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Michelle Obama praises Detroit district, students for voter engagement effort

Detroit student Jayvonne Simmons was praised by former First Lady Michelle Obama for his efforts to help students register to vote.
Photo courtesy of Jayvonne Simmons

Former First Lady Michelle Obama this week lauded some Detroit students for their efforts to get more young people to vote in November.

During a conference call with elected officials and community leaders this week, Obama praised Detroit district superintendent Nikolai Vitti, as well as local students Jayvonne Simmons and Zion Helms for their work on When We All Vote, which seeks to increase voter participation among young people and people of color.

“You guys should be commended,” said the former first lady, a co-chair of When We All Vote. “That is the kind of leadership that we need.”

The effort is especially relevant in Detroit, where the majority of students are youth of color and where, historically, voter turnout has been low. An analysis of voter trends in the 2016 presidential election showed that the number of Michigan’s African American voters and youth voters had declined from the 2012 election.

In light of the upcoming presidential race, When We All Vote is working to register students and educate them that their vote can influence the outcome of an election.

“We really started to try to figure out, ‘how can we give a real opportunity for students to register? And also, ‘How do we make this not be something that’s imposed upon them, but something that really elevates student beliefs and gives students an opportunity to be leaders on this work?” said Kristen Howard, the Detroit district’s chief of staff, who stressed that it was important for the initiative to be student-driven.

Jayvonne, 17, is a junior at Communication and Media Arts High School and a student voting captain. He said an eye-opening moment with his history teacher challenged his perceptions about the political process when he told his class that their vote matters. Prior to that, Jayvonne didn’t care about voting.

“I thought that was powerful,” he said. “We want to change something. It can be done.”

Since then, he’s been raising awareness in his school community about the importance of youth voting. Last month, he helped coordinate a student rally and was a poll worker during the presidential primary. During a recent video conference call Jayvonne hosted with other students, they discussed the recent in-person election that took place in Wisconsin. The state’s Supreme Court had blocked an attempt to postpone the April 7 primary to June, and the long lines, at a time when social distancing is being encouraged, fueled concerns about coronavirus.

“That was not fair,” Jayvonne said of the situation in Wisconsin.

The Detroit district has been working to make sure high school students of voting age are registered and informed about upcoming municipal and federal elections. Schools have also incorporated civic lessons on ballot initiatives, such as one in March that would fund the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When We All Vote provided a voter toolkit and assisted with a voter registration training. Student captains at each Detroit public school have held events to raise awareness and excitement about voting.

Howard said of the 3,500 voting-eligible high school seniors in Detroit district schools, 1,800 are already registered. The district also coordinated a voter simulation in advance of the March presidential primary to educate students on what the voting process is like and how to fill out ballots.

The district is now considering how to teach students about opportunities to vote by mail or online in the August election, which will include a ballot initiative to renew a tax to pay off the Detroit district’s existing debt.

“That’s definitely on our radar because we think that’s probably going to be the most effective way for people to vote in August. So we’re very cognizant of that,” Howard said of remote voting options.

And while the schools are closed during the pandemic, Jayvonne said he will continue to help students register to vote, and host weekly conference calls to talk with his peers about voting rights and history.

“I would want to step in someone’s shoes who actually had to fight for us to vote,” he said. “You’re voting because you want a lot of things to be easier for your children’s future.”

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