A progressive group of teenagers from all over the nation are taking part in a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization called Freedom’s Answer, which joins them in their belief that, if united, they can lead the nation today rather than wait until tomorrow — or after they are of legal voting age.
Freedom’s Answer, co-founded by Doug Bailey and Mike McCurry in the post Sept. 11, 2001, months, asks high school students to collect at least 10 voting pledges from people in their communities in honor of those who have given up their own lives for the nation’s freedom.
Freedom’s Answer experienced so much success within its first year that in 2002 these students, who have self-titled their age group the “September 11th generation,” helped to achieve the largest midterm election voter turnout in history, said co-founder Bailey, who previously worked as a Republican political consultant for 20 years. Participants hope to top their prior goal this year and to have 2.5 million students from 10,000 different schools involved by the fall.
“The goal is to empower young people to recognize that it’s not just one vote that matters,” said Bailey. “If they don’t like the system, the way to deal with it is to get into the system and change it. And, they have the power to do that because they can act collectively.”
In the summer of 2001, Bailey and McCurry, a White House press secretary during the Clinton administration, knew they wanted to form a nationwide organization that worked with high schools to get their students involved in the voting process. However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, their mission statement evolved into a much more significant message and it gave the organization a “relevant name,” Bailey said.
During the year, members of Freedom’s Answer are busy getting pledges from family members, neighbors and friends to vote, but that’s at the minimal level of involvement. Students who choose to allocate more of their time to Freedom’s Answer are learning the art of networking at an early age. Many will travel to other local schools and give presentations to get more people interested in the organization, or they may make presentations to companies for fundraising. Some may be elected to represent their city on a state council and others might even represent a national student organization, such as Girls State, on Freedom’s Answer’s national advisory council, which discusses the group’s efforts each week.
The students’ lofty goal of achieving 2.5 million members by the fall of 2004 is not impossible, Bailey says, because there is much preparation and organization that has gone into the summer speakers bureau, a group of 22 students that will travel the nation and speak at more than 200 national, regional and state teen conventions.
Bailey and McCurry do not share party affiliations, but they do share a strong belief that there is a level of cynicism in America’s youth about politics that is dangerous to the American political system. Bailey described this as a “vicious cycle” in which young people don’t vote and therefore do not attract attention from politicians, which only fosters cynical feelings about politics among teenagers. “Students can change that cycle,” Bailey said, “because if politicians believe that this age group is partially responsible for turning out 25 million votes, you better believe they’ll start listening to them.”
Sandy Roberts, a rising junior at Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., became involved in Freedom’s Answer as a freshman and will be one of the students participating in the summer speakers bureau. Roberts expressed the same confidence in his cohorts as Bailey and McCurry about the strong message teenagers can send to politicians when they act collectively.
“This was for our generation, the September 11th generation, to make an impact, to make history, and change the way politicians view us as being apathetic and lazy,” Roberts said. “We’re going to make them listen to us because we’ll be getting the votes. We’re a powerful generation and by getting votes, this is the way we’re going to show them.”
Roberts already has spoken in Ohio and Washington, D.C., and will speak again in the District at the convention for YMCA Youth in Government. Student speakers have been traveling nonstop for the past three weeks speaking at events like these around the country.
Roberts’ high school was one of the first high schools to become a part of Freedom’s Answer. When Bailey and McCurry first recognized their goal to form such an organization, they spoke at several high schools around the country and national student organizations such as YMCA Youth in Government, National Association of Student Councils, and Boys State and Girls State.
Bailey said it was important for Freedom’s Answer to work in conjunction with the school system. “One of the problems of other organizations, of those who wait to try to get young people engaged after they’ve turned 18, is that it’s after high school,” said Bailey. “To try to round up the horses, so to speak, after they’ve left the barn is a difficult task. Our goal was to make this a program that high school principles, teachers and students would be interested in.”
Bailey and McCurry spent much time initially getting the word out about Freedom’s Answer, but now that task is delegated to the students themselves so that they may have more ownership over this organization.
Freedom’s Answer is seeking to enlarge its student participation beyond the nation’s high schools. Yale-bound high school senior Lindsay Ullman from Painted Post, N.Y., the chairwoman — or, as she says, the “informal” chairwoman — of Freedom’s Answer, is working with others to spread the organization to college campuses. The creation of another branch of the association in the college and university system will be addressed this July at a summit in Cleveland by the aging, and many of the first, participants of Freedom’s Answer who are also headed to college in the fall.
Ullman said the organization would have to be adjusted to the college lifestyle by functioning out of dorms or sororities and fraternities. She said she hopes to continue her involvement with Freedom’s Answer in this way and is passionate about fueling her general interest in politics during college and beyond.
“On a larger level, I will forever be invested in politics,” Ullman said. “We often say to each other that Freedom’s Answer is the most valuable civics lesson that will ever be taught. And it’s absolutely true.”
Ullman helped to co-write a book published by students in Freedom’s Answer during 2002 titled, “Freedom’s Answer: When the Twin Towers Fell, the Next Generation Rose.” The organization also has a Web site at www.freedomsanswer.net complete with an “Action Blog,” creating yet another way students can communicate with each other across the nation.
What began as a shared frustration with the American political system between Bailey and McCurry has become a student-led organization that Bailey believes will help to end any miscommunications between America’s youth and its political leaders. “The great secret of America is that each generation redefines freedom in its own terms and its own times,” Bailey said.
“If our youngest are not part of the system, then that rebirth of freedom doesn’t happen and there is a disconnect between the government and the people they serve. As those young people get older and are still not part of the system, then the system does not reflect them.”