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Young First-Time Voters Sound Off

Written by Smeeta Mahanti & REP CO.

Photography by Photos by Smeeta Mahanti

In November of 2016, shortly after the presidential election, Oakland-based photographer Smeeta Mahanti reached out to her community and invited kids between the ages of 10 to 17 to an open studio. “I asked them to come with a message about their concerns and hopes to share with the world. I wanted kids to understand the power of their voice and their vote. I also wanted to remind them that they don’t need to wait until they are 18 to vote—they vote every single day with their choices and actions.”

“Regarding their messages, I made only one request: no hate. I asked them to create statements that were proactive, that kids all over the country could hear, without labeling themselves or others,” says Smeeta, who eventually photographed 300 subjects, and then captured a portion of them again 4 years later (in 2020) as they prepare to vote in their first presidential election.

What surprised her most about the kids’ responses? “Their candidness and knowledge of what was happening in the world now. Their voice and passion to fight for social justice was deeply rooted. Kids are innovative thinkers, natural networkers, and problem solvers. Both in 2016 and 2020, their voices were not bound by stale conventions. Their awareness and knowledge of how dangerous power can be…and how the fight for social justice begins with them.”

Asked if she planned on tracking down these kids—now officially adults—in another four years, she says she’s not ruling it out. “These kids are real,” she says. “I am so curious to see what roles they will play as they begin their adult lives.”

Get to know four of these stories: the young subjects’ hopes, fears, and most pressing concerns—and how they’ve evolved over the past 4 years—below. (And be sure to read our Part 1 of this story for even more inspiration).

MOTHER is publishing this 2-part story in partnership with REP CO, a brand new storytelling collaborative that covers issues of racial and social justice and is powered by volunteer media professionals. To read their other stories, or to find out how to join them, visit representcollaborative.com.

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