"WALL" LOOKS TO MOBILIZE MILLENNIALS TO POLLS
Should the children of undocumented immigrants be allowed to attend public schools?
The question flashes across five large touchscreen panels, and students, faculty, staff and visitors to the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida approach them to weigh in on the debate. They can choose yes or no, and then they are given a chance to express their opinion in 140 characters or less. At the end, a camera mounted above each screen snaps a photo of the person at the screen, and the debate begins. Once a response is posted, visitors can respond to a post or create their own.
The five panels make up the Civil Debate Wall, or “The Wall," a project that combines social media and civic engagement that was launched with the help of a $3 million grant from the Knight Foundation.
Created by Ann Henderson and Jack Barton, The Wall seeks to mobilize Millennials to become more involved in society's issues, and ultimately to guide them toward the voting booth.
Since The Wall launched in late January, other universities, including Bowling Green in Ohio, have expressed interest in expanding the project to their campuses. The Wall has even made its way across the world, with leaders in Abu Dhabi seeing the project as a way to encourage civic debate in the United Arab Emirates, Henderson said.
But here in the United States, The Wall’s ultimate goal is to mobilize a generation that has shown lackluster attendance at the polls and little engagement in issues such as the economy, immigration and foreign affairs.
According to the 2011 Florida Civic Health Index, released in mid-January, only 44 percent of Millennials are registered to vote, and only 21 percent voted in the 2010 midterm elections. Had Millennial turnout been greater, Henderson said, that single voting cohort could have altered the results of the Florida gubernatorial election. And, as demonstrated through the election of President Obama in 2008, the youth vote can make a significant difference.
Henderson believes that if today’s youth turn out in November, they can make a significant difference in the 2012 results. “Our hope is that if students can use something they’re very familiar with, that being social media, and use that to perform one of the requisites of a participatory democracy, which is polling and voting, we think it will make a difference,” she said.
Henderson and the Public Service Committee, a student group that helped create The Wall, hope that The Wall will act as a catalyst for more engagement among the generation. She added that today’s politicians are not setting an example for compromising, and she hopes The Wall will show students that there is a way to debate issues respectfully and civilly.
“If we don’t have citizens who care about their communities, whether it’s state, local, or federal, who are stewards of their communities, then you don’t have a democracy,” she said.
Sabin Ciocan, president of the Public Service Committee, has seen favorable results from students, and he believes The Wall can inspire them to take part in government.
“There are different instances where people get inspired about different issues,” he said. “This inherently ties them to policy makers and legislators that support either side of the debate.”
Henderson hopes The Wall will expand to the 11 public colleges across Florida, and may even have a role in the presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22. She foresees a Civil Debate Wall stationed outside the debate hall, with attendees having the opportunity to weigh in on questions the presidential nominees are asked. From there, she said, those attending the debate will be able to see where the candidates stand on those same issues, and then make an informed decision on whom to vote for.
“I have to believe that people who went to the ballot box have thought about the candidates and their positions and have come to a reasonable conclusion,” she said.
Members of the Public Service Council oversee the responses of the Wall to ensure they are appropriate. While the council wants to avoid censoring users, it has created a blacklist of slurs and hateful words that will result in a post’s removal. In addition, the Public Service Council picks which questions will appear on The Wall and looks for issues that will encourage debate and opinion. Any user can flag a comment as inappropriate, and the organization will then decide whether to take it down.
Both Henderson and Ciocan hope the Civil Debate Wall will encourage Millennials to think for themselves.
“Once you make something relevant, and they can attach themselves to an issue, that’s when politics becomes personal,” Ciocan said. “When politics becomes personal, that’s when they become more engaged.
The Civil Debate Wall can be found at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, but can also be accessed at the Wall’s web site, www.civildebatewall.com.