The Children of 9/11 Are About to Vote

The Children of 9/11 Are About to VoteSeptember 11, 2020

Twins Arie and Aidan Hiester were born in Indianapolis right around 9 a.m. ET, on September 11, 2001, in between the first crash at the World Trade Center and the moment that a second airliner roared onto TV screens across the country and hit the South Tower. “I’m the second twin, and I was born the same time that the second Twin Tower got hit,” Aidan recalls.

In her first minutes 19 years ago, Aidan struggled to breathe, and she was taken by nurses quickly into the neonatal intensive care unit. Her parents—oblivious to the world beyond—anxiously waited for word on their daughter. Finally, a doctor and nurse explained that there was nothing wrong with Aidan, but there was something wrong in the United States: “There’s big stuff going on in the world,” they said.

Across the country, Heather Richardson Bestoso was in labor at the hospital in Newport, Rhode Island, watching the muted “Today Show” with her husband when she noticed the TV was showing black smoke roaring out of the Twin Towers. Their daughter, Lilly, was born around noon, just as United Airlines confirmed that two of its aircraft had crashed.

Dylan Herrada arrived about 1:40 p.m., amid the chaos of an Arlington, Virginia, hospital receiving wounded from the attack on the Pentagon. Moments earlier, TV news had aired President Bush’s remarks from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. “I said, ‘Look, the TV has got to go off. You guys have to focus on me,’” Susannah Herrada later told an oral history project done by the Arlington library. “It was a hard time to have a baby. You’re supposed to be so happy and you’re not. Every mother has to struggle with that but then the thought: What world is this? We weren’t sure what was going to happen next.”

I featured Susannah’s story in a book I wrote last year, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, and the emotional drama of Dylan’s birth stuck with me—the disconnect of celebrating such joy amid such tragedy—so this year I decided to track him down, to find out an answer to his mom’s question: What happened next?

Across the country, the 13,238 Americans born on September 11, 2001, represented the few rays of hope and happiness on the country’s darkest day. Now, 19 years later, many graduated from high school this spring and are beginning their adult lives—either jobs, if they can find them, or college—in the midst of a world-altering pandemic. This group’s worldview has been shaped by the 21st century’s most momentous events. And now they are becoming more than bystanders. For the first time, they will get to vote in a presidential election.

The children of 9/11 are among the youngest cohort of Americans who will go to the polls this fall—Gen Z voters who came of age in a country that had long since been transformed by the terror attacks. The signature news events of their lives have often been other tragedies—the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when they were 11, and at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, when they were 16. They barely remember the financial crisis of 2008 and many have only the foggiest memories of Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory. Many weren’t even paying that much attention to politics at 15 when Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton upended American politics.

Now, for the first time, they will be players in the democratic process, capable of influencing the nation’s history and not just witnessing it. So who are they, what are they thinking—and how will it affect the outcome of Nov. 3?

Over the last month, I interviewed a score of “9/11 Babies” from across the country—including Dylan, Lilly, and Aidan—to understand how their lives have been shaped and how they view their country and its politics today. It is a generation for whom the dominant media isn’t the evening news, New York Times, or CNN but Instagram Stories, Snapchat channels, “Pod Save America” and push alerts on their always-at-hand cell phones, where ancient social media sites like Facebook—founded when they were barely walking—are used by their parents and grandparents and they’ve migrated onto newer communities like TikTok and Discord. They lean left but they include plenty of independents and Trump admirers, too, even as they profess sympathy for Black Lives Matter and same-sex marriage, which has been legal somewhere in the country for nearly half their lives.

Aidan has grown into a self-proclaimed Jesus-loving soccer player, the child of divorced parents who grew up with eight-siblings, and is now heading to Hanover College, Indiana’s oldest private college. Lilly was a three-sport varsity athlete in high school and is starting as a communications major at the University of Rhode Island. Dylan is a freshman computer science major at Virginia Tech.

I also tracked down, among others, Adsel, a longtime ballerina and first-year student at Castleton University in Vermont and aspiring first-grade teacher weighing her first college loans. Harrison, a sophomore at New York’s The New School, whose parents met while they were students at Morehouse and Spelman. Tawny, the daughter of a Navy veteran and a veterinarian, is now a sophomore studying bioscience at Tufts University. Chloe, the biracial daughter of a Philippine immigrant and a California mom in Utah, who was raised in the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, now works as a secretary in an audiology clinic in Salt Lake City and hopes to be her own boss by 30. “I was one of those kids that wanted to grow up really fast and be on my own,” she says. “I graduated when I was barely turned 17 and then I moved out that same year.”

The interviews do not represent a strict, scientific cross-section of the 67 million children of Generation Z, but collectively they capture a portrait of a generation entering politics seemingly with a more clear-eyed sense of America’s place in the world—a country that still represents hope and opportunity to millions around the globe, yet is no longer the unchallenged superpower or champion of western values that perhaps it was for previous generations. And while they do not relish the choices they have been offered in the presidential race—two septuagenarian white men with worldviews shaped in the last century—they feel excitement to participate in a civic process they recognize is a privilege of American life.

