September 27, 2017

Lawrenceville Student Writes Civics Text To Encourage Youth Political Engagement

James Wellemeyer

By Donald Gilpin

In a political climate that looks each day more contentious, toxic, and discouraging, what sort of recruitment campaign could ever inspire young people to get involved in politics?

Lawrenceville School senior James Wellemeyer has the answer to that question, and he has written a civics e-textbook, Young Voices, on youth political involvement to spread the word. In addition to his book, that will be launched at the Chapin School this spring and is currently under review for future use at a number of other public and private schools, Wellemeyer is working to create a Presidential Youth Council and a New Jersey Gubernatorial Youth Council to give high school students more visible platforms on which to express their views and propose solutions to political issues.

“My idea was to create a textbook that took a more modern approach to civics and that gave kids new perspectives that engaged them in the topic more,” Wellemeyer said. “I thought someone who is young might be more willing to listen, more interested in politics if they get the perspective from another young person or hear that another young person does something really cool related to politics. I interviewed about 60 people this summer, and I included their stories in the book.”

Wellemeyer described how he first got interested in politics through social media as a middle schooler during the 2012 election. He noted that Lawrenceville School had been effective at promoting his political activism, “encouraging people to understand the events in our nation and in the world at large rather than just sit back apathetically.”

At Lawrenceville he got involved with the Young Democrats, of which he is now the head, and Model United Nations clubs, and ”those clubs led me to want to do more related to politics and do more outside the gates of the school and in the world at large.”

Wellemeyer was at first disappointed to find out that student interest in politics in New Jersey and in the nation as a whole is extremely low. In the 2016 election only about half the eligible voters ages 18-29 voted, many fewer than the general voter turnout rate of about 58 percent.

“There is a need for more youth representation. Youth voter rates are really low and that concerned me,” he said. “I wanted to encourage youth to vote, show them how to vote, show them the experiences of other young people who did get involved in politics.”

Wellemeyer won a grant from Lawrenceville School to write his civics textbook over the summer, and in the process interviewed teenagers from across the country. The 150-page book includes much basic, traditional civics information, but it is full of quotes from politically-engaged students and focuses heavily on student narratives and opinions. Beyond the usual civics course content, the book includes chapters on youth in history, forming a political identity, the impact of technology on politics, bias in news and reporting, staying informed, and getting involved.

Wellemeyer says that more than 10 schools are reviewing the book for future use and that each week he reaches out to additional private and public schools throughout the country. “It’s an ongoing project that I don’t envision finishing any time soon. I look forward to getting feedback from schools by this spring and using that feedback to create a second version next summer. Maybe every year or two I’ll release an updated version with newer information.”

Wellemeyer, preparing to apply to colleges for next year, is not sure where he’d like to go, but, not surprisingly, “I definitely want to end up somewhere that is full of political debate and discussion, with a strong political science department.” And after college? “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do, but I want to do something related to politics.”

Wellemeyer lives in Princeton with his parents and his twin brother, who is also a Lawrenceville student. “He’s not interested in politics at the same level I am,” Wellemeyer said, ”but he’s definitely aware, and we all have different political views. I’m more liberal than my parents, which makes for interesting dinner table conversations.”