for change in the justice system."

Looking forward, Hatcher-Kay has moments of optimism and moments of pessimism. He really hopes that people will come together and follow public health guidelines so that COVID-19 can be dealt with effectively. Beyond that, he feels steps need to be taken to address the issue of climate change in a consequential way.

Although that remains to be seen, Hatcher-Kay is encouraged by county leaders' recent decision to move up a carbon neutrality deadline by five years to 2030. And he feels the high voter turnout he witnessed in the August primary may signal a shift in political winds during the
high stakes presidential election in November, ushering in the sort of changes he's hoping to see in politics, especially at the local level where he's been most involved.

"I'm really optimistic that people will take advantage of absentee voting possibilities, and we'll see high turnout again," he says. "I think people are very engaged in local politics right now, which makes me very happy."

Voices of Youth is a Second Wave Media series that captures youth perspectives during the COVID-19 response and recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.