2020 was a year of firsts for me.
My first (legal) drink, first pandemic, first apartment, first presidential election, first Zoom meeting, first time going more than a couple of weeks without going to a movie theater. You know the whiplash.
We newly christened “young adults” have been expected to navigate tons of firsts, attend to school and work responsibilities, maintain at least a semblance of a healthy social life, eat our greens, commit to workout routines, cope with our mental health like machines—and, oh yeah, promptly perform our civic duties in one of the most polarizing political climates of our time. (If you found that sentence to be long, clunky, or otherwise hard to get through—we’re talking about 2020! What else can you expect?)
My point is that over the last year, young people have been asked to take on a lot. Arguably most important: making an effort to create desperately needed social change. I care about politics deeply. But in all the muck and the mess of this year, it’s the issue of free health care that became central to me, after my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Who was I to believe any less in a system that so many people around me, some significantly younger than myself, were working to fix? Who was I to give up before even trying?
I’m from a low-income area in Texas where health insurance is a luxury afforded to few, not including my family and me. My first experience with health insurance was in 2017 as a student at Penn, where insurance is required for attendance. My family relied on a community-boosted GoFundMe to cover the costs of my mom’s treatment and our everyday living expenses; she is our only source of income.
Mom’s officially been in remission since September, and life has pretty much gone back to “normal.” Except it hasn’t really—my mom may be better now, but my once-fierce faith in both our healthcare and political systems steadily waned through 2020 and into the presidential election.
How will we afford treatment if she gets sick again? How many people in our situation were not as fortunate as we were? How could I have been expected to choose between two presidential candidates when neither of them supported free health care for all? These questions brought me to a newfound disillusionment about voting that only Philly youth could curb.
Despite feeling some doubts about my personal participation in the 2020 election, I still signed up to work with the #VoteThatJawn (VTJ) campaign (the initiative to empower young voters and register as many first-time voters as possible) as a student during the fall semester. Why did I do this, you ask? Maybe I subconsciously wanted someone or something to remind me why I had ever put my faith in voting in the first place.
And not long after delving into the fall semester, VoteThatJawn began to chip away at my doubts.
One of my first assignments was to create “deep canvas posts” for young Philly voters and activists that detailed their motivations for voting or contributing to the election process. I had no idea what a deep canvas post was when my classmate Zoe, a freshman from Philly, suggested it could be a useful way for VoteThatJawn to recreate online the personal testimonies many in-person volunteers had given at VTJ events.
Interviewing these young voters and volunteers and hearing their stories, I couldn’t help but be energized by their dedication to change, and their expectations for the future. One young voter even shared with me her hopes for progressive healthcare reform after she had had a bad experience similar to mine with our current system.
“Voting became essential for me when my Mom was diagnosed last year with Stage 4 cancer,” she said. “My family has never been able to afford health insurance, so we missed the early signs of her illness. We lived off and paid for her treatment through a GoFundMe. This is America—cancer patients should be able to receive the treatment they need, with little worry as to cost. The right to free or affordable health insurance motivates me to vote.”
Who was I to believe any less in a system that so many people around me, some significantly younger than myself, were working to fix? Who was I to give up before even trying? To say that VTJ effectively restored my faith in our democratic system would be a lie—but to say VTJ restored it enough for me to cast my vote would not.
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It’s funny to think that I spent all semester working with other Jawn interns to create VTJ infographics, Instagram posts, and my personal favorite—chalk spray paint masterpieces that were made by spray-painting plastic stencils with the VoteThatJawn logo on streets all over West Philly—to convince others to get registered and ready to vote.
Despite registering and mailing my absentee ballot fairly early, it was seemingly lost in the mass of applications and ballots being processed in my state and county. As disappointing as that was, I am now motivated more than ever to vote in upcoming local elections and look forward to participating in the next presidential election. Even though my absentee ballot to Texas didn’t arrive in time to be counted, I was surprised at how rewarding it was to send it anyway, to know I did my part to participate in our democratic process.
I ended the year with a mound of firsts under my belt—first legal drink, first pandemic, first rejected ballot, first mother’s remission, first VTJ campaign. I’ve been asked to take on a lot this year; we all have.
But I think it’s because of this load, not despite it, that young people today are better equipped than ever to keep the faith, demand change and not take no for an answer.
Calista Lopez is a Penn junior studying history and English. She’s a former film and TV beat writer for 34th Street Magazine and first-time voter.
The PA primary is coming up on May 18. Are you all set to vote?
- Register to vote and check your registration status
- Vote by mail or at a satellite election office
- Find your polling place and other post-registration facts