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What Does America Stand For? We Asked Teenagers

Author: Anna North

Beginning in early 2017, I began asking teenagers around the country to make videos in which they responded to the following question: “What are your values as a person? What are American values? Do you think the country is living up to those values today? Why or why not?” Their answers have a new urgency in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., which has brought lingering questions about America’s past, present and future to the forefront of the national conversation.

The footage in the video above was all submitted before the rally in Charlottesville. I was inspired to collect it by my conversations with young people in the months following the 2016 election. It started with an election-week experiment — I wanted to hear what first-time voters in Pennsylvania had to say about starting their voting lives in what already felt, to me, like a historically bizarre time. In the weeks that followed, I talked to young protesters, youth reporters at a local newspaper and teenage environmental activists.

Adults often dismiss teenagers, assuming that they’re callow, apathetic or uninformed. But the kids I was meeting cared passionately about education, foreign policy, racial justice and more. Even when they weren’t sure how they felt about a certain candidate or issue, they were clearly thinking deeply.

Struck by what I’d heard, I decided to solicit young people’s opinions in a more systematic way, to paint a picture of how their generation sees the country today. That’s how this collection of personal videos came about.

I wrote to dozens of teenagers — young people I’d met at protests, young Republicans I’d talked to around Election Day, teenagers who were already vlogging about their high school experiences on YouTube. I also reached out to Christian youth groups, home-schooling associations, L.G.B.T. rights organizations, groups representing Native American youth and many other organizations, asking them to recommend young people who might want to participate.

My goal was to pull together a group that was diverse in as many ways as possible: geographically, politically and in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation. Not everyone said yes — one teenager wrote to me that “Trump could learn from President Putin how to deal with ‘journalists’ like yourself.” But in the end, I got more than 30 videos in which teenagers talked about their values. Some of them also agreed to submit follow-up videos in which they told me more about the communities where they lived.

The video above contains a sampling of the videos the teenagers submitted. It’s not as scientific or wide-ranging as a poll or a survey. Instead, think of it as a kind of preview: This is how our country looks today to some of the young people who will help decide its future.

Anna North (@annanorthtweets) is a journalist and novelist.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

DMU Timestamp: February 08, 2018 18:47

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