On June 11, Inspired Leader Jordan Grimaldi (Senior at Washington and Lee High School) was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Arlington League of Women Voters banquet.
Included is the text of Jordan's speech.
I left early during lunch thinking that it would be the best time of the day to avoid the lines my mom had warned me about. The day had finally come. I remember I had this sort of butterfly feeling in my stomach. Decked out in my red, white, and blue beads, complete with my Inspire Virginia tshirt and American Flag headband, I walked through the doors of Westover Library’s multipurpose room. Okay, no line. This is good. The hardest part was choosing which of the three valid forms of identification I had brought to give to the volunteer sitting at the registration table. I decided on my driver’s license. I walked over to the desk in the far corner. Thankfully the privacy dividers could hide my nervous smile. I completed the ballot, as directed, and then scanned it in the machine. I knew that I had done it correctly, that I had gone to the right polling location but where were the balloons and streamers? Where were the bald eagles and waving American flags? It turns out voting wasn’t what I thought it was but nonetheless I had officially voted in my first primary. When I returned to school, I walked through the halls and was so happy to see so many people proudly wearing their “I voted in Arlington” stickers. In all my classes you could hear people asking each other “Did you vote?” It was so exciting. All of us together on that day. We finally had a voice.
Hello and good morning. My name is Jordan Grimaldi and I am a senior at Washington-Lee High School and will be attending Pomona College in the fall. I am so honored and excited to be speaking in front of you today not only because I am both a woman and a voter but because I have been fortunate enough to work closely with the League over this past year. I admire the League’s longstanding mission to increase the public’s role in politics as well as its focus on advocating for key issues, such as the environment. I myself am an adamant environmentalist and applaud any group that works to bring awareness to the crises that we are facing today. Thus, I thank you so much for the opportunity to address such an impressive and inspiring group.
I have been involved with Inspire Virginia since last August. Before I started Inspire, I always knew that one day I was going to vote but no one ever really got me excited about it. I just thought it was this boring sort of rite of passage like paying taxes. I loosely followed politics but I thought it was more of an adult thing. Despite this lack of excitement, I was drawn to Inspire’s mission of youth leading youth. After joining, I immediately internalized its mission and became emboldened and angered with my cause. I knew there were stereotypes about teens and I knew I wanted to be involved with an organization that was dedicated to breaking them. When I walked down those halls on March 1st, I didn’t see lazy, apathetic, unengaged, teens. I saw a group of energized, powerful young adults who knew they had a voice and were ready to use it. March 1st was especially exciting for me because it was a chance for me to see the fruit of my labor. I knew that I had played a role, with the help of the League and my Inspired Team, in registering the 223 students that walked around with their “I voted” stickers.
If these stereotypes are true, then it is by no fault of our own. We are chastised for our lack of involvement in politics but can you blame us when there is such a lack of voter education and registration opportunities for young people? I believe it is these exact stereotypes that are what make us one of the most marginalized demographics in politics. We are often forgotten in Get Out The Vote movements at the local, state, and national levels because politicians and policymakers assume we don’t have the desire or knowledge to be involved. I cannot tell you how many people I surprised when I told them that they could register to vote when they were 17 as long as they would turn 18 by next November. Far too many of us don’t know how to register, or how and when to vote. However, when you look at social media, there is a completely different picture. On the nights of presidential debates, twitter, instagram, and facebook erupt in a deafening noise, comprised of the youth’s voice. We do care. Some people….maybe a little too much.
The League’s motto is “making democracy work” but as I learned during my Inspired Year, it takes a lot of work to make democracy. We were certainly kept busy with Get Out The Vote campaigns, registration drives, talking to administration, and reminding people to bring their social security numbers, social security numbers, social security numbers!
