HUNTINGTON - A Huntington High School senior says the answers to America's political problems won't be found in the voting booths this November, but only because some concerned voters are too young to be there.
Joseph Touma is the co-founder of Bridge-The-Divide.com, a website where high school students talk politics with an emphasis on tolerance and understanding. Tired of political conversations that felt more polarizing than productive, Touma created Bridge the Divide with Clara Nevins, a friend from California he met at a Yale University summer program.
"The program was called the Yale Young Global Scholars program, and there were students from over 100 different countries there," Touma said. "Clara and I had the same thought: 'In this microcosm of 200 students, we're somehow able to understand each other and work together peacefully. Why can't our leaders do that?' "
Bridge the Divide publishes op-eds written by high schoolers on topics ranging from global warming to refugees to tax policy. The site hosts a live discussion each week, including a discussion during the final presidential debate that garnered 1,600 comments. An ambassadorship program allows students to represent Bridge the Divide in their own high schools.
"Our ambassadors are out there getting their Young Republicans and Young Democrats to do community service together," Touma said. "They're getting students engaged in the political process and in what we're trying to do with Bridge the Divide, which is basically just remind everyone that we're all in this together. We all have different beliefs, and we're not asking anyone to compromise on those beliefs, but we can still work together and be productive."
Touma, whose work on the website is his "Passion Project" for the Huntington High honors program, said participation on the site from international students has been particularly interesting to watch.
"I never thought we'd be hearing what people in Australia think about health care in the United States or what people in Singapore think about our relationship with China," he said. "Sometimes we forget that people all over the world care about American politics."
He said growing polarity and contention, both on the global stage and within the U.S., show how important bridging the divide truly is.
"The world is at one of its most unstable points," Touma said. "So it's definitely a global issue, but it's an issue in Washington as well. Our politicians aren't working across the aisle, and that's a scary thing for the future of our country. We're not making progress, and that's critical for a country that's always been a leader in new ideas and new thought."
He said America's youth and youth all over the globe are uniquely equipped to make a difference in the tone of our politics.
"One of the biggest things we have going for us is that we don't have this idea ingrained in our heads that politics has to be nasty and dirty, that that's the way it always has been and the way it always will be," Touma said. "We have the desire and the willingness to challenge that."
Touma himself is eligible to vote, though most of the website's participants are under 18. He said students ineligible to vote can still get involved and make a difference by sharing their opinions online, volunteering for a political campaign or even just having a constructive political conversation with someone.
"Sometimes those things have a bigger impact than actually voting," he said.