Cool Things Wit Cool People is a monthly column by Akeem Dixon focusing on community development. To ask a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or reach out @akeemdixon.
Who should be class president, what ice cream flavor to order, what toy to bring to show and tell, and whether the crust should stay on or off the ends of the PB&J sandwich (off, of course) — all relatively simple choices when compared to the life-altering decisions politicians will be making on our behalf once they are sworn into office.
Voting as a child was substantially less dramatic and included fewer four-letter words when the results were read compared to voting as an adult.
This month’s Dear Akeem will focus on the adolescent entry point of our voting process: the ward system, and specifically how it can be a resource for youth engagement. We will chat with Venise Whitaker, a committeeperson for the 18th Ward, as she details the role wards play in the local political system and how it can help get young people interested in voting.
Whitaker’s responses have been edited for clarity.
Akeem Dixon: Can you briefly explain the ward system, and its importance in the political system?
Venise Whitaker: The wards are the grassroots of the political system and allow residents to participate in the political system as a volunteer. These contributors are the eyes and ears on the streets and keep constituents engaged throughout the year. Wards leaders can also vote to endorse a candidate for an election.
Each ward is made up of committee members. In each ward there are a number of divisions. Each division has two committeepeople who are elected every four years.
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The committee people are voted in by the residents/constituents who live in their division. These elections coincide with the state elections of our representatives, governor, senators, etc.
Each ward’s leadership consists of:
- Ward leader
- First chair
- Second chair
- Third chair
- Secretary assistant
- Treasurer assistant
What role could this system play in engaging and empowering younger and less experienced voters? How does it empower the community to hold elected officials accountable?
The role of the third chair is to empower young adults to register and vote by coordinating things such as door knocking, holding events in the community, bringing out speakers and organizing events in schools.
Turnout with the younger voting audience has been historically low. What do you attribute this to?
That is the unanswered question — why? Are politicians paying extra attention to the youth as future voters? As parents, are we engaging our youth in voting and politics?
There is a clear need to make politics fun and relatable to the youth. Both President Clinton and President Obama did just that and spoke about topics the youth could understand and relate to. If we don’t inspire the youth to vote, they may never be inspired to vote as adults.
Additionally, we need to remind our children that who we vote to put into our government also fixes the potholes, reduces taxes, increases taxes, funds our schools and takes care of our seniors.
[Editor’s note: Watch Dixon interview Whitaker live at a voter registration event she hosted in Fishtown earlier this month.]
What do you love about being a committeeperson? What makes it difficult?
What I love about being a committeeperson is myself being challenged by [both] voters and those who don’t vote, and informing them why we should vote, especially at mid-term elections. I myself [am] inspired by other passionate voters. Politics is forever a learning process; I feel as though I never know all the levels. I’m always being educated and inspired [by] peaking to others who are anxious to know more, learn more and furthering their efforts in the ways of politics.
Being a voter in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia is an honor and privilege. We live in a first-class city. History was made here. In Fishtown, once known as Kensington County, colonists rode along the King’s Highway — now known as Frankford Ave — to overcome the British and form the United states of America.
I’m first-generation born in Kensington by an Argentinean father and German/Polish mother who would never have had the right to vote. I vote for myself, I vote for my children, I vote for my ancestors, I vote for those who risked their lives to vote. Being a super voter is a badge I wear with pride. I hope my dedication and commitment to our city, state and nation will inspire current and future voters.
Difficult is when constituents or voters say, “My vote doesn’t matter. I don’t have time to vote. Why bother to vote?” This is upsetting especially when I read stories by suffragettes and civil rights marchers who sacrificed their lives for the right to vote. This is my #1 reason to vote because if it was 1915 I wouldn’t have the right to vote.
What online resources are available to learn more about the ward system and how do residents become more engaged in person with the ward leader and committee?
- Committee of Seventy
- Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission
- Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners
Raise your hand if you’re old(er), a tad bit jaded and pessimistic about our political system.
Cultivating a fair and equitable political environment is a feat that we have collectively flubbed over the years. Creating gateways for young people to do much better than us old folks is something we should all vote for. The sooner we get them engulfed in the political system to learn its in and outs, the sooner we can retire and let them continue the debate.-30-
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