Kentucky teens sound off on America’s murky political future

It’s home to some of the nation’s most infamous right-wingers, but will the Bluegrass state stay red? Not if these teenagers can help it.

I hear from older people a lot that they don’t agree with me but really admire what I’m doing, or think it’s really cute that I’m so passionate about voting,” says Emily, an 18-year-old from Bourbon County, Kentucky. It’s not cute that my generation has had to go from being normal teenagers to having to fight our politicians on basic human rights like healthcare and a livable future.” 

Emily recently spent a month phone banking and canvassing for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in New Hampshire pre-quarantine, but has since returned to Kentucky, where she has continued to send texts and calls for the campaign. 

Kentucky, of Colonel Sanders fried chicken fame, is a southeastern state that bridges the American Midwest and South. The state has made national news in recent years for a massive teachers’ strike to protest threatened pension cuts, local homophobe Kim Davis’s one-woman protest against marriage equality, and has exported our infamous Republican senators to Capitol Hill: Senate majority leader and long-suffering Trump apologist Mitch McConnell, and Rand Paul, who may be responsible for infecting half the GOP with COVID-19.

There are many negative stereotypes associated with the people of Kentucky, along with many other inhabitants of the Bible Belt. However, the state’s teen-powered grassroots activism is injecting some much-needed progressive energy into Kentucky, with young people powering numerous causes, among them the teachers’ strike, Sunrise Movement’s rallies in the capital, and the recent Harlan County miners’ blockade, wherein coal miners worked in solidarity with young queer and transgender activists to demand fair compensation.

The teenagers of Kentucky will be the ones to turn the state bluer in the coming years, either through ballots, blockades, or both. Several progressive-minded Kentucky teens weigh in on the democratic race, gun violence, climate change, Donald Trump, and the looming pandemic.

Miles, 18, Lexington

Do you know who you’re going to be voting for?

Currently no, because I really loved Andew Yang a lot. I was really excited for some sort of Asian-American representation in the government.

What issues are most important to you?

Personally I feel really strongly about teachers in public schools, because I want to be an art teacher. The government, they’re directly fighting for charter schools getting public school funding when public schools barely have enough funding now, and people are paying out of pocket.

Is gun violence something that also worries you, as a high school student and somebody who plans to teach?

They implemented bag searches and metal detectors. It makes me feel less safe. It makes us feel like we’re in a more dangerous setting. I would hate to be the one fighting against metal detectors and bag searches at school, because it’s just to protect the kids, but I’d like to see it done differently.

How do you think the government is handling the pandemic?

My concerns are just people having their necessities, being able to keep their electricity and water on, and [afford] groceries. You know, I think that’s not too much to ask for from the government, seeing what they’re able to provide. 

Do you have any advice for staying sane during quarantine?

I try to remind myself that most of the time I’m already in the house. I only start to stress when I feel as if I’m forced to stay inside so I’m trying my best to just treat every day like a normal day just hanging out at the house.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

My current favourite artists are the Misfits and the Cure.

What are your favourite Kentuckian or Southern snacks?

Grippos, hands down my favorite chip. And I gotta love some Indi’s fried chicken.

Larah, 18, Montgomery County

How do you feel about the stereotypes associated with the South?

I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people can surprise you. I don’t believe in lost causes. Like, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s so far gone that you can’t educate them and change their mind.

Have you been following the Democratic race?

Yes, painfully close. I have a lot of feelings about it. Originally, I was for Pete Buttigieg, which most people are really surprised by… do I agree with a lot of his policies? No. He’s definitely like a diet Democrat. But this will be the first election that I’m able to vote in, and the idea of my first vote being for someone who ran as an openly gay candidate is incredible. But then he dropped, so now I support Bernie 100%. My fear is that people are going to write him off as too radical, and that’s part of why I was supporting Pete. Long story short, I’m pro-Bernie, but will vote for literally anyone over Donald Trump.

So you’re the founder of your high school’s Gay Straight Alliance?

