This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Abraham Lincoln High in Northeast Philadelphia is among 20 high schools across the nation honored for their efforts to register young voters through the My School Votes program, part of the When We All Vote initiative that is sponsored by Michelle Obama and MTV.
As a winner of the 2020 Prom Challenge, the Lincoln High team will participate in a national virtual prom hosted by MTV on Friday.
The students at Lincoln distributed personalized birthday cards and gift bags, along with voting rights information, to students just before their 18th birthdays. Through this outreach and social media efforts, they registered 65% of the eligible voters, a feat that earned them the national recognition.
They got involved in the registration drive through the school’s chapter of the business and leadership club DECA.
“We have a group of leaders at our school that are very committed to taking any opportunity that is available to them and working as a group to further that opportunity,” said senior Doha Ibrahim, who was involved in the effort.
Their work did face a few complications along the way. Jayla Salvatierra, also a senior and a DECA member, pointed out some logistical issues: “There were some people who didn’t have citizenship, or some people who didn’t even want to vote.”
Linda Zheng, also a senior and the executive president of Lincoln’s DECA chapter, said that some people forgot their Social Security numbers or didn’t have their driver’s licenses.
Ibrahim, who just finished a year as one of two student representatives on the Board of Education, pointed out a more troubling roadblock.
“I think a big thing is that a lot of the students follow what their parents do and a lot of parents aren’t registered, so they don’t find the importance in registering to vote,” she said. “It’s a shame that kids … ages 17-18 don’t really know the importance of voting.”
Zheng said the lesson she learned is that voting is a privilege and that people should not throw away their chance.
“Not everyone in our country can vote,” she said. “Prisoners, even people who get minor offenses, can’t vote. And when they want to change something, they depend on us who can vote to have a voice for them. I want everyone who has the right to vote to understand that we aren’t just speaking for ourselves, but for the community around us.”
Salvatierra said she is happy about being able to vote in the upcoming election, but realized during the group’s campaign that “a lot of kids in our school think voting is something to joke around about, which it’s not. It needs to be spoken more about in schools.”
Although they recognized the importance of voting when they started the campaign, their conviction was strengthened by the indifferent reaction of some students, and then the pandemic.
“The motivation came afterwards,” Salvatierra said. “Seeing how the world is right now, it started becoming more important after this pandemic.”
So the students are working to make voter registration a tradition at Lincoln and at other schools in the Philadelphia area.
“Everyone should register to vote,” said Ibrahim. “That’s all we ask of students. We just want others to register. If you get one person, that person gets five, that trend has to move along. One person tells another like a chain. If we had the power, we’d go to all the schools in Philadelphia. Maybe next year, we would go around the whole District and have a whole campaign.”
Zheng said: “We hope we get better and better.”
Along with other winners, the Lincoln team participated last week in a segment on the Today show with Jenna Bush to discuss the effort, and Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance to congratulate them.
The national virtual prom will feature segments that focus on the winning teams’ accomplishments. Special guests, celebrity interviewers, and popular performing artists will make appearances during the all-day MTV event, followed by the virtual prom party, which will be streamed via MTV’s YouTube channel. Although the prom will be virtual — which was not the original plan when the initiative was rolled out before the pandemic — the students are excited to receive a greater platform to spread their message.
Shayleah Jenkins of Haverford College is interning at the Notebook this summer.