Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaks to students about the importance of civic engagement

The justice urged young people to be more involved in government to save American democracy.

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor pleaded with young people in a talk with students on Wednesday to become more civically engaged and educated to protect American democracy.

In a webinar presented by USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy’s Renewing American Democracy project and Long Island University, Sotomayor said to listening students that there is no choice for survival other than civic engagement.

“You must participate because otherwise you won’t have the society you want and you won’t live the life you want,” Sotomayor said.

Her talk came amid widespread concerns about the health of the nation’s democratic institutions, after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Sotomayor steered clear of any mention of that – or of the baseless claims made by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the 2020 election was rigged.

The event was part of the Renewing American Democracy, a “nonpartisan” and “non-ideological” national initiative to promote civic engagement in college students, according to their website.

During the event, students from USC and LIU were able to pose questions to Sotomayor about civics and the future of American democracy.

Ellis Cose, the moderator for Wednesday’s talk, said in a phone interview before the event that he hoped students walk away from the talk with a deeper appreciation for what their involvement might mean for their future.

“Part of what the Renewing American Democracy Initiative is about is elevating the discussion about democracy in this country, and it’s also about involving young people in that discussion,” Cose said.

Much of Sotomayor’s talk centered on young people’s lack of civic engagement. Sotomayor said “31% of young people don’t believe in democracy,” rendering the system “fragile.”

“If you don’t get involved, what’s the alternative?” Sotomayor asked students. “You’re going to be a bystander in life. You’re going to let others dictate what happens to you in this life.”

Sotomayor pointed out that a lack of civic education in schools could be responsible for the decrease in participation among young people, citing  a shift in civics education funding to STEM after Russia’s Sputnik launch.

“The process of learning about civics is not one class,” Sotomayor said. “It’s a lifelong pursuit of learning, not just how our government functions, but how best can you as an individual help it function right.”

Sotomayor called on young people to get involved in government to see the changes they want in the world.

“The reality is that maybe as one individual you can’t affect change, but you can if you organize yourselves and insist on change,” Sotomayor said.