40th Anniversary of the 26th Youth Activist Feature: Zaid Jilani

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July 1, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Democrats are marking that occasion by shining a spotlight on young activists dedicated to improving the lives of Americans and bridging cultural divides.

Twenty-two year old Zaid Jilani was born and raised in Georgia and is first-generation American--his parents were born in Pakistan.  Zaid is a voter, activist, blogger, and founding member of the University of Georgia’s first progressive newspaper, “Stand Up.” His on-campus activism around the Iraq War and use of online tools brought him to the attention of the progressive think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP awarded Zaid a grant to establish the campus newspaper and later hired him to write for the Think Progress blog.

Zaid spoke about the genesis of his activism:

Politics for me isn’t just something to be interested in. I’m involved in politics because I think it’s a requirement for being a good citizen. I want to see my country be a prosperous and free place that conducts itself wisely and justly abroad. I started to seriously engage in politics when the Iraq war began in 2003; I viewed the war as unwise and wrongheaded, and I started attending demonstrations and blogging against the conflict.

In Georgia, Zaid grew up with parents from very different background than the majority of his friends. His parents spoke and taught him Urdu and Hindi, and their family would travel to Pakistan where Zaid witnessed, first-hand, systemic poverty and the effects of unfair labor laws. It broadened his horizons and pushed him to become an advocate for issues he cared about, like labor laws, civil rights, LGBT rights, and comprehensive immigration reform.

Zaid believes that youth are disinclined to see “the other,” citing a New York state poll that said 70 percent of youth support same-sex marriage:

Young people are leading the way, advocating for diversity—the youth vote has led to better race relations and inspired the youth of today to advocate for the DREAM Act—most youth don’t see the undocumented as different from them, we are leading in breaking down the barriers.

Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the 26th amendment’s ratification, Zaid said:

I think young people have been a huge force for freedom and justice in this country in the past 40 years. They stopped the immoral Vietnam War, helped advance the cause of civil rights, and are on the cutting edge of fighting for a just immigration system and expanding LGBT rights. They elected our first African American president and it’s my hope that young people will continue to stay involved to create a more just and free country for all.