Years ago, when I was a reporter for a well-known daily, a colleague of mine noticed my "I Voted" sticker.
"You vote?" she asked, adding that she had not voted since starting her journalism career. "Aren't you afraid that if anyone digs into your voting record you'll seem…biased?"
I looked at her — a white woman in her early twenties — uncomprehendingly. She might as well have expressed surprise that I ate, drank, and showered on a daily basis.
I explained to her that my great-grandmother, Mildred "Belle" Cosey, was an unsung civil rights hero from Mississippi who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in the Freedom Rides, and taught other Black people in her community how to vote. In the 1960s, the hard-nosed, eloquent, and impeccably fashionable woman I knew as "Greatmama" hosted Poor People's Club gatherings in her home and not only instructed her neighbors on the basics of the electoral process but escorted her "students" to the polls, where, fearful that their white employers would see and fire them, she would hold their trembling hands.
A generation on, her granddaughter (my mother) was forced to sit in the "colored" balcony of the local movie theater. In her late teens, having inherited her grandmother's penchant for eye-catching attire, my mom, on a visit to an exclusive department store in Jackson, Mississippi, was discouraged from trying on any clothes. It was well known in the community and confirmed for her by a salesperson that any item of clothing worn by a Black person, even briefly, would have to be discarded so as not to upset the store's white clientele.
Blackness isn't something that anyone in my generation, my mother's generation, or her mother's mother's generation (and those who preceded them) has ever been allowed to forget. The same is true on my Alabama-born father's side.
As I watch a new generation take up the fight in the seemingly endless war against racism in America, I am also fully aware that my identity as a Black person is intrinsic to my being and affects every aspect of my life in America.
It's why I'm proud to be leading YR Media, a nonprofit that has spent more than twenty-five years educating, employing, and amplifying the work of young Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) journalists, many of whom hail from underrepresented communities across the nation. The journalists we support unapologetically embrace all aspects of their identity and incorporate that perspective into their work. Indeed, in our latest collaboration with WNYC's Radio Rookies project, YR Media contributors under the age of 30 are covering issues of critical importance to them through the lens of the upcoming election.
Who are we to ask them to sit idle this November?
The content creators behind the "18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up" initiative include young "Dreamers" whose legal status hinges on what happens in the next presidential election. Some of them are college students struggling with food and housing issues who worry how they'll get through the next semester — or whether there will even be a next semester. There are other young adults in swing states wondering whether, because of the pandemic or voter suppression tactics, they'll have the opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. And there are young people dealing with chronic health challenges who want to know what is going to happen with the Affordable Care Act.
"This coming election means more to people than taxes and border security," says contributor Erianna Jiles, who lives in the Twin Cities area, where George Floyd drew his last breath with a police officer's knee on his neck. "Young people want to know if they're going to survive."
Most, if not all, of these young people want to realize the American dream, be included in the political conversation, and advance the causes that are important to their future. And they have every reason to believe their vote is important. A recent analysis by CIRCLE outlined how young people of color can shape and possibly decide the outcome of many federal, state, and local elections this year.
As the contributors to the "18-to-29 Now" project make clear, those of voting age cannot afford to be apathetic. First-time voter Madison Hall, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, breaks it down like this: "This election means I can vote for the first time; it's my opportunity to do more than repost a picture on Instagram. With everything that happened this year, it's still daunting to think this could be the year I actually have a say in some of the issues I'm passionate about."
Our storytellers always look at what's behind and beyond the hashtag and work hard to report on systemic transformation. The fact that they are also eager to vote on Election Day gives me hope and brings me back to that moment many years ago when I was challenged to make a choice between being a journalist or being a Black citizen of the United States.
For me, the decision was easy. I kept on collecting my "I Voted" stickers and plan to do so again in November. I invite young content creators to do the same.
Kyra Kyles is the CEO of YR Media, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to educate, employ, and amplify the voices of a diverse group of young content creators in the Bay Area and beyond. A longtime media executive who has served as editor-in-chief at EBONY, Kyles has written for and made on-air contributions to outlets such as CNN, Bustle, Zora by Medium, the BBC, and NPR.