As Adsel told me, “Millennials are a lot more weary—they came in to adulthood during the recession, they lived through 9/11. I think their view is a lot more depressing. Whereas Gen Z—our generation—things can only get better. We’ve been born with the backdrop of 9/11, we’ve lived through shootings, we’ve lived through very polarizing politics, we have the pandemic.”

Kelli, cosmetology student, Charlotte, N.C.: My aunt told me she was in the hospital on my birthday, holding me, watching the news, and thought a movie was playing because it just looked too crazy.

Anish, computer science student, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Robbinsville, N.J.: My uncle worked at the World Trade Center. He didn’t go to work that day because I was being born. If it was just a normal day, he would have been there with everyone else. I try not to think too much about that.

Tawny, bioscience student, Virginia Beach, Va.: We’re a very military family, so that was something that hit the family very hard, especially since my dad then was eventually deployed [with the Navy] as a result of the event.

Jayna, nursing student, Vancouver, Wash.: My dad’s a firefighter and in all the photos from my birth he’s in his uniform because he came straight from work. I was born at 6 p.m., so my mom likes to say I was the best ending to the day.

Hillary, EMT and student, Norwalk, Conn.: Every year, I’ll have a red, white and blue cake, or my mom will wrap presents in American flag paper—stuff like that—as a way to always remind ourselves what really happened that day.

Krystal, sophomore, University of Hawaii, Honolulu: When I mentioned my birthday to other people a lot of times they ask, “Do you feel like your birthday is a sad day?”

Kiiran, architecture student, Ticonderoga, N.Y.: Growing up, that day was weird because I celebrated it a little different. I was happy, like, “Hey, it’s my birthday!” I’d wander the halls at school and everyone else is glum and all the teachers are sad and upset. That used to confuse me.

Adsel, aspiring first-grade teacher, St. Albans, Vt.: I was 10 or 11, and I was in the library and I saw this picture book series, “This happened in history,” like the Holocaust or something, and I picked one up and was like, “Oh, it’s my birthday!” I saw the pictures for the first time, and I read about the attacks. That changed everything in how I view my birthday.

Aidan, aspiring oral surgeon and medical missionary, Seymour, Ind.: My parents made us very aware, even at a young age, the general gist of things: “It was a terrorist attack. It wasn’t a good day. This is why people are sad on your birthday.”

Laken, stenography student, Pensacola State College, Pensacola, Fla.: I was in the car with my mom, and on the radio there were these children speaking to their parents who passed away on 9/11. There was this one girl, she had been on the soccer team, and she asked her father if he was proud of her and if he remembered her? That’s when I first realized that I was born on the worst day.

Brianna, aspiring police officer, Aurora, Ill.: My boyfriend’s family and I went to New York this past Christmas. I actually got to see the 9/11 Museum. I remember walking through there, and I started crying. It was so emotional, seeing everything and all the artifacts—the fire trucks, the police badges, all the uniform pieces that were collected. That really hit home for me.

Jayna: The new 9/11 museum was just overwhelming. The lady who was giving the tour had actually lost her husband. That was a lot for a 10-year-old. Then realizing that my dad was a firefighter and this could have happened anywhere.

Lilly, communications major, Newport, R.I.: Last year, we toured the whole 9/11 Memorial. When we were walking through, there were recordings of people calling their loved ones on the plane—leaving messages. That really touched me. I was imagining being put in that situation.

Jayna: I can just close my eyes and hear those phone calls playing.

Chloe, medical secretary, Salt Lake City, Utah: My mom always told me how people were more cautious now and people were more angry. She also has talked about it a lot more because of the pandemic—she says it reminds her a lot of how people acted after 9/11. She told me—especially with the masks—because people were really upset when you had to take your shoes off at the airport and do all of that. But now people do it—that’s just how you go to the airport, that’s just how you fly.

Tawny: The main mindset growing up with that—actually something that I am ashamed to admit—was this deep-rooted fear, this Arab-phobia. “Oh, these are the bad people.” which was certainly not my parents’ intention when teaching me about 9/11. I think a lot of Americans who grew up after 9/11 grew up with that kind of racism. Anytime you go on an airplane and you saw someone of that race or ethnicity, you get a little uneasy. Thankfully, that’s something I grew out of, and I definitely worked on.

Nicole, aspiring science teacher, Harrison, Ark.: A lot of my family actually thinks that 9/11 was an inside job. There’s a lot of theories that go around and my family is really into that.

Hillary: From what I understand, there’s a certain aspect of fear now that didn’t necessarily exist before. It’s weird when I talk to my parents and they say, “This is not what it was always like.”

Aidan: I hear things about pre-9/11 safety and security. I get the gist that people were nicer and people didn’t have to worry about locking your cars or worry about carrying a gun on you or if you were going to go to a movie theater and get shot. It wasn’t even a thought in their head—and now it is.

Jayna: A big part of why I wanted to be a nursing major has to do with being born on 9/11 and wanting to give back and live up to the legacy of those that gave their life on that day. When I was 10 years old, they asked us, “What do you want to do when you’re older?” And I said that I wanted to be an ambulance driver so I could get people to the hospital so they could get better fast.

Nicole: I’ve heard a lot that people are forgetting about 9/11. I really hope that’s not true.

Chloe: Every single day since I was born, we haven’t been in a time where we’re at peace.

Tawny: It was definitely one of the scariest parts of my childhood, because I believe the earliest memory I can conjure overall was my father was leaving to go fight in the Iraq war, Operation Iraqi Freedom. That was very, very scary for my family.

Aidan: I haven’t honestly thought about it as much as I probably should.

Dylan, computer science student, Arlington, Va.: I don’t think we learned about it a whole lot in school.

Kelli: We don’t talk about that in school that much.

Harrison, student, The New School, Nashville, Tenn.: School is mostly just the 20th century and everything that happened up until 9/11.

Alex, student, College of Wooster, Springfield, Penn.: I heard the terms of Middle Eastern countries and oil, but I didn’t really understand. I wasn’t informed enough to actually make a stance.

Anish: A lot of the information gets muddled with all the different conflicts we have over there, whether it’s one set of terrorists or ISIS or another. It just feels like a long continuation of one thing.

Jacob, theater student, Sterling, Va.: I know we have problems with Iraq and Afghanistan, but I could not explain the tensions or any of those wars.

Kiiran: Going through school, I didn’t necessarily know what it was about and I wasn’t really told what it was about. I just knew there was a war going on.

Alex: It doesn’t really even feel like we’re at war with another country now—especially what I read about in history class, where during World War I and World War II, Congress passed declarations of war and there were these big national mobilizations. It doesn’t feel like the war that I was taught. It doesn’t feel like what I thought war would feel like.

Harrison: Because it’s been so constant, because it’s been so many years of that conflict, it’s just not in the forefront of my mind.

Kiiran: More or less, I was just, “Okay, there’s a war going on.” Being younger, I didn’t really know what to feel about that. Later, growing up, my brother actually went into the military. He is a cavalry scout for the U.S. Army. He was actually over in Afghanistan, two or three years ago. At first, I wasn’t scared for him—he’s my older brother, so I knew he was tough. I was like, “He’s got it.” But then, he’d come home and the one thing he told me that really changed my perspective was, when we woke up the first morning after he was back, he told me that that was the first time he’s slept in months without hearing the sound of missiles fighting off mortar rounds that were aimed at his base. That changed everything right there. I felt scared for him.

Laken: My father was in the Navy. I remember some of the happiest moments of my life is when he would come home from deployment—just the most random times, because my mom would never tell me so she could record my surprise.

Brianna: My dad was an MP—military police—and he loved it. He actually got deployed to Guantanamo Bay when I was in my seventh and eighth-grade year of middle school. He was there for a year, which was really hard on our family, but he’s back now. He had a lot of fun. He actually came to Christ out there. He got baptized in Guantanamo Bay, which was really cool, because it’s so dark and scary down there—you’re dealing with the baddest criminals in America. There’s not a lot of good energy down there, he came back ready for a change, and we went to church again, and we became a stronger family.

Adsel: I do remember when Obama and his administration killed bin Laden. I do remember that, like, “Oh, that’s the guy. That’s important.” That was a big thing. But the war, it’s just always been there. We’ve always been at war in the Middle East.

Alex: And we’re still doing it, because I guess we need a conclusion.

Chloe: It’s weird for me to hear from my parents that that’s not always the way it was, that there were times of peace in their lives.

Chloe: The first big news event I remember was Sandy Hook [in 2012]. I remember my mom watching the TV, crying and telling me what happened. She was so scared to send me to school. Sandy Hook—and school shootings in general—have been very definitive for my generation.

Lilly: The shootings, the school shootings, those were big moments.

Hillary: Where I went to school is 25 minutes away from Sandy Hook Elementary School. I remember that day and all the surrounding schools also went into lockdown. No one really understood what was going on. I remember being in my classes, and our teachers were finding out about this as it was happening. It felt so real because it was so close to home.

Lilly: After Sandy Hook, my school actually made changes—making sure all the doors were locked, adding fences. Parents are really zoned in on keeping everyone safe.

Aidan: There were threats in our school—people posting on Twitter that they were going to blow up the school or shoot up the school or whatnot. I didn’t go to school that day. Not that I really thought it was going to happen, but I was like, “Just in case, if it does happen, I don’t want to be there.”

Hillary: We had to have several lockdowns in middle school because there were potential threats in the area.

Aidan: In the back of my mind, I’d sit in class, and I’d be like, “All right, well, if something happens, how am I going to escape? What am I going to do? Am I gonna hide? Am I gonna jump out a window?”