Yes. I came out last February to friends and stuff, then came out publicly by May. Through that, all of these kids at my school were just coming out to me every day. My inbox was constantly flooded, because no one’s ever been that visible at my school. I’m a senior, so I was just like, I don’t have anything to lose.” It was a fight getting the administration to approve it. 

What makes it worth it, despite the pushback?

I always say that the best part of being queer is that you get to pick your own family. I have so many people that I call my gaunties and guncles that have just supported me so much and given me a place to stay when I need it. Getting to be that for someone else is a huge privilege for me. But more than anything, I love being from Kentucky. Like, I love this place, I love Appalachia, I love our culture, I love our food – everything about it. And I want young people, and especially young queer people, to realise that this is not just a place worth leaving, it’s a place worth fighting for. And if we don’t take that upon ourselves, nothing’s ever going to get better.

What are your favourite Kentucky recipes?

Hot Brown! And I really love making salads with kudzu and honeysuckle in the summer

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I love everything local – Josh Nolan, The Local Honeys, Geno Seale – and oldies like Roscoe Holcomb and Ola Belle Reed. I also really love Bleachers, Lorde, and King Princess.

Emily, 18, Bourbon County

Have you been following the democratic race?

Yes, I have.

How do you feel about Sanders vs. Biden?

I plan on voting for Bernie. I just spent a month in New Hampshire campaigning for Bernie, and so now that I’m back in Kentucky, I’ve been volunteering remotely for Bernie and I plan on supporting him in the primary.

Do you have any hobbies outside of volunteering?

I like to read, bake, and spend time with my cat. I also really enjoy superhero movies and Broadway musicals.

There are a lot of stereotypes about the South being a super bigoted, backwards place. How do you feel about that?

Kentucky is associated with Mitch McConnell now. A lot of the time, I’ll introduce myself to new people [while campaigning up North], and they’re like, Where are you from?” and as soon as I say I’m from Kentucky, they’re like, Oh, really? Why is Mitch McConnell still in office? Why does the South love Trump?” It’s not that everybody down here loves Mitch McConnell or loves Trump, it’s just that there’s crazy voter suppression and voter turnout is low and the South isn’t nearly as invested in as other typically more liberal states like California or New York. A lot of people in the South feel like politicians don’t care about us, so [people] say, If they don’t care about us, why should I go vote?”

Voter suppression is also a big issue lately, with states holding their primaries even though there’s a pandemic going on.

Yeah, and I’ve been volunteering for Bernie from my house. I’ve been sending texts and calling people, and a lot of people have told me around the country, I want to vote, but I’m scared to leave my house and go stand in line for six hours.” And that’s a form of voter suppression too, having to stand in line for six hours to go vote.

What’s your favourite Southern food?

I’ve gotta go with the standard answer – fried chicken and sweet tea. I also really like the fried fish my granny and my mom make.

Do you have any advice for staying sane during quarantine?

Don’t buy more than you need and don’t price gouge. Give yourself permission to laugh and be happy. These are hard, scary, confusing times, but you’re allowed to smile and laugh and find joy wherever and whenever you can. All in all, just look out for each other, feel whatever it is that you’re feeling, and remember that we won’t be quarantined forever.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I’m a big fan of Kacey Musgraves and Ariana Grande right now.

What’s your opinion on Mitch McConnell?

I do not like Mitch McConnell. He’s been in office twice as long as I’ve been alive, which is just crazy and really frustrating. I’m excited that this is a year where we have the chance to vote him out like we did with [former Republican governor] Matt Bevin.

Jenin, 17, Lexington

How do you feel about the stereotypes associated with the South?

I do believe they’re true to a certain extent, about certain groups of people who are very conservative, very right, but I believe Lexington especially has become very liberal over the past years, so that’s amazing to see. There’s always new protests or marches downtown.

What’s your opinion on Donald Trump?

I believe that he is a businessman, and that is how he has convinced so many people that he’s in the right. However he should not, in any way, be in the position of president. But he is, I guess, convincing to those people. But he’s just disgusting, in my opinion. 

The Kentucky teachers’ strike made national headlines a few years ago. As a high school student, do you have any opinions about the way teachers are treated here?

I think they’re treated poorly. Teachers put so much effort into coming in every day, to teaching these kids and giving them knowledge. To take funding out of their retirement is just wrong, when they’re coming in there to support us and our communities.

What are some of your favorite TV shows?

I’ve been into docuseries recently, and am watching Tiger King and Explained on Netflix.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

My music taste ranges anywhere from old school R&B, to J. Cole, to Harry Styles’s new album.

Following current events, the future can seem dark and scary at times. What gives you hope?

As long as we have a strong government that cares about our people, I think that gives everyone hope to keep pushing. Even though, obviously, this is a really bad time with corona spreading and the president that we have, a lot of issues aren’t being taken seriously and a lot of people in our government are selfish, I think that one day – you know, it’s baby steps, one step at a time – hopefully, we’ll get there.

Kaden, 13, Montgomery County

I know you’ve been following the Democratic race, do you have any opinions about Biden and Sanders?

I feel like right now, I’m in support of Biden. I’ve been watching and I feel like personally, for me, Sanders is a bit extreme for me. I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of people have a lot of diverse opinions about this, but I feel like Joe Biden is the best to beat Trump and has the best views.

Have you supported Biden since the beginning?

At first, I kind of supported Beto O’Rourke. But then he dropped out. Then I supported Elizabeth Warren. So those were the two candidates.

What did you like about Elizabeth Warren?

I liked how strong she was, and how much she fought for people. I really liked that about her.

Mitch McConnell is running for re-election this year. How do you feel about that?

Mitch McConnell is a disaster, and I feel like he needs to be taken out of office.

What are some issues that you would say are most important to you?

Global warming is a big issue for me, because it will impact my life and the lives of millions of other children in the future. Also another big issue is school shooting and gun issues. I feel like there needs to be stronger gun laws. I’m quite scared of school shootings and other stuff like that.

People have been talking about universal healthcare a lot recently…

I feel that healthcare is a big issue, and that we need healthcare for all. I believe that there needs to be something worked out between Democrats and Republicans for a plan to get this.

Do you have any hobbies outside of school?

I do mock trial and theater.

Do you have any advice for staying sane during quarantine?

Keep in contact with friends by calling or texting. 

Abbie, 17, Montgomery County

How do you feel about the stereotypes associated with the South?

The thing about stereotypes is that there is truth to it. I see misinformation every day in high school, even from some of our teachers. In cities, it’s easier to get new information out, to see new innovation, and sometimes rural communities are left behind, and I think that’s why even in the last election, President Trump gained so much support, because he was talking in terms that [made] people feel like they weren’t being tricked.

What are your favourite southern foods?

The southern style biscuits are hands down the best southern food. Add some chocolate gravy and you’re set for a day of happiness.

How do you feel about climate change, and whether the government is handling the issue well?

I definitely do not think our government is doing enough to make the changes that we need, especially in regulations on industries and the monopolies that they allow to continue, because it’s really an issue of making money. The thing is, we run on a free enterprise, we’re a capitalistic government and society. It’s not a horrible thing to have that, you need that free enterprise, but without regulations on bigger companies and on industries, they’re just going to keep pumping out this pollution. 

People have been talking about how inaccessible healthcare is in the US recently. What do you think about that?

When you’re taking away the right of people just to live, that’s going against the Constitution itself, which I think a lot of Republicans choose to ignore when they cite things based on the Constitution and how they’ve interpreted it.

The pandemic has brought a lot of structural issues in the US to light lately, like the lack of safety nets for workers.

It’s heartbreaking. The officials are saying stay in, don’t go to work, don’t go out”, but if you are living paycheck to paycheck — and you’re relying on what you’re getting from your work — you are definitely going to risk a virus rather than not eating for a week. Honestly, I would rather die from COVID-19 than starvation, because it’s gonna be a whole lot faster, and that’s the kind of mentality that a lot of people are going to think. Industries are going to have to compensate their workers even if they cannot come to work. 


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