Tasked with registering 85% of our senior class, we knew we had a lot of work to do. It was very much a trial and error process, as it was the first year of the Inspire VA chapter. We were all new at this. At first, we tried tried the registration table during lunches. However, we soon realized that most seniors left campus, or if they did stay, they didn’t want to take the time to stop during their break. So we regrouped as an Inspired Team and put our heads together. This wasn’t working. But what if instead of waiting for them to come to us, we go to them? Why not register students at a time that makes sense for them? Thus, we set small goals for ourselves. Before the start of class, each of us would make a quick announcement that we had registration applications. By the end of the day, each of us had registered at least 10 people. That was 40 people in one day. Now 85% sounded a little less daunting.
By far our most successful registration effort was the classroom presentations with the help of the League in January. This partnership between Inspire VA and the League is extremely important as we are no longer younger people advocating for other younger people. Now we have a unified cause without the generation gap. We can combine the League’s experience and organization with our knowledge on how best to tailor the message for teens. I brainstormed with the League on this idea of how best to communicate the message at a training session it held the week before the presentations. I noticed that the script was heavy on the of history of voting, however, I suggested we might lose some of our audience if we included it because by senior year we are largely knowledgeable on the subject. I also suggested that the League really focus on the portions where the presenters asked the students about the key issues they cared about. Mentioning the importance of voting on issues such as college affordability was especially effective in reminding students of the importance of their voices. Brevity is key with teens. We care...we just don’t have as long of attention spans as you. In all, the presentations were a huge success and we could not have seen such high registrations for Washington-Lee without the help of the League. 125 of our total 224 registered students were from the classroom presentations.
The success we saw from this strong partnership speaks to how important it is for groups like the League to help support youth engagement. We have the energy and the interest, however, I’m not ashamed to say that we really do need your help. Organizations like the League have invaluable experience and resources that we just don’t have access to as young people. I see great potential in this partnership for the future. I not only see the League continuing to help Inspire VA with our registration drives but also Inspire VA playing a greater role in the League’s activities. I see Inspired Leaders present at League meetings advocating for the youth and helping the League reach us best.
The success we saw was not unique to Washington-Lee. Both groups were elated when Governor McAuliffe signed the proclamation deeming the last week of April to be Virginia’s High School Registration Week. 2,404 17 and 18 year olds registered during high school registration week alone. 14,960 students under 18 registered to vote in time for the primary elections and 9,017 made it to the polls for a turnout rate of 60% for the 17 year old age group. So why did we vote in such high numbers this year? Maybe it was the increasing activism of groups like Inspire VA dedicated to amplifying our voice. Maybe it was the nature of our generation. The internet, social media, and our smart phones bring us instant access and awareness to the political arena. I can tweet to get my friends excited about the primary. I can message someone with the link to register online. We want to be apart of the conversation and this is how we do it. Maybe it was the very entertaining and omnipresent presidential election that seems to draw every one’s attention. Maybe and perhaps most importantly it was the excitement of 17 year olds who thought that they would sadly have to wait another year before registering.
These numbers have given me one of the biggest takeaways from my Inspired Year: the power of the youth. Given the opportunities and resources provided to us, we take them. Our voice has transformed from a whisper to a yell so loud that politicians and policymakers have no choice but to listen to us as we are now the highest voting demographic in Virginia. We are finally proving that we deserve the respect and attention that we have been demanding for so long.
Another lesson I have learned is to never lose sight of the bigger picture. There were times this year when I was guilty of getting too wrapped up in numbers. 85% was all I cared about. I remember one day when I only registered one person. What difference did that make? I asked myself. Then I realized that was the exact reason I was encouraging people to vote. One voice does matter. One voice does make a difference. The competition between schools to see who could register the most students was fun but at times I think we forgot why we were really doing it. We must ask ourselves, why do we register our peers? Because we are breaking down stereotypes so that we may build ourselves up to be the true engaged, young leaders that we were all along.
I am so grateful for my Inspired Year, all of the people I met and all of the individual and group accomplishments that I worked so hard to help make. It has taught me to believe in myself and my peers. It has taught me that not only do I have a voice but that when I speak it can be heard. I am excited to be apart of this black horse generation that grows stronger every day. Thank you.