Tawny: Every time I was in a classroom, I would always make sure I knew where my exits were, and I always had a plan for what I would do if someone came into the room posing a threat. My dad would sit me down, “Here’s what you’re gonna do if this happens,” and we’d talk about all these different situations and how I would be safe in situations like that.

Jacob: We all have in the back of our head that these things are happening—you don’t want to be mean to this person because if they get pushed to a limit that that may happen to us.

Aidan: In my high school, we weren’t allowed to have backpacks. Why? Because you can carry guns, bombs, whatever.

Grayson, genetics student, North Carolina State, Charlotte, N.C.: There was a school shooting where I went to high school, but it wasn’t a major school shooting. One kid got shot.

Adsel: Parkland was such a big event because it was such a loss of life and because the students rallied after, acting like “This is not OK.” That became such a big movement.

Laken: I was in color guard in high school. There was a school shooting [at Parkland] that took the life of a fellow guard member. Before a color guard member was murdered in cold blood, I felt it couldn’t ever happen to me. That’s when it actually dawned on me that school shootings could happen to anybody.

Dylan: There was a lot of hope around Parkland that things are actually going to change, and they didn’t really.

Anish: I remember reading about Coronavirus in late January and February, but I was like “It’ll probably get taken care of, right?”

Dylan: For the first week or two, I was like, “Oh, yay, I don’t have to go to school.” But then it just got really boring. When they announced that schools were going to be closed for the next three weeks, we were all like, “Oh, that’s a bit overreacting.”

Aidan: In the back of my head, I was like, “All right, it’ll shut down for a few weeks. We’ll be able to go back to senior year, whatever.”

Dylan: Then it kept getting extended.

Aidan: Then the Illinois governor closed schools for the year. I remember hearing that on the news, and I started crying.

Lilly: It was supposed to be springtime—the time where I go out and make memories with my friends and have graduation and senior banquet. The big one was actually my softball season—I’ve been playing with the same group of girls for basically 12 years. This was our last season together.

Adsel: I was excited for my senior year—my senior prom, my final ballet performance. We have this huge performance and we’re going to do Alice in Wonderland, which is such a fun production, and then “Oh, no, Corona, stop. You don’t get anything anymore.”

Alex: Graduation was this event that I was picturing in my head for four years. Then I got closer, and I started seeing that things weren’t going to play out as I actually intended or hoped that they would.

Kiiran: Being stuck inside you get a cabin fever—a lonely feeling even though you’re stuck in with people.

Aidan: Graduation came around. Our school did a really good job. We all parked outside in our parking spots. They had the entire graduation ceremony broadcasted over a radio, and then we had a parade downtown. They did the best they could.

Tawny: I had these fantasies of like, “Oh, after I finish classes, I’m going to have a lot more free time to work on things,” but I grew very unmotivated because there was no end in sight for this.

Lilly: I do look at the bigger picture where people all around the world were fighting this pandemic and thousands, millions of lives were being lost. Me not having my senior year wasn’t the worst thing, but it was really upsetting.

Aidan: I had the mindset where we’re going to go back in the fall to college and everything will be fine. And here we are, five months down the road, and nothing’s changed.

Nicole: I’ve been working at Walmart since April 2018. As the pandemic started, Walmart changed a lot of things. Now we only have one set of doors open, they put shields up for us cashiers, and then the six-foot rule. Masks are now required because before people didn’t really take the pandemic seriously and refused to wear a mask. Every little thing just makes them mad. People have been angrier—especially around here. People just don’t like masks. That’s a big deal. People just refuse to wear them.

Kiiran: Some of the rules that they created with the mask orders are nonsense. When you go into a restaurant, you have to wear your mask until you sit down and then you can take it off? I find that makes no sense. I do believe that the government are swaying the death toll numbers a bit, to use it for political purposes.

Dylan: It’s definitely changed the way that I think of just how far, or how indoctrinated some people are—the amount of people who are refusing to wear masks and being idiots, to be honest. It’s astounding. I know it’s the vocal minority, but still a scarily large minority! Initially I thought that the majority of people in the U.S.—no matter who they vote for—aren’t idiots, but this definitely changed my view on that.

Hillary: The country has done a very poor job of handling the pandemic. It’s exposed a lot of the disorganization and divisions in our country and in our government. The fact that we are so divided has prevented us from actually being able to move forward with anything. It’s just frustrating when you hear experts on the topic who have been preparing their whole lives for an event like this, and they’re not being listened to.

Jacob: If we started earlier, we could have mitigated the spread of the virus. Our president does not take anything seriously until it’s too late.

Chloe: Trump is extremely arrogant. I lost my mind at the interview he did with Chris Wallace. It’s really counterintuitive to constantly be validating how we’re the best. “We have the most testing and we have the least amount of cases. We are number one.” It’s okay to admit that we’re not the best. It’s okay to be like, “Man, we screwed up, we’ve got to fix this.” As soon as you recognize that, you can start improving and understanding what we need to do to get healthy people back at work.

Jacob: I don’t know if other people outside of America think of America as being so great, but we’re actually not that great.

