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Don’t Wait Until 2020 to Invest in Youth Leaders

December 13, 2018

Youth_engagementFor anyone interested in increasing youth civic engagement, the midterm elections are a cause for celebration. In the election,
31 percent of youth (ages 18-29) voted — according to at least one source, the highest level of participation among youth in the past quarter-century.

Traditionally, support for youth civic engagement declines at the end of an election cycle and resumes as the next cycle starts to heat up — along with thought pieces about why young people don’t vote. To break this pattern, I offer a suggestion: increase investment in youth organizing groups now; don't wait until 2020.

The country is in the middle of a massive demographic shift, with young people of color the fastest-growing segment of the population. The key to developing a robust and inclusive democracy that reflects this shift is to support the active civic participation and leadership of this group. And the best way to do that is not to wait until the start of the next election cycle to pour millions of dollars into advertising to reach young voters.

Instead, we should support organizations led by young people of color that are engaged in year-round organizing around both voter engagement campaigns and efforts to address issues in their local communities. Issue campaigns focused on quality schools, immigrants' rights, ending mass incarceration, and preserving reproductive rights are what motivate young people to become engaged in the world around them and, by extension, the electoral process.

Take the Power U Center for Social Change and Dream Defenders, youth organizing groups in Florida that have been organizing to end mass incarceration and the school-to-prison-pipeline. In the lead up to the midterms, both groups worked tirelessly in support of a ballot measure to restore voting eligibility to formerly convicted persons, and as a result 1.4 million people in Florida have had their voting rights restored. If those ex-offenders are organized effectively, most of them will vote — and in ways, hopefully, that strengthen their communities.

From where I sit, there are three reasons to double down on investments in youth organizing groups:

Youth organizers are good at engaging voters of all ages. Some youth organizing groups have focused on engaging young voters; others are organizing whole communities. Power California, a statewide alliance of more than twenty-five organizations, works to harness the power of young voters of color and their families. Between September and November, the organization and its partners worked in forty counties to get young Californians to head to the polls and make their voices heard on issues that affect them. Through phone calls, texting, and targeted social media, the organization talked to more than a hundred and fifteen thousand young voters and registered and pre-registered more than twenty-five thousand young people of color. Other organizations such as Poder in Action in Phoenix, Arizona, engaged young people in their communities because these young people are knowledgeable and passionate about the issues in play and serve as highly effective messengers. Our takeaway: investing in youth leaders generates results, now and for decades to come.

Engaging the pre-electorate now increases civic participation in the future. Many of the young people organizing and canvassing with grantees of the Funders' Collaborative for Youth Organizing were ineligible to vote because they hadn't turned 18. But while they weren't old enough to cast a ballot, many of them were active in knocking on doors and making calls to encourage others to vote. Today's 16- and 17-year-olds will be voting in 2020, and we should be supporting organizations working to engage them. These organizations are a vital resource for developing the next generation of civic leaders.

Youth organizers play a vital role in connecting issues and voting. Over the last several years, we've seen the emergence of a number of organizations that are organizing young people of color around issues in their communities and helping them engage electorally as part of a broader goal of creating a just and equitable society. These groups are developing the next generation of young leaders, organizing campaigns aimed at improving quality of life in their communities, and encouraging people, young and old, to get out and vote. Recent research shows that this kind of organizing is one of the best ways to support the academic growth, social and emotional development, and civic engagement of young people, and these groups are our best hope for actively engaging young people today, as well as developing a pipeline of leaders equipped to solve future challenges.

Unfortunately, funding for this work has been sporadic, often showing up — in insufficient amounts — just before elections and then disappearing as soon as the last vote has been counted. To build a just and inclusive society, we must make a significant, long-term investment in the leadership of young people of color willing to organize around issues and engage voters, both young and old.

The 2018 election cycle has come to an end. Our investment in youth organizing shouldn't. It is time to get serious about supporting the next generation of leaders.

By 2020, it'll be too late.

Headshot_Eric BraxtonEric Braxton is executive director of the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing, a collective of social justice funders and youth organizing practitioners that works to advance youth organizing as a strategy for youth development and social change.

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