In March of this year, I was visiting the West African nation of Liberia to shoot a film for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children on young people in post-conflict settings. As with most places I visit, Liberia was fascinated with U.S. politics and, being from America, I was pulled into long and controversial conversations about the current state of our country and the Presidential elections. It was during this trip that an interesting question by a young student was proposed to me: “Since the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election has such an impact on people around the world, shouldn’t we all be allowed to vote?”
Although non-Americans cannot vote for the next U.S. President, their input and perspectives could hold incredible value in the current presidential debate, especially in regards to issues concerning international cooperation, an area of great interest to young voters in the 2008 race (1). According to the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics “Campus Voices” initiative (2), young Americans are driven by global issues such as poverty, climate change and the genocide in Darfur. Surveys also show that there is an underlying shift in American attitudes regarding the role and priorities of the United States. Voters believe that “America needs to be a leader in the world, but instead of being a “bully” or policeman, it is time to be a role model for democracy and a partner.”(3) Considering this interest in better diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, shouldn’t we be engaging in an international conversation about the elections?
This experience inspired a short film I pitched for the WGHB Lab and POV Open Call, which selected 10 independent producers to produce three-minute shorts on the elections. Entitled, “Liberia??? Check” my film, intended for an urban youth audience, addressed the question, “if Liberian youth had a say in the elections, what would they say?” To view a clip, go to: http://lab.wgbh.org/open-call/election2008/rough-cuts/liberia-check. I proposed to mix my footage from my shoot in Liberia with animation and interviews with Liberian youth living in Park Hill, Staten Island. What transpired was quite interesting.
In order to understand their desire to participate in the elections debate, it is necessary to put the historical relationship between Liberia and the United States into context. In 1822, freed slaves from America resettled in Liberia and monopolized both the political and financial landscape while retaining diplomatic ties with the U.S. Liberia, who often refers to America as its “Big Brother”, still receives a great deal of humanitarian aid from the U.S.. After a long and bloody 14-year civil war, Liberians were welcomed as refugees and immigrants with many resettling in Park Hill, Staten Island, the largest population of Liberians living outside of Africa. Having the first female President democratically elected in Africa, (Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank employee who is considered an “Americo-Liberian”), the country is not immune from controversies surrounding gender and race in a presidential election.
The film opened doors for me to hear from youth in Liberia who were forced to flee their country during its war and to better understand the concerns and hopes they had as non-Americans, living in America, who still care deeply for their homeland. The youth had varying degrees of support for the different candidates. Some would vote for Barack Obama because.e of his African roots and therefore perceived understanding of the challenges facing the African continent. Some would vote for John McCain because of his experience with war and from their perspective as youth living amidst conflict, they believed a strong and experienced (male) politician was needed. Others wanted Hillary Clinton because they believed a woman would do a better job at helping the community, referencing the success of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in bringing peace to the country.
When asked specifically what they would want the next President to do for Liberian youth, many commented on the housing, education and healthcare needs for Liberians living legally in the U.S. Others wanted more trade between the two countries that would create new jobs for a nation that has an incredibly high unemployment rate, particularly among youth. And more broadly, they wanted the next U.S. President to focus on creating better economic ties with the Africa continent as a whole, to give African countries more bargaining power at the global level.
The film shoot with the Liberian youth inspired me to seek out other resources where Liberians and other non-American youth gave commentary on the most pressing issue arising in this Presidential election and, unfortunately, it was quite difficult to find. Several organizations and websites had the components but not the content. For example, Generation Engage (4)—a very progressive and active organization that promotes online and face-to-face opportunities between young people and civic leaders did not have an international component. Americans for Informed Democracy, which gives resources to young people to become active in addressing international problems and has several global programming areas (Global Development, Global Environment and Global Health) does not have an online networking component. And, finally, Voices without Votes, an initiative of Global Voices with support from Reuters that congregates blogs about the U.S. election from non-Americans, does not have a focus for youth.
Given that young voters are anticipated to be a powerful force in the 2008 elections and that international cooperation is a major issue in determining their choice for the next U.S. president, community and youth media sites focused on educating and recruiting young voters would be better equipped if they opened a communication channel with non-Americans. The internet, which already has given young people more opportunities to be politically active through organizing events and rallies, recruiting volunteers and exchanging information about candidates, could help link the voices of American voters with their allies around the world.
With an event so important and historical as the 2008 elections, and as that young Liberian pointed out, so influential on so many people all over the world, its time for that dialogue to be opened.
(1) The New American Consensus on International Cooperation (http://www.betterworldcampaign.org/resources/unf_national_survey2007.pdf)
(2) CampU.S. Voices (http://www.campusvoices.org/)
(3) The New American Consensus on International Cooperation (see above link)
(4) Generation Engage (http://www.generationengage.org)
(5) Americans for Informed Democracy (http://www.aidemocracy.org/)
(6) Voices without Votes (http://www.voiceswithoutvotes.org)
Lisa Russell is an independent documentary filmmaker who is contracted by UN/NGO communities to produce films about global health and development issues. www.governessfilms.com.