Dylan: The government has handled it extraordinarily poorly. I can’t think of any other developed nation that’s handled it as poorly as we have. It is astounding.

Chloe: I looked at Korea a lot when all this was happening. And I was like, “Why can’t we just do what Korea is doing, and just test, test, test everyone?” Or what Canada is doing and just send everyone home and give them all stimulus checks? We could have saved a lot of lives if we looked more towards other countries and tried to take examples.

Hillary: Your freedom is great, but with that comes the fact that people also have the freedom to do things that are going to hurt everyone else.

Lilly: After 9/11 and living through this pandemic, I’m hoping that our country can continue to stay together as one and not fall apart. I hope that we’ll learn from things like this.

Chloe: When Michael Brown was killed, that was the first police brutality case that I had ever seen be big news. I remember getting online, seeing that, and I was shocked. I was like, “How is that officer just walking free now? He killed that kid in cold blood!” After Michael Brown, it just kept happening.

Harrison: When George Floyd was killed, there were protests here. I remember going with my family—my mom, my brother, and me—I could feel the energy, the anger, everybody’s bodies. It was very intense, especially after quarantine—you’re used to just being alone and being in the house all day—then going out and being around all these people. What really bothered me was the media just playing the video of him being killed over and over and over. Every time you turn on the television, you would just see that video. That can be really traumatizing.

Tawny: My largest exposure to it was through peers on Instagram. I started reposting those things, too; I gave to a few charities, reading articles, signing petitions. I tried to buy books by Black authors to support them. I became very involved, because it was something that I had never fully realized was an issue.

Hillary: When I was younger, I always thought that in America there was equality—that everyone had rights and everyone had freedoms. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized although that’s the ideal, that’s not the truth.

Grayson: The George Floyd racial injustice protests have been having a big change on me and my other Black friends—and the world as a whole. I haven’t been out to any rallies, just because I’m really cautious about social distancing, but I really think that we’re in a changing point in American history. This movement has picked up so much speed—it’s affected the NBA, sports around the globe.

Adsel: I’m sad—we’re still fighting for this in this country? We fought for this in the Civil War and we fought for it in the ’60s. Why are we still fighting? It has gotten better, but it’s not getting better the way it should.

Jacob: All of this stuff, it’s been going on for years, but with social media things are being brought up and talked about more than before. How could we have been so blind?

Kelli: It’s “Enough is enough.” The police brutality has happened way too often. It’s embarrassing for our country to still be so racist.

Hillary: At a time when I was already frustrated with the way that the country was handling the pandemic, it made me even more frustrated.

Kelli: The protests have gotten way out of hand. It’s a shame there are protesters who want to make the Black Lives Matter look terrible—they just wanted to riot and mess up everything.

Harrison: Black Lives Matter has still got its momentum going. I’m not a fan of how politicized it’s become. When George Floyd was first killed, there was a common-sense thing, like obviously that should not have happened—you watch the video and you understand what was done wrong. It’s very, very clear and simple. Now, people are labeling the Black Lives Matter movement as being Marxist, as being socialist, as being like all of these political agendas that are really, really polarized. From my perspective, this should not be polarized. It should not be politicized like that. That’s obviously going to create division. On an issue such as anti-racism, there should not be any division.

Kelli: The black people in America, I stand with them—and I obviously cannot understand what they’re going through. But being Asian in America, especially the beginning of the pandemic, where people were being very hurtful to Asian people, we understand how it feels to be judged for race alone. It’s nothing that we can control.

Grayson: One thing I really love is that most of the people are coming together for this one. I really like the protests—not the riots—but I really like the message that’s getting out. As a Black man in America, it really hits home for me.

Nicole: I definitely support the Black Lives Matter movement. I feel like people shouldn’t be treated differently just because of skin color. I also support the Blue Lives Matter as well, because cops should also be supported just as much.

Brianna: I have no problem with the Black Lives Matter movement at all. It’s beautiful—segregation has been a big part of our history—but it’s definitely hard for me because of the police that run in my family. I’ve already gotten a lot of hate for having parents as officers. My mom’s put in 28 years of service. My dad’s at 23 or 24 years now because he went to the military first. People have grouped all police into the actions of one officer.

Tawny: There were some people who I knew—quite a few actually from my high school—who were either not supportive of the movement or they thought it was a too traumatic. I remember one of the few Black students who was in our math and science academy got very, very upset at these white people who were in a group chat. There were a lot who felt as if they were being targeted by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement for not posting things on their Instagram stories about it. I saw people’s friendships break over it.

Kiiran: I do understand where some of the protests are coming from. A lot of stuff that happens with racism does piss me off. Do I agree with what they’re doing? No. Because a lot of them are not doing peaceful protests, they’re actually throwing riots and stuff. Not all cops are racist. There are black cops too. I understand what they’re trying to do; I think that they’re going about it wrong.

Tawny: I remember my father was confused about the anger toward the phrase “All Lives Matter,” and I actually explained it to him, why people didn’t like it. It was nice to see how compassionate he was.

Laken: I can’t talk to anybody on campus the way I usually do because who knows who’ll take offense? That’s why I hate being in politics. I have to know about George Floyd so that I can be aware of what to say, what not to say, who to talk to, who not to talk to. That’s how crazy people have gotten. People who want to stay out of politics have to be in politics.

Hillary: The last four years have been frustrating for me. It’s made me feel like the people who are supposed to be put in power to protect us in our country, I don’t necessarily feel like they’re protecting everyone the same. That’s a scary, scary thought.

Dylan: Obama getting elected—I was too young to really understand politics at that point, but I definitely understood that it was a very momentous occasion.

Krystal: The oldest thing that was actually significant to me was Obama being elected, because he was from Hawaii.

Harrison: The election of President Obama—that was a really, really significant turning point in my perception of politics. I remember my parents had a bunch of people over—an election party. There was a feeling that night where everyone was very, very empowered by the fact there was a Black man running for president. The moment he won, I remember running up to the den, my dad was sitting with his friend and they were both in tears. Seeing that—my dad and his friends and everybody being so happy—it definitely affected the way I view what it means to be Black in the United States, especially out of this generation.

Grayson: As a young kid, I couldn’t realize how big it was for not just Black people, but people of color in general, for a man like Obama to be elected to office. I remember too his going-away speech, and I looked at my mom, and she was crying. I was like, “Why are you crying?” I didn’t understand how important he was as a symbol of diversity and inclusion until I got to an older age and could understand the political beef between Democrats and Republicans.

Kiiran: I remember basically “The Wall” slogan. Hey, “We’re gonna build a wall.” I don’t exactly remember what happened, but I remember Hillary or the Clintons were involved with a big, some sort of Russia conspiracy thing. I would have picked Trump because I thought he had the best ideas for the country.

Anish: I didn’t really find myself favoring either candidate.

Nicole: We’ve all heard about Hillary and her emails and everything like that. My parents are very Republican. Everyone in my family is Republican. My parents always went for Trump. I’ve always heard bad things about Hillary. I’ve never really heard any good things about her.

Adsel: I liked Hillary because she was a woman—we want a woman in office—and I agree with her on a lot of things, but she was a Clinton and she was old. It’s hard to connect with a person when they’re old. Donald Trump was so bigger than life, absurd.

Tawny: The 2016 presidential election felt very convoluted to me because prior to that I’d always thought, “Oh, Democrats vote for Democrats. Republicans vote for Republicans.” But my father, who is typically more of a right-leaning moderate, he was not a Trump fan—he’s still not to this day—and so that was interesting to me. It encouraged me to look into it more.

Kelli: I didn’t like Trump’s ideas for our country. I didn’t want him in office, and I knew a lot of people did support him, so I was very confused. I was like, “Am I seeing something wrong? Is there something that he said that I don’t understand?”

Aidan: There was a lot of anger, regardless of who was going to win.

Krystal: I remember I was shocked when Trump won, but I don’t think I had a super strong understanding why that was so significant.

Chloe: Everyone was just joking about it, and nobody actually believed that Trump would win.

Harrison: The idea of Donald Trump winning was a joke to everyone at school. Then when it actually happened, it was like, “Wait, this is serious.”

Hillary: When Trump won the election in 2016, I remember feeling very hopeless and afraid of how the next few years were going to turn out.

Chloe: I know that my parents were not happy. I remember going to school in the morning; no class that we were in actually taught anything. All the teachers and the students just talked about what happened and what they think is going to happen in the next four years. I remember my last period of the day, that teacher sat us down and said, “You know, our world is about to change a lot in the next four years. And these are some things that I want you guys to remember,” and talked to us about integrity and all that.

Hillary: That was when the country started to become so divided—maybe that was the case before, but that was the first time that I ever really felt that division.

Krystal: It’s just insane to me that this person is the leader of our country—not even based on his political beliefs or economic beliefs or social beliefs, but just him as a person. The craziest thing to me is just that this guy who lies all the time—I can’t really make sense of what his motivations are or what kind of person he is—is our president. The ways that he has treated women, the way he talks about other countries or immigrants or just people who are not like him has really disturbed me.

Hillary: As a young woman, the way that he talks about women is very disheartening to me and a lot of my friends. To know that that’s the person who is supposed to represent your country is a very frustrating feeling. You would think that everyone looked down upon that. The fact that not everyone does is a very frustrating feeling.

Kelli: Trump thinks coronavirus is a hoax and he doesn’t think we should go get tested because that will spread corona. I think that’s idiotic for someone who is in office.

Laken: I feel like he could definitely use a big ol’ whack aside the head with a dose of humbleness. Both he and Kanye West. They both seem very selfish and egotistical and very rude. I just can’t believe that someone can grow up like that.

Grayson: When I grew up, I saw the president as a role model. And when I see Donald Trump, I wouldn’t want my kid to model himself after him.

Brianna: For me personally—like me and my religion—I support Trump. Regardless of how he talks, he’s helped the community in so many more ways than the other presidents have. Before the pandemic, we were in such a good spot.

Nicole: I am actually very happy to be able to vote this year. I will be voting for Trump. I feel like he’s done a lot of good things for our nation. He’s helped unemployment. I follow him on social media.

Dylan: Biden definitely wasn’t my first choice. Many of my friends, we definitely liked Bernie a lot more. Many politicians don’t really seem genuine and their stances change. A lot of them seem like shady people. Bernie Sanders’ views have stayed very consistent throughout his time in politics, and he just seems like a genuinely good guy who wants the best for the U.S.

Chloe: Joe Biden is not my first pick. I just think that his time has passed. He’s done a lot of work for our country, and I feel like he should just leave it at that.

Dylan: Biden is definitely much better than Trump, so he’s someone I will be voting for—but I’m definitely by no means excited about it.

Jacob: I don’t want Trump to get another four years—hands down. I don’t agree with everything that Biden and Kamala represent, but for right now, it’s the best decision. President Trump is making it this big race battle.

Grayson: My mom was AKA [Alpha Kappa Alpha, the Black sorority] and since Kamala Harris was AKA, my mom just loved it. She said, “Grayson, you’re going to love this too,” and I was like, “All right, I’m going to love this too.” Having a woman of color run for high office like that is just phenomenal.

Anish: I’m trying to look for a candidate that really fits with my ideals because I really value my vote. Basically, I’m looking for a different candidate, like Andrew Yang or something like that. He combined a lot of the policies from both sides in a way that would address a lot of future problems.

Alex: I wasn’t going to vote at all until June, with the whole Black Lives Matter protesting. Ever since then I’ve realized that this is a very interesting time and I do, in theory, want to try to get out there and encourage other people to vote.

Chloe: Voting definitely means a lot more than I thought it would. Before I was like, “Whatever. I don’t really care.” But with the pandemic and the 2016 election, I’ve definitely understood more now that it is a responsibility of mine as an American to vote and be involved. I try to convince everyone around me too, because if more young people voted, things would be a lot different.

Adsel: Voting is a passage into adulthood. You are a citizen of the United States. You are a valid person. You matter to our country. That’s really pretty empowering. I totally have to vote.

Grayson: I feel like I’m walking into a whole battleground right now, and I’m one more voter to the field, to the cause.

Tawny: Voting, that was a freedom that my father fought to protect and that my grandparents fought to protect. It’s something I want to exercise. I’m proud to be able to do that.

Harrison: On a very basic level, to be able to vote would be honoring the work that has been done by my ancestors and by my predecessors.

Brianna: I’m really excited, because every vote counts. I’m excited that mine will get to count, regardless of the outcome. My family have never really been big into politics, but the last three, four years, we’ve come together as a family, and we’ve had civilized adult conversations about things. Even as my family’s a bit divided on the whole politics thing, we’re still able to have good conversations about everything that’s going on.

Alex: I’m really trying to hope that this is just like a weird little blip in history. I’m hoping that eventually in time, things will start to the pivot back to where they used to be, into a more stable country.

Dylan: This election in November is definitely a turning point, depending on who gets elected. Many other countries are seeing this as our last shot. But I am hopeful that we’ll get some big changes.

Laken: It will be a big stepping stone for me to actually try voting because—who knows—maybe I’m the last person who breaks a tie. How cool would that be?

Kiiran: I’m not entirely sure yet whether I’ll vote. I’ve had so much going on with the virus and school and had to work through it all. I’ve heard things here and there about the election and about the candidates. But honestly, it’s hard to focus on that with what’s going on right now.

Jayna: Honestly, I try to tune a lot of that out—I probably shouldn’t, now that I’m old enough to vote—but I hate negativity in the world, and I just try and not watch the news. I just can’t deal with people being rude.

Laken: I try to stay out of politics. I don’t even know who’s going up for president—that’s how out of politics I am.

Alex: The more involved you are politically, the more it just taxes you.

Chloe: Honestly, I haven’t read into the election a lot, because I’ve been overwhelmed by pandemic news and election news. It really does take a toll on you to be super-informed.

Hillary: Every day we’re hearing some scandal or some new thing that’s happening, and it’s not even shocking to us anymore. Six or 10 years ago, these stories would have been groundbreaking news. Nothing surprises me anymore.

Grayson: It’s like you’re just choosing between the lesser of two evils, instead of choosing between someone that you actually care about. The in-between voter, they go unheard. When I went as a 16-year-old to get my license, and they asked me what party do I choose to affiliate with, I chose independent, and everyone in the DMV was like, “Wow, a Black person chose independent—that’s a rare sight to see!” They just naturally assumed if you’re Black, you were automatically going to go to Democrat. But I want to choose someone who aligns with me.

Dylan: I’m definitely hopeful that we’ll get more social programs that we need—like Medicare for All, universal basic income. This pandemic has made clear that if people are making more on unemployment than they would be at their job, then it’s not an issue with unemployment, it’s an issue that we need to have a higher minimum wage. We need to do stuff that addresses the disparity between classes, and I’m hopeful that that will happen. I don’t think it will, but I’m hopeful.

Tawny: I grew up in a military family, so I was always very, very patriotic. I was very much someone who loved America with all my heart—I actually even have plans to join the Navy myself—but as I’ve come to grow and mature with that identity, I think even though this is home, it’s not perfect. That doesn’t mean we can’t love it—we just have to work as hard as we can to fix it. My viewpoint is it there obviously are a very many terrible things that are currently going on in America, but this is my home and I plan for it always to be my home and therefore I’m willing to like do what I can to try to make it better.

Brianna: I’m a full-on American. For me to be an American, it’s voting and being within your community and trying to help other people. This pandemic and the Black Lives movement is a big opportunity for people to be more optimistic and more kind. For me, that’s what being an American is—being generous to others.

Chloe: When I was younger, my feelings about America were more classic, patriotic, Fourth of July, red, white and blue. You’re proud to be American because of the way that our country values hard work and capitalism. Right now, for me, I would say that being an American is being empathetic to everyone from all different types of backgrounds and races and understanding them, and understanding what they’re doing here in our country. Everyone here is an American.

Hillary: I hope that my generation can bring back a sense of community to the country. That is really something that will allow us to accomplish more things and move forward as a country. Rather than just accepting something the way that it is—because that’s the way it’s always been or accepting certain institutions—people my age have grown up learning to challenge those. If you don’t agree with something, challenge it.

Kelli: My generation was the beginning of technology—smartphones and YouTube, seeing things from out of the country and different points of view of other people. My generation has learned a lot faster about the real world than our parents, and we live more freely than our parents. We matured really fast, and we learned about the real world really fast.

Tawny: This generation is far more liberal than those past generations. I’ve seen a lot more activism. My generation tends to be a lot more strong-minded.

Aidan: What we think is right is right.

Adsel: We have a lot to say.

Jacob: Now we’re adults and we’re out there. We’re all going to protest. We’re talking about climate change. We’re talking about women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights. Gen Z is fearless.

Adsel: We’re ready to act. It makes us hopeful. It makes us open-minded. We’re so ready to make a new path.

Harrison: I’ve seen in my generation that there’s a lot of motivation to carry the torch to another level—to really embody social justice. I see certain people on Instagram—a few years ago, they were just into their own things, and now I’m seeing people using their social media completely for social justice, completely for advocacy work.

Aidan: Whether it’s about sexuality, about race, about whatever, we are more accepting. If you’re different than I am, I’m still going to love you, I’m still going to respect you, I’ll protest with you, whatever.

Chloe: LGBTQ+, for sure. Gen Z is very, very open and accepting. There are a lot more people in my generation who feel comfortable to come out because of that, that makes it so a lot of younger people are out and living their lives freely. That acceptance I feel has branched off into a lot of other ideals that we’ve upheld as Americans regarding race, sexuality, socioeconomic status.

Tawny: I don’t even really see LGBTQ rights as a political issue. It’s weird we’re calling it a political thing—I feel as though it’s human rights. It’s something that should already be accepted.

Harrison: There was one person from my college who started a transition fund to get surgery. People are doing that on Twitter—you see it all the time in the community, asking the Internet for support for their transitions, for hormone therapy and things like that. The passion has really shifted to trans issues like that in the queer community.

Tawny: I have a younger sibling who currently identifies with “they/them” pronouns. My sibling, who is about four years younger than me, when they spoke to my parents about being non-gender binary and pansexual, my parents support LGBTQ rights generally, but they worried about it for their children because they don’t want their children to struggle with that kind of hardship.

Anish: My parents were immigrants from India. They looked at America, and they saw the opportunities that it held. They did grab those opportunities very well. They really instilled the idea into me that in America, if you’re willing to work hard, you can be successful.

Chloe: I would honestly say that we’re on the right track. It looks like a mess right now—and it is a mess: There’s a lot of corruption; there’s a lot of crap that shouldn’t be happening. But I do think what needs to happen will happen. These four years have been a huge wake up call. Things are going to change. I could be wrong, but I’m not totally worried. I do think that there are enough people here in America that won’t let this country go to garbage.

Anish: Americans, at the end of the day, come together. People do genuinely come together to band together toward positive causes and positive energy in the world. We might be going through a lot of different problems and a lot of questions are coming up, but ultimately Americans are going to make the right choice. If we look through history, things have generally gotten better and better.

Kiiran: The way everything’s going, our lives are not going to get back to how they were for a long time—the virus isn’t just going to go away, I doubt all the rioting is just going to go away. We could be in a rough patch for a while, but in the end, collectively, we will figure it out and get back on track, because that’s what we’ve done. After 9/11, it was a very tragic event—no one’s life has been the same since—but as a country, we grew from that and we’ve built from it.

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