There’s much to say about the state of American politics. Turn on any television or radio, scroll through social media, or simply eavesdrop on the conversations around you and you’ll know what people think. But what about that segment of the population who didn’t yet acquire the opportunity to vote, but will nonetheless be affected by Trump’s policies for years to come? I recently sat down with members of Crescent Valley High School’s Political Activism Club and asked them to think about how the current political climate makes them feel about the future.
It was one of the first sunny days in spring. The co-founders of the Political Activism Club—Geneva Wolfe and Alanna Volk—apologized for the lack of attendance during my visit. Expecting a small group anyway, I was impressed that they typically have 20 to 30 students discussing political action every Wednesday at lunchtime. On this particular day, about 10 students showed up, but their voices made the room feel full. When Wolfe and Volk presented my prompt, several hands shot up at once. They were eager to explore how Trump’s rise to power is changing the country.
“It’s kind of brought to light this underlying racism and sexism that’s been in our country but hasn’t really been spoken about because we consider ourselves past racism,” said Paris Myers. She described this as a silver lining, that this awareness was the first step to real solutions.
One classmate, Julia Smith, agreed with Myers’ assessment, saying, “We’re more aware of it now as a country and it’s so easy, especially living in Corvallis—which is a pretty democratic and white place to live with a relatively low poverty and crime rate—to think the U.S. is great, that there’s not a lot of racism and sexism… now people are aware of it and now we can do something to change it.”
Chloe Bowman found herself talking about Trump with her mom and being surprised by how much they agreed on.
“I think it’s actually bringing people together,” Bowman said. She and her mom had never really talked about politics before because they support different parties, but Bowman pointed out, “It’s kind of interesting to listen to her talk about her political views now. It’s just interesting to see you can’t just be one thing or another; you can be somewhere in the middle.”
What Worries Them
Behind the silver lining are plenty of dark clouds. Anna Wittstein was quick to point out, “We’ve gotten through all the presidents in the past [and] we’ll get over the majority of stuff that Trump has done, but right now people are getting hurt because of his policies and it’s frustrating.”
This is why Wolfe and Volk started the club, because people are getting hurt. Students in the room were very aware that while they had only seen three presidents in their lifetime, they are witnessing something unprecedented.
“I was talking to my dad last night about how this is the most divided our country’s ever been [and] he agreed with me. That kind of shocked me [because] he’s lived through the Vietnam War,” Smith said.
“We’re not the richest family in the world, so we were afraid for ourselves, for our healthcare,” Wittstein said. “But then, I’m white—both my parents are white—have stable jobs… so thinking about how scared we were for ourselves when there’s so many other people out there who are much less privileged than us and just how scared they must have been feeling… a president who gets elected should not leave half the country scared for their lives.”
Celine Athamna’s experiences in Corvallis and at Crescent Valley differ from those of her fellow activists.
“I kind of do see a humongous effect. I can see an effect on some of my friends [and] people in my family because of our religion or where we come from. A lot of people here didn’t think that would ever happen because they don’t see racism every day, but a lot of people who have gone through that…for us, it’s a cultural shift coming to a place that maybe is all white people and it is less diverse,” she said. Unlike many of her classmates, Athamna has experienced racism firsthand; she had to endure people shining a bad light on “Muslim countries.”
At one point, Wolfe went up to Athamna and put a hand on top of hers for support. “It’s OK. I’m a strong person,” Athamna said.
In response to Athamna’s struggle, Volk said, “I think it’s very important to talk to your classmates and your peers and everyone in the community about your own experiences and learning from everyone else’s experiences around you. We just need to grow together.”
The majority of students in the room were women. The fact that a strong woman lost the presidency did not go unsaid. Myers called it gut-wrenching, seeing a qualified woman lose to an underqualified man. But she was not discouraged, pointing out that they would be of voting age soon.
“We’ll kind of have this choice as a generation of where we want to lead this country politically because [Trump’s] kind of disrupting our previous political state, of just the two parties,” Myers said.
Bowman agreed, saying, “Every single presidency is a test of how sound our political system is, how sound our voting system is. I think that he will be the ultimate test… pretty much everything we do is a learning experience and I think this is going to be a huge one for our nation.”
When the Political Activism Club first started, they wanted to be non-partisan. What they ended up with is a very left-leaning group and they blame this on the stigma that political activism is a liberal pursuit. They’re still open to talking to fellow students that are not like them, who may even support some of Trump’s views. With one exception: “I can respect your opinion as long as your opinion doesn’t disrespect anyone’s entire existence,” said Wittstein.
No matter what, they’re going to keep talking. Most of them have been fortunate enough to have open dialogue with their parents. They would, however, like to see more conversations encouraged in school.
“I feel like each person is tasked with the responsibility to decide their own political agenda for themselves, at least in our generation,” Myers said. “I think we need to eradicate the fear that teachers have [about educating] their students. I’m not saying you should teach students that one way’s correct and one way’s wrong, but I’m saying you need to give them the option to learn because not everyone agrees with the political opinions of their family.”
If the conversation I heard at Crescent Valley High School is any indication of what the future holds, I’m hopeful. Sage Rasmussen, who had been quiet for most of the meeting, shared one final thought about Trump becoming president.
“I’d never been to a rally or a protest or a march and now I’ve been to, like, five. Now I’m fundraising and donating and doing all these things to become active and I think that, while there’s always horrible things going on with his policies and his influence, that is a really good thing that we have to keep going. We have to get more people involved and we have to use this as a way to strengthen our democracy.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
By Anika Lautenbach