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Outreach from Community Organizations Is Key to Engaging Youth of Color

Our analysis finds that local groups and institutions can help connect youth to democratic participation, but they must do better to reach a wide diversity of young people.

Lead Authors: Megan Lam, Sara Suzuki
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Maha Mapara


CIRCLE’s research over the past two decades underscores the key role of various community stakeholders in strengthening more equitable participation within a multiracial democracy. In particular, our research indicates that outreach to young people by community organizations, including local youth organizations, can play a crucial role in introducing young people to the democratic process. 

In order to explore and strengthen the work of these institutions, CIRCLE’s research partnership with the Youth Engagement Fund (YEF) focuses on grassroots organizations led by youth of color in Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. With the 2022 election just weeks away, we sought to understand the potential impact of these organizations in critical gubernatorial and Senate races in these states.

Specifically, we examined the importance of outreach by community organizations to young people of color, an underrepresented segment of the electorate. We looked at personal outreach in the month leading up to the 2020 elections by local community organizations and local youth organizations, collectively referred to here as “community organizations.” We examined these dynamics within the Mountain, South Atlantic, and West South Central regions, which contain Arizona, Georgia, and Texas, respectively. In this analysis, based on our 2020 post-election survey, “youth” refers to young people ages 18-29 of color from those regions who did not identify as non-Hispanic white. 

Key Findings 

  • Youth of color contacted by community organizations were less likely to be non-voters, paid greater attention to local, Congressional, and Senate elections, and were more likely to be participating in a variety of political activities.

  • Contact by community organizations may fill gaps in outreach by political parties to specific demographic groups within youth of color.

  • Youth who do not work, who are not students, and who do not have a Bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, are less likely to be reached by community organizations.

  • Young people who had a high school diploma and/or some college education (but not a Bachelor’s degree), and who were contacted by a community organization, paid much greater attention to local, Congressional, and Senate elections than those who were not contacted. 

About Our Partnership: YEF

The Youth Engagement Fund (YEF) provides research support to grassroots organizations with the goal of building the political power of youth of color in key states. CIRCLE is also guiding the evaluation of the multi-year, multi-dimensional, system of supports YEF is providing to grassroots organizations.

Community Organizations Could Increase Youth of Color Turnout

Reaching out to youth of color is critical to addressing inequities in our democracy, and in states where some races are won by fewer than 1 percentage point it can be decisive for election results. In our analysis of organizational outreach in the Mountain, South Atlantic, and West South Central regions, we found that youth who were contacted by community organizations were 8 percentage points more likely to self-report that they voted than those who were not contacted. Furthermore, 17% of uncontacted youth did not plan on voting at all, compared to just 5% among contacted youth. 

We also found that contacted youth were more likely to be paying attention to local, Congressional, and Senate races. The potential for these institutions to bolster young people’s interest in elections is clear: community organizations, including youth organizations, may have a unique understanding of issues affecting communities in their area and the local officials who can enact change, which can help young people make the connections between the issues that they care about and voting.

Where Youth of Color Can Swing Election Results

The impact of community organizations may be realized as soon as this November. According to our 2022 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI), multiple races in some of the states we examined for this analysis are competitive electoral battlegrounds in which youth could potentially have an impact on the outcome. Notably, young Arizonans and Georgians could play influential roles in their respective Senate and gubernatorial races. 

Outreach Is Related to Political Engagement

Compared to unreached youth, contacted youth were far more likely to engage in a variety of political activities. For certain activities, such as contacting public officials, participating in a civil rights group or political group, and volunteering for a campaign, the difference in participation is more than twofold.

It’s important to note that the connection between political engagement and outreach from organizations may work in both directions. While outreach from community organizations may increase youth of color’s encounters with opportunities for political engagement, it is also possible that those who are more involved are more likely to be the target of outreach. Those young people who are engaged in political activities through community organizations may have access to channels of communication that community groups can then use to talk to them about elections. This only underscores how community organizations are a significant part of a healthy community ecosystem for supporting youth at the polls and beyond. 

Community Organizations Reach Different Youth than Political Parties 

Despite having fewer resources than the major political parties, in 2020 community organizations were on par with or outpaced outreach efforts from Democratic and Republican campaigns for certain demographic groups. 

Outreach to Hispanic/Latina women from community organizations was on par with the outreach by major political campaigns. And more young Black men reported being contacted by community organizations than by the two main parties. As Black men were the least likely to be contacted by a major political campaign, community organizations’ outreach to this demographic group was especially crucial. 

Nevertheless, among Hispanic/Latino men and Black women, organizational outreach is low. Only 15% of Hispanic/Latino men and 14% of Black women were contacted by a community organization prior to the 2020 elections. Funders must continue to provide community organizations with the support and investment they need for their full impact to be realized.

Some Youth of Color Remain Under-Contacted

In addition to the demographic groups that receive less contact from community organizations, our research suggests that young people of color with less access to educational and occupational institutions remain under-contacted. 

For example, youth of color who are not currently enrolled in school were less likely to be contacted by community organizations than those who are part-time or full-time students. Furthermore, those with the highest level of education (Bachelor’s degree or higher) had the highest rates of contact. 

We saw similar trends with employment status: only a quarter of unemployed youth reported being contacted by a local organization, whereas 53% of those employed part-time and 45% of those employed full-time were contacted. While school-based and workplace opportunities can provide meaningful pