Student Activism Is On The Rise In Maine

Jul 20, 2018

Four months ago, hundreds of students across Maine walked out of their schools, joining others across the country in memorializing the victims of the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Fla. and to advocate for gun control.

For many students, the walkouts were the start of a new political journey, and those efforts have evolved in the past few months — and could make a difference in November's elections.

Students from nearly every corner of Maine led the school walkouts in March in the wake of the fatal school shooting at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. For some, that was the end of their activism, but for many it was just the beginning.

Students at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School at the March 14 walkout.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

For high school junior Phoebe Walsh, the marches were a turning point.

"Seeing that, and being a part of that, was really exciting for all of us," she says." We hadn't done a lot politically beforehand. So being a part of that world, just for a couple minutes, really inspired us. We wanted to be there more."

Walsh is a student at Camden Hills Regional High School, in Rockport. She says that when she watched the students from Parkland speak out, and then spoke out herself, she and her friends felt they needed to take action.

"We were tired of sitting around and waiting for things to get changed, when we knew we now we had the power," she says.

In the month after the walkouts, Walsh looked around her school for ways to keep speaking out. When she and other politically-minded students couldn't find many outlets for their activism, they created them.

"We were tired of sitting around and waiting for things to get changed, when we knew we now we had the power," Walsh says.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

Walsh's first step was to revive her high school's old newspaper and relaunch it as a politically-charged monthly with views from all sides.

The second step was to help form the "Maine Teen Advocacy Coalition." It's a small group of students, mostly from the Midcoast, with efforts that stretch far beyond the school walls.

"The whole country is listening to teenagers right now. We're in the spotlight," she says. "So we're taking advantage of that and moving forward with our agenda."

In May, the teens drove an hour west to Augusta to sit down with lawmakers and advocate for policy.They discussed the minimum wage, and testified at a public hearing for a "red flag" gun control bill.

“As my friends and I can attest, it is all too easy to ignore such problems until they turn our lives inside out,” one student said at the hearing.

The bill was ultimately vetoed by Gov. LePage, but that hasn't deterred the students. Walsh and other members of the group now meet regularly with administrators to discuss changes they want to see at their school. On May, they organized and led a gubernatorial debate, and they registered nearly 80 high school students to vote.

Camden Hills social studies teacher Nell Dailey says she hasn't seen seen anything like this in her 15 years at the school.

“We had a protest about 10 years ago where they had a sign, and students walked down the street and just came home," she says. "So all of this is really, I think, challenging our community to be deeper thinkers about, what it is that we value as a community?"

Students at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport show off an online version of their school newspaper. The students resurrected the newspaper earlier this year.
Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public

These kinds of efforts have spread beyond the Midcoast, too. With the help of a grant, the nonpartisan League of Women Voters has helped support more than 30 school voter registration events across the state this year, in towns from Sanford to Bar Harbor. They've registered more than 800 high school voters. That's more than triple the number who registered two years ago.

The big question for researchers like Abby Kiesa is whether the new push will make a difference at the polls come November.

"While a high registration number is incredible, there's still work to be done," says Kiesa.

Kiesa is the director of impact at CIRCLE, an organization at Tufts University that studies youth civic engagement. Kiesa says with so many competitive races in Maine, students could play a decisive role in the state's 2018 midterms. But she cautions that more voter registration doesn't necessarily translate to higher turnout in November.

“Certainly registration is a hurdle that young people have to navigate, especially if they're doing it for the first time. But that doesn't necessarily, in a mid-term, equate to actually casting a ballot," Kiesa says. "In 2014, we saw that 42 percent of young people who were registered to vote actually voted...So it means that, for campaigns, for example, they left a whole bunch of people in 2014 under-mobilized. So this is a huge opportunity for campaigns to actually reach out to young people.”

Maine has historically done relatively well in turning out young people on election day. While turnout among voters under 30 fell nationwide in the 2014 midterms, nearly a third of young people in Maine made it to the polls — the highest rate in the country.

And students like Walsh say their activism won't stop after the election. She is trying to connect with other students across Maine to broaden her group and keep lobbying the legislature in future years. And the newspaper at Camden Hills Regional High School, which started out with just a few writers, has 27 students interested in joining next fall.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Originally published July 19, 2018 5:10 p.m.