Students and teachers rally in front of Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters.
Students and teachers from Ramona High School in East Los Angeles rally in front of Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters Richard Vogel/AP

Students in Los Angeles want 16- and 17-year olds to have the right to vote in school board elections. High school senior Tyler Okeke is leading the charge.

When thousands of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District walked out of classrooms in January to protest swelling classroom sizes and low pay, many of their students picketed alongside them. After a week of striking, the teachers won a raise, stricter caps on class sizes, and a promise by the district to hire more nurses and librarians. Now, LAUSD students want their own revolution.

Young people have taken up the mantle of movements for climate action, gun control, and prison reform in recent years. But most can’t vote on legislation affecting these issues until they turn 18.

Tyler Okeke—a 17-year-old senior at Vladovic Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Los Angeles, and the one student representative on the LAUSD School Board—wants to change that. He’s advocating for the city to give students as young as 16 the power to vote in school board elections.

“Voting is something that’s really important for students of color and low-income students,” said Okeke, whose school is in Wilmington, a neighborhood with one of the city’s higher concentrations of Latinx and immigrant residents. “Historically, our voice hasn’t been heard in elections, and we’ve been neglected in the way that elected officials campaign.”

Last week, the school board unanimously approved a resolution introduced by Okeke, which calls on LAUSD’s superintendent to explore the feasibility and costs of putting such a measure on the ballot in 2020.

Okeke’s organizing is supported by other L.A. high schoolers, many of whom gave testimony during the school board’s vote last week. But it also builds on broader efforts to enfranchise youth voters on the local and national stage.

Takoma Park, Maryland, was the first city in the nation to lower its voting age for local elections to 16, and now hosts a youth council filled with middle- and high schoolers who convene to advise the city on everything from composting to housing reform. In 2018, Washington, D.C. became the largest city to consider letting 16- and 17-year-olds vote in federal elections, in an effort that would have enfranchised up to 10,000 young people, 75 percent of whom are people of color—but the legislation was stalled by the council indefinitely last November.

In San Francisco, a measure that would have allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections, community college elections, local candidate elections, and on ballot measure decisions was rejected in 2016. But in neighboring Berkeley, voters passed a resolution allowing 16- and 17-year-old students to vote in school board elections that same year. These movements, both successes and failures, inspired Okeke to start with the school board, but he says he would like to see youth voting in city and national elections, too.

L.A.’s public school district is the second-largest in the country, so a measure like this would have an outsized impact there: If passed, about 60,500 additional students would gain voting power, L.A. Unified spokeswoman Barbara Jones told the LA Times. And because many Latinx students in the district have undocumented parents, advocates say, the measure would have the added effect of giving previously disenfranchised immigrant families a voice.

“The majority of people who vote for school board don’t even have kids in the school district—they’re the least connected, but they have the most power to decide the future of LAUSD,” said Luis Sanchez, the executive director of Power California, an organization that’s advocating for a voting age of 16 state-wide, and that supported Okeke’s resolution. “If young people became part of this it would change the conversation overnight.”

CityLab caught up with Okeke after school one day last week to talk about building habitual voters in communities of color, students’ involvement in the L.A. teacher strike, and why the school board needs a student-led disruption. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

You’ve been an active organizer throughout high school, and now the student school board representative. What drives you?

My parents immigrated here when they were young adults—my mom at about 19, and my dad at about 22. They emigrated from Nigeria to this country looking for a better future, and more opportunity: the immigrant story that a lot of people share. And they were able to find that.

As I was growing up, watching the news and being around a lot of political issues in Los Angeles, and seeing the disparities between the life of a black male and the life of a white male, I was called to action to make sure I used my privilege as someone whose family was able to make something of themselves in this country and make sure that other people are able to do the same thing. To this day I can’t find anything more important than making sure political issues and political discourse are relevant to people like me.

How has sitting on the board allowed you to pursue that goal? I know that in the past school year alone, the LAUSD School Board has advocated for a federal bill to provide pathways to citizenship for immigrant families, and approved a resolution to free up more state funding for early childhood education.

There’s always room for more that we can do, but I know that working on the board has been one of the most progressive bodies I’ve ever been a part of.

We’ve considered legislation to direct our Office of Government Relations to lobby against the citizenship question [on the U.S. Census], to make sure we’re able to protect undocumented parents and students. We’ve committed to allocating some of our resources to serve our homeless youth and foster youth. It’s been fairly easy to make sure we’re going in the right direction just because the majority of the people who also sit on the board—the adults—agree that this is the work we should be doing.

How did seeing your teachers go on strike in January galvanize you and other students to act?

We were always thinking about educational equity and what we really needed in our school sites, but I think the strike really brought that to the center of a lot of our advocacy. The city of Los Angeles went on lockdown for our teachers: businesses, parents, students, teachers themselves, were all supporting this movement for more in our classrooms.

During the strike, I advocated that both sides come to an agreement for the best interests of students. I was striking with the teachers that would go downtown and picket, but then I also asked students, ‘why are you still coming to school?’

And students were telling me that they needed Wifi to complete their assignments, or that they needed to be fed, and that’s why they were here. And I remembered how important school sites are to the development of students who don’t have a lot at home, or maybe have toxic home environments.

How do you think giving 16- and 17 year-olds a choice in determining who runs the school board would affect the future of the district for teachers and students?

Students being able to decide who serves on the board will be instrumental in the kind of discourse that we have, because right now it’s very skewed to whatever organization puts the most money behind whatever candidate. When I was first introduced to the board, they told me that these three are supported by the charter school association, and the other three are supported by United Teachers Los Angeles [the local teachers’ union], and there’s one person in the middle.

I feel like that shouldn’t have been the way I was introduced to that body of power. I should have been introduced to them as, ‘this person is a strong advocate for STEM education; this person supports more humanities courses; this person is an advocate for African-American and foster youth’—that’s kind of the discussion I wanted to hear.

Students are the largest stakeholders but we do not have a vote. We do not put money behind campaigns, and that’s why our interests have been sidelined.

We’re ready, and we’ve already shown responsibility in the way that we’ve led the movement for climate change and gun reform and making sure there’s comprehensive prison reform. We advocate for our parents, and help them understand their rights under the law as undocumented persons. We’re ready to take on these responsibilities. And I know that our leaders on the Board of Education are responsive to letting us take the reigns of leadership.

That was something striking from the meeting this week—the board voted to move forward with your resolution 6-0. Do you feel that students have strong support from them?

I do now, but it wasn’t always that way. It did take a lot of organizing, a lot of talking, and a lot of hard work.

When I first proposed the resolution, one of the members said “This won’t pass, but this is good practice of democracy.” That charged me even more. Youth—we’re done practicing democracy. We want to be engaged. We want to be actively involved in who decides, and in who makes laws on our behalf.

What about Power California’s broader goal, of getting 16- and 17-year-olds a vote in state-wide and national elections?

That was definitely my intention for this resolution: to start a conversation around youth taking an active role in voting beyond school board elections, but also municipal state and national elections. I know that in our conversations with the city clerk’s office and others who would be required to implement this if it does pass, it would be easier if we were just allowed to vote in all elections in the state or city. We’re definitely ready for that.

It also seems like, especially in this city, the turnout for mayoral elections and other municipal elections is really low. Eleven percent of Angelenos voted for the mayor of LA in the last election. That’s painful. I don’t know if that can be considered democracy if only 11 percent of the population voted for the mayor that is currently serving.

And I think that we students, we definitely have the responsibility to make sure we mold the direction of this nation and the direction of this city in coming years. Because we’re going to be the ones left with whatever decisions adults make.

You mentioned, too, that in a lot of cases it’s already students who are helping their families navigate these political issues.

Yes. Every election I go with my grandmother and help her vote: I make sure she knows what each candidate stands for and what each proposition stands for, so that her vote is as informed as possible. And I know a lot of other students that help either their parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles do the same thing.

I think that’s one of the most important aspects of this just because voting is something that’s really important for students of color and low-income students—just because historically our voice hasn’t been heard in elections, and we’ve been neglected in the way that elected officials campaign. And I just think at this time when we’re 16 and it’s district curriculum that students take U.S. history or AP U.S. history or some sort of civic education course, there’s no better time.

We should have the opportunity to vote as 16- and 17 year-olds, for example, if there’s a board seat open unexpectedly like the special election happening now. I think it just creates a culture of voting that is really imperative to the proliferation of our community and our values.

Right, like you said: Not “practicing” democracy but actually engaging with democracy, and making sure that becomes second-nature early on.

Yes, habitual voting. That’s the goal.

After this week’s meeting and your and other students’ testimonies, the School Board voted to research the feasibility of passing this measure. What comes next for your work on this front?

I think in regards to ‘vote at 16,’ it’s making sure this continues. Because LAUSD is a bureaucracy: We do pass a lot of resolutions and some of them, if they’re not followed up on, do just drown away.

It’s important to make partnerships, like with Power California and board member Kelly Gonez, to make sure there are people who are just as passionate as myself and are willing to make sure that we have solutions to this. Ideally, after the research of feasibility we would then put the measure on the ballot, and then we’d partner with a city council member or even the mayor to make sure that we can have a charter change to make this legal in our city.

It’s going to take a lot of organizing, a lot of convincing, and a lot of showing up in numbers.

You’re a senior, and the school year is wrapping up. Where will you go next?

I’ve committed to the University of Chicago to study political science. I chose Chicago in particular just because there is a deep need for a political revolution in that city. It is a democratic stronghold, but the machine is powerful, and it often overshadows the voices of people who are most in need of the city’s resources and of the city’s tenacious energy. I just want to go there because there’s a lot of organizing and advocacy that’s needed and it’s a fight I want to join. So I’m excited.

I’ve been following Lori Lightfoot’s election for mayor this year. And when she won, I was so happy. ‘Cause that’s important: making sure that everyone can see themselves in the city’s leadership.

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