Singing to the Polls: Engaging Student Voice During the Election

October 22, 2020

We sat down with iCivics Educator Network Member, Debra Tavaras, to discuss some of the amazing work she’s leading with students in the state of Georgia.  Debra is the founder of the nonprofit organization, Soulstice Inc. which hosts the Young Litigators Project. The Young Litigators Project was the recipient of the 2019 Civic Impact Award by the Center for Civic Innovation. We hope that this will inspire you and your students to see that everyone’s voice is needed in order to have a functioning democracy!

You lead the Young Litigators Project. Can you tell us a bit about your mission and what your students experience during their time in the program?

The Young Litigators Project is just one of many programs that are part of Soulstice Inc., a 501©3 youth leadership organization. Our mission is to encourage change by empowering the next generation of leaders. The Young Litigators Program provides a unique opportunity for middle and high school students to gain an understanding about their rights and responsibilities under the United States Constitution. With the assistance of attorneys and law students, Young Litigators learn to write a brief, cite relevant legal precedents, and they defend their brief in a moot court competition (like the Supreme Court) during the month of March.

Additionally, our students learn how to analyze complex text, how to synthesize facts, build their advocacy skills, sharpen their public speaking skills, formulate superb organizational skills, and develop their persuasive writing skills.

This month you're collaborating with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to host a candidate forum with several individuals running for the United States Senate. What do you hope your Young Litigators and other students watching gain from this experience?

This month will be the inaugural Student-led U.S. Candidate Forum. The Student-led U.S. Candidate Forum is a follow up project to this year’s competition. The 2019-2020 competition issue dealt with voter suppression. There are twenty-one candidates, up for the office of the United States Senate, yet we only hear from about there maybe four. In order to make an informed decision, we recognize how critical it is to hear from every candidate running for that office. Through this project, we hope to encourage voters (and future voters) to research all candidates, their position on issues, and analyze their leadership qualities.

The 1st Student-Led U.S. Candidate Forum can be streamed on the Young Litigators Project Facebook Page on Saturday, October 24, 2020 at 6:00 p.m. EST.

Let's talk about this amazing song you shared with us. What inspired the song, the lyrics, and the collaboration with the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta and Southern Poverty Law Center?

The Young Litigators Project is stationed in Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. We applied for the Voters Registration Grant, a grant designated to encourage eligible young people to register to vote. Our plans were to host voter registration drives at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. The competition was held March 6, 2020 but due to COVID-19,  everything shut down on March 13th. We believed that schools would return after the summer break. When schools remained closed, we had to change our plans. To address the need to increase voter registration, we developed a PowerPoint and shared it with the area schools to share with the students. We knew that it was important for 18 and older to register, it was more important for them to exercise their rights and be heard by voting. 

I contacted the executive director at the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta and we discussed a collaboration with her students on song lyrics that would encourage people to get out and vote. With everything they were hearing and seeing, this was a way to release their frustration and encourage change by voting. It was a great outlet for students who were spending time isolated at home to work on a meaningful project that incorporated their talents. The Youth Ensemble of Atlanta uses art to write and perform about current issues. This opportunity aligned well with the YEA’s mission to empower youth through the arts to become catalysts for change in their communities. 

Song and art are a great way to engage student voice and student expertise around civic topics. Can you talk a bit more about why that is?

Creative expression can foster healing. Given the political climate, police brutality, protest, and this pandemic, I see this song and other forms of artistic expression as an outlet for young people to discuss what they see and how they feel about it. It empowers young people to bring about social change.

Students under 18 (and 16 in some places) can't vote. Why is it critical of adults to find ways to engage students around the election and beyond?

Research has shown that Generation Z and Millennial voters will account for 37 percent of eligible voters, yet there is concern whether young people will show up to vote given a variety of challenges and obstacles they face. Whether it’s because of voting during the pandemic, possible disappointment with the political process, or lack of knowledge about the candidates, many keep these groups from coming to the polls. It’s really easy for young voters to become disenchanted with the political process because they do not have a clear understanding how important the process is. You hear them say, “my vote will not count”. As adult mentors and educators, we need to develop opportunities for them at an early age to get involved in the political process. That way, they form an attachment to their community and as they become voting age, they will feel empowered to address what is happening in their community, society, and the world in the voting booth.

Where can people find your students' song? 

We encourage everyone to check out the song at this link: https://soundcloud.com/user-801879994/get-out-and-vote You can also watch and share their video on YouTube: 

Is there anything else you'd like to share about civic engagement, student voice, or your program?

I’m part of the iCivics Educator Network, a group of civic educators from across the country. I would like to thank iCivics for encouraging educators to think outside the box. The Young Litigators Project is now in its 11th year. Our goal is to have the project throughout the United States and host an international competition. 

Photos: The 2019-2020 Young Litigators Moot Court Competition




About Debra Tavaras

Debra Tavaras is the CEO of Soulstice Inc. She is an iCivics Educator Network member from Georgia with over 25 experiences working with youth. Debra works as a GED Instructor with the Atlanta Public Schools Adult Education Center.  She holds a B.S. in Human Resources, an MBA in Management, an Educational Specialist Degree in Administrator Leadership, and a Post Baccalaureate Certificate in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Ms. Tavaras served on several boards including the Fulton County Community Restorative Board and The Fulton/Atlanta School Justice Pathway. She was a presenter at the State and National Adult Education Conference. She was honored to have two of her programs recognized by the 44th President and Vice President. Debra is a co-author of the 2019 book, “Building Bridges, 10 Steps to Engage Youth”.

Interested in joining the iCivics Educator Network? Applications for the 2020-2021 cohort are being accepted until Monday, December 7.