Standing room only: Cleveland residents listen to elected officials on how to engage young voters in the political process on Oct 2 in Cleveland

CLEVELAND – Arranged in a straight line are Mike Espy for U.S. Senate signs, posted in the window-front of Studio 230, an art gallery in downtown Cleveland.

Immediately entering the building to the right, three or four guests stood by the T-shirt booth, eyeballing the shirts for sale, ones with black empowerment slogans such as “I Am My Ancestors Wildest Dreams” and others paying homage to preeminent civil rights leaders, like Fannie Lou Hamer, emulating her 1971 election poster for state Senate seat.

Around a quarter till 6 p.m., the crowd here was scattered with less than 20 people in attendance, patiently waiting for the third and final “In The Mix With Millennials” discussion. More people trickled in after the five panelists – elected officials and community activists – arrived.

All 63 seats were filled with more than 30 others standing at the Oct. 2 event, ready to dialogue about the importance of getting all people, but specifically young people, out to vote.

Mario Giles, co-founder of millennial panel series 

These panel discussions are geared towards engaging in honest and open dialogue with black men and women about the issues that plague their communities in an effort to find solutions and take the necessary action to move forward, said Mario Giles, co-founder of the millennial panel series.

But, last week’s convening stood out among the rest.

With the November special election near, Mike Espy – who is currently the leading Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat to replace Sen. Thad Cochran – decided to sit down with other state and county elected officials and community activists to address the importance of voting, activism, and political engagement, focusing on millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996.

According to a newly released survey by Millsaps College and Chism Strategies, only 50 percent of Mississippi voters are enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming November midterm elections.

The Pew Research Center found that millennials are unlikely to cast the majority of the votes this November and data shows they have had low turnout numbers in the midterm elections. During the 2014 midterm election, the younger generations made up 53 percent of eligible voters but cast 21 million less votes than older generations.

So, how do you engage younger voters and get them to care about the political process? How do you get them to the ballot box? And essentially, how do you gain their trust?

“Older people aren’t going to make it to the polls like they did five or ten years from now. I’m not trying to kill anybody off but you just might not be here so you gotta find a way to get the millennials number up,” said Tami Sawyer, a county commissioner in Memphis.

“Gen Z is on Twitter saying they’re not going to vote. So, how are you going to fix that?”

State Rep. Abe Hudson Jr., D-Cleveland, noted that before you can get young folks out to vote, understanding “their language” is the first step.

“Millennials want their perspectives heard and if you don’t take the time out to listen to them, then they feel like you don’t value them,” said Hudson.

Sawyer, who coined herself as a millennial, echoed this saying it’s imperative to clear the misconceptions that millennials are “inexperienced” or “aren’t ready for leadership roles because of their age.”

“Whatever the title of the generation is, young people have been at the forefront of change making movements for as long as we can remember,” she said, noting Cripus Attucks, the first black person to be killed in the Revolutionary War, and the Mississippians leading voting registration efforts during Freedom Summer in 1964.

Activism efforts by young people have sparked movements and it continues to increase. Findings from the 2017 Millennial Impact Report show that before the 2016 election, millennials top issue was education. Six months into President Donald Trump’s first term, their primary concerns were civil rights and racial discrimination.

“This shift reflects the increased activism and media attention on women’s rights and immigration occurring during this period,” the report states.

Despite the level of activism, voting numbers are down.

Panelists say it’s important to get people to the polls, but it’s even critical to educate them on the voting and political process to empower them even more.

“Engage young people so they can be the driving force for other young people and their elders,” said Edric Johnson, panelist and founder of Johnson and Johnson Enterprises.

Jennifer-Adams Williams, City of Grenada Municipal Court Prosecutor, added to Johnson, saying, “It’s important to educate them on how to vote instead of them just going (to the polls). We want them to know what it means, what are we going for, what it is that we want, and I think if we can get that, we can get this political power back.”

Tami Sawyer, Shelby County Commissioner, speaks with Mike Espy after the event in Cleveland

About 66 percent of millennials think voting is important and believe it will lead to change, the millennial report stated. But, about 24 percent of young people don’t trust the government or elected officials to do the right thing.

How can politicians energize young voters if the voters don’t trust them?

For Espy, the way to energize young voters is to make sure they understand where his campaign stands on the issues that impact them.

“I’m going to help them with their ideas, help them gain wealth, help them find a way to gain assets, and in education, help them to find ways to reduce their student debt,” he said.

“We go to them where they are – in their churches, in the factories, in the union halls – to talk to them about our ideas, economic uplifting, lifting up the bottom third of Mississippians. Just go to them where they are,” he added.  “I’m going to do right by you, and I’m going to be the best senator you ever had.”

According to an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll released Oct. 2, Espy is currently leading the race with 25 percent over his Republican opponents, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who 24 percent of respondents favored and Chris McDaniel, who followed with 19 percent. A second Democratic candidate, Tobey Bartee, was supported by 4 percent of respondents.

At the end of the panel discussion, Espy gave his reasons of why he thinks he is ahead.

The first, he mentioned, Hyde-Smith defending Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh against Christine Blasey-Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school.

And the second, McDaniel, who has also defended Kavanaugh, made statements during an appearance on the MSNBC talk show “Morning Joe” that black Mississippians were “begging for (government) scraps” and that black Mississippians have begged for federal scraps for over 100 years.

“… What I’m telling you is a lot people believe Mississippi is crimson red, but there are a lot of purple people in Mississippi, people with good will and are open minded,” said Espy to about 100 attendees.

“… and they respond to people who want to do the right thing by millennials, by veterans, by laborers, by teachers, by those who built up this state and they are willing now to open up their minds to come across, even if they’re Republican or Independent to help me out and that’s why we’re number one.”

Click here to read more of Mississippi Today‘s coverage on the election and the candidates.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.