The biggest cheer from the high school students gathered in a mandatory assembly in Alexander Payne's 1999 film Election goes out to Tammy Metzler, who concludes her perverse campaign to become student body president with the following lines: "Or don't vote for me, who cares? Don't vote at all!" The kids that fill the bleachers go crazy, the chant of "Tammy, Tammy" fills the gym.
I recently rewatched Election for obvious reasons: with election activity all around us, I needed a barbed laugh or two, and maybe also the grounding and clarity that unapologetic satire can provide.
But then a strange thing happened: The day after I watched Election, I participated in the third session of WeLead, a pilot program Oregon Humanities is running in partnership with Catlin Gabel's PLACE Center. WeLead brings together fifteen students from seven Portland-area high schools every two weeks in the late afternoon to plan and lead their own community discussions. On June 1, they'll work together on a final public program. Here's what they've decided to get people talking about: politics and why politics matters.
This topic came from them, as did the other handful of topics they considered, including criminal justice, religion and culture, and privilege and equity. They argued for the relevance of each topic, listened to arguments from the other people in the room, and arrived with notable good will at consensus.
The WeLead students demonstrate clear thinking and clear speaking, the capacity to listen to people with whom they disagree, and commitment to pushing their communities forward. They share these characteristics across ages and schools. They show up in how the students greet each other and take their places at the table and in the ways they step up and take risks in front of one another and the wider community.
These students make it difficult to feel anything but optimistic, even about politics. Most of us won't be there for their final program, but it can only be good to remember that it's happening, and to know that after it ends, the young people who put it on will provide walking, talking answers to Tammy Metzler's appealing question, "Who cares about this stupid election?"
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