John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, spent his first visit to Duke doing what he does best: talking to young people.
In his Oct. 4 lecture, Della Volpe, who most recently served as pollster and strategic communications advisor to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, spoke about what he believes distinguishes Generation Z politically. The pollster came to Duke as part of a series of university visits following the Jan. 2022 release of his book, “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”
Della Volpe began his visit with a lunch with students. Among those present was Thalia Halloran, Trinity ‘22, associate in research of the Hart Leadership Program. The program, a service-based organization aligned with the Sanford School of Public Policy, was a sponsor and promoter of Della Volpe’s lecture.
“Since the majority of our student base is currently Gen Z, this was the kind of thing that we thought was very relevant to our students’ interests,” said Halloran.
In response to the question, “Why Duke? Why now?” Della Volpe said, “I think we are clearly on the verge of a very important election, number one. Number two, I think that a lot of what people think about Gen Z is generally wrong.”
Della Volpe spoke to the dramatic shift in voting behavior between millennials and Gen Z, noting that while speaking to Gen Z-ers in 2017, they expressed different concerns and more pronounced voting efforts than their older counterparts. In the 2018 and 2020 elections, Della Volpe noted the impact of the youth vote, emphasizing that measures concerning climate change, gun violence and student loan debt would not have been passed without young people.
“What I'm really excited about is that politicians are really beginning to get to understand that you guys actually have real power,” he said.
When the event kicked off, Della Volpe framed Gen Z as “the most diverse generation of Americans we've ever seen”, but also spoke to their experience of “[being] robbed of that experience of seeing America truly united.”
Della Volpe acknowledged the weights that have fallen on the shoulders of Gen Z: school safety, the opioid crisis, environmental concerns, the pandemic lockdown and increased suicide rates, among others. Despite that, he characterized Gen Z as resilient and determined to make a change.
“[Gen Z] is almost like a diamond or something. It’s getting honed by all the darkness and the struggle,” Della Volpe said.
In the second half of the event, he outlined five events which he believes have defined Gen Z thus far: the Occupy Wall Street movement, Donald Trump’s presidency, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, Greta Thunberg’s protests and the murder of George Floyd. Della Volpe intentionally left out the COVID-19 pandemic, as he believes its further-reaching impacts have yet to be seen on the generation.
The audience, made up mostly of Gen Z-ers, seemed to resonate with Della Volpe’s five events and engaged more deeply in a Q&A following the talk. Their questions touched on the strategies Della Volpe used to reach conclusions, the influence social media has played in Gen Z-ers’ lives and past elections.
First-year Tyné Kidd agreed with explanations of how the generation’s defining events have influenced current political and social trends.
“It's great being a Gen Z person, hearing that and hearing actual encouragement and credit rather than hearing that we're just too sensitive because we've gone through a lot,” Kidd said.
Jenny Wood Crowley, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, was in attendance with students from the American Experiences focus cluster. Her students attended the talk in place of their scheduled weekly dinner.
“We wanted [the Focus students] to be here to think about those issues critically in terms of the past and the current stuff that they're reading in our class,” Wood Crowley said.
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Michael Ramos is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.