At 826, our work is centered on elevating youth voices by offering tools and platforms for self-expression. Through thought-provoking writing projects and lessons, we invite students to think critically about the world we live in and join the conversation around the issues that matter to them. When young people add their voices to our democratic dialogue, they inspire meaningful social and political change and point towards a brighter future for our communities. In an election year marked by a global pandemic, environmental disasters, and a resurgent movement for racial justice, fostering civic engagement and critical thinking is taking on a new resonance, as young people raise their voices and share their perspectives on these critical issues.
826 students are exploring complex themes like politics, identity, activism, and environmental issues. They’re sharing their words and their views through powerful chapbooks, zines, and anthologies published across the 826 Network. Whether they’re reimagining urban design or advocating for equal rights, they’re calling out the injustices they see in their communities, building momentum, and rallying for change.
In How to Dream a City, 826CHI’s 2019 Young Authors’ Book Project, students recreated their ideal Chicago—one led by young people and welcoming to all. In “Vote for Kirby,” student Angelina K. envisions a city where healthcare is accessible to all. “There are hospitals on every other corner, and each hospital is like a spa.” Through poems and stories, students wrestled with issues plaguing their communities, looking at policy and structures, and offering suggestions for improvement. Some ideas are practical (stricter gun control laws), some are fantastical (free pizza for all), but all represent a vision for a youth-centered, youth-powered, and youth-led Chicago.
Our students know that their voices matter and can be catalysts for change. “Contrary to what you might read or hear, our generation is not just full of self-centered, oblivious, good-for-nothing kids. We want to show that we are aware of the social problems affecting our communities and that we yearn for imminent change to happen,” say Ysatti Bautista, Christofer Luna, Laisha Rodriguez, and Maria Theodoridou, who are part of the student editorial board behind 826 Boston’s My Generation Can: Public Narratives for Community Change.
This project transcended book pages, inviting students to the political sphere as they crafted public narratives and penned letters to Massachusetts State Senators and Representatives. On Boston’s “lobby day,” a community event designed to meet elected officials, students had the opportunity to meet with Massachusetts Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, who wrote the foreword for My Generation Can. To prepare for this event, students wrote letters to elected representatives about pressing issues, including LGBTQ+ rights, resources for neurodivergent students, housing inequality, and more.
Their resulting “public narratives”—a storytelling framework that encompasses the Story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now—are mobilizing calls-to-action for community organizing—a testament to how these future leaders are already using their voices to enact positive change now.
Calls for change also fill the pages of 826DC’s “We Matter: Notes from DC’s Generation Z,” as students widened their lenses to explore our society’s inequities. With the support of journalists from The Huffington Post, VICE News, and The Washington Informer, they grappled with racial justice, gentrification, and other issues affecting their communities.
In “Chocolate City,” Ambriah J. dives into DC’s history to understand how the past helps shape the present. “Chocolate City is a place of African American history—of both slavery and freedom. Just traveling through the streets of DC will create a scene of unforgettable events and traditions although DC’s history seems to be long forgotten. Before any of us were even born, the District was a totally different place.”
Our students’ stories can deepen our understanding of our contexts both near and far. Diverse voices have shaped our country’s history, and young writers in 826 programs will write its next chapter. On the eve of an election in which so much of what matters to them and what they’re exploring in their writing is being brought into debate, their words remind us of the vital importance of teaching truth, and the power of story as a way to share and understand that truth.
We encourage educators everywhere to foster civic engagement in their classrooms, to introduce students to an honest account of this country’s history, and to offer opportunities for them to share their truths. 826 Digital offers several free resources to help educators and caregivers engage students in meaningful conversations about the election in your classroom or at home:
- “Dear Election,” from 826 New Orleans, offers young people the opportunity to write a letter expressing their views on issues that matter to them. It could be to a political candidate, a family member, their future self—anyone impacted by the election and its outcome.
- “Poets in Revolt!,” from 826CHI, gives students the opportunity to explore the poetry behind social movements.
- In “Change the Ending, Take Back Your Power,” from 826 MSP, students explore the genres of historical and speculative fiction before they reimagine a time when they felt powerless and write a different outcome.
These resources are among many on 826 Digital designed to help students improve their writing skills while fostering critical thinking about our history and our present. We hope this moment will inspire even more students to explore history, use their powerful voices to engage in their communities, and tell their stories. We hope, too, that you’ll join them in making your voice heard by voting on Tuesday.