Young people fight political discouragement with passion

Getting involved, regardless of your views, offers ways to effect change – even without voting

Conrad Zblkowski (left) poses for a photo with Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey and others during Frey’s 2013 campaign.

 the political spectrum, then-high school students Amanda Peterson and Conrad Zbikowski were on the sidelines while decisions were made on issues they care about — gay marriage, the cost of health insurance and college tuition among them.

“I wasn’t able to vote in 2012, so the first time I voted was the next year after that,” said Peterson, who became a student at the University of St. Thomas, where she has chaired the university’s College Republicans. “It definitely makes students feel
 like they can’t do anything about the situation.”

She said teens not having their say on topics they are passionate about “discourages some students.”

This discouragement is dangerous, according to Zbikowski, treasurer
 of the Minnesota Young DFL and a grassroots organizer for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the state’s 5th Congressional District.

“If we want equal rights for all, as a generation we need to participate and follow the lead that those just a little bit older than us did in 2008, did in 2012, and do it again in 2016 by electing people who believe in the values that millennials believe in,” Zbikowski said.

The perception among teens
 of feeling uninvolved in decisions affecting their future is commonplace, according to Debra Petersen, an associate professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of St. Thomas.

Amanda Peterson, University of St. Thomas

“Many young people don’t feel they have as much stake in what’s going on,” Petersen said.

“If you don’t participate and you’re just complaining about something, what’s going to change?”


For Zbikowski and Peterson, personal circumstances helped shape their views on controversial political issues.

Zbikowski, who said he is bipolar, was 20 years old when he had to spend two months in the hospital. The much-debated Affordable Care Act allowed him to be covered by his mother’s health insurance until age 26.

“I would not have been able to afford my hospital bills had I not been on my mother’s health insurance,’’ he said. “If it were not for Obamacare, I would be in poverty right now.”

Zbikowski said feeling the impact of the new healthcare law led him to become more involved in politics. He attended a precinct caucus in 2012 and volunteered on multiple campaigns.

Peterson, on the other hand, was raised in a conservative household and always swayed toward being a Republican. But after years of experiencing the contrast — between liberal and conservative and Democrat and Republican — she developed her own views while holding onto the roots of where she came from.

“My ideology I got from my parents, which is probably defined as classical liberalism, the principles I was raised to believe, it’s mostly hard work, but strong moral compass, those types of things,” Peterson said. “I was raised to believe those more than I was to align just with the Republican party.”

Peterson supported gay marriage, despite it being a more liberal viewpoint.

“Freshman year, my best friend from high school, my closest friend since seventh grade, came out to me as gay,” she said.

Peterson had been on the fence about gay marriage throughout high school. After her personal experience with her friend, she became an advocate.

“I convinced a guy that he should support gay marriage when he was against it,” Peterson said, later adding how the people in the Republican Party were generally accepting of her — occasionally liberal — viewpoints, something important enough to Peterson in her younger years that it played a role in declaring herself a Republican.

Debra Petersen, the St. Thomas professor, explained Peterson and Zbikowski’s evolution from young people with opinions into young adult voters.

“If [teens] can see a hopeful sign that someone is really focusing on that issue and that there is a potential for change,’’ she said, “I would think that might be very attractive to high schoolers thinking ahead to ‘how is this going to impact me?”

Petersen said teens can have political impact even without being old enough to vote.

“You can impact the campaign by helping fundraise and running events and learning the issues so that you can have an impact on the adults in your life,” Petersen said.

“Even though you can’t vote, you can still impact the adults around you.”