The great American experiment only works when all voices are heard — men and women, liberals and conservatives, religious and nonreligious, old and young.
What’s sad is that too many people — especially young millennial women — allow their voices to go unheard in the public square.
It’s not because there’s a lack of opportunity to engage or because there aren’t enough young women with powerful ideas.
It’s because too many of us have bought into reasonable-sounding lies that discourage us from using our God-given right to speak up.
The first lie is that the voice of one person cannot make a difference. How can one individual take on a system, a coordinated group of opponents, or an entire culture? To be fair, this perception cripples almost everyone. The reality is that most people are waiting for a leader, and most individuals speak up only when they feel sufficient strength in numbers. That’s why the voice of one often makes the difference.
Think of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who was nearly murdered at the age of 15 for obtaining an education and advocating that other girls do the same. She now stands as the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the most influential people in the world. Think of Denisha Merriweather, another young advocate who has used her story of triumph over poverty to advocate for education reform across the nation. Once at risk for dropping out of school, she’s now a national voice on policy. Think of Maile Wilson, the mayor of Cedar City who was elected at age 27 and became the youngest mayor our state had ever seen. Her public service has started a conversation about the influence of young people. Chances are that there is a silent movement aligned with your ideas, waiting in the wings for just one person to speak up — and it could be you.
The second lie is that a person needs a certain “profile” — or set of characteristics — in order to engage government or the public conversation. Let’s be clear: There is no prerequisite for participating in the system that makes laws that impact your life. You are not required to have a political science degree or years of experience before your experiences are relevant. This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. As Americans we must beware of elitist attitudes — the idea that only certain individuals should or can have a say in government.
A unique obstacle for women is a belief that we must be perfectly qualified before we act. An article by The Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap,” examines what Hewlett-Packard discovered when trying to get more women into top management positions — women only applied for promotions when they felt they had 100 percent of a job’s qualifications, whereas men applied when they felt like they had only 60 percent. Without leaning in and taking risks, we risk staying silent on issues that will lean on us.
Women experience a unique blend of employment, child rearing and many other good things. All of these experiences qualify us to speak on issues we care about. Our communities need our perspectives, no matter our paths.
Finally, there’s this false idea that getting involved in government really means running for office. Running for elected office is noble — and it would be great if we saw more women run, when they want to — but opportunities for influence are broad. At the end of the day, some individuals are inclined to run for office and some are not. But lack of political ambition does not let us off the hook. We each have a responsibility to speak up.
There is a pool of gifts and talents within young millennial women. We need more of them as community council members, as registered lobbyists, as passionate citizens who give public comment in committees or hearings, and so on. We need the ideas of younger women to appear in op-eds, film, radio shows and podcasts. All can use their unique voices — and all should.
This is a plea for young millennial women to get more involved in the civic process and in the public conversation. We need their participation, just like we need it from all women and all men. And we need it desperately if we want this great American experiment to work.
Christine Cooke is the education policy director at Sutherland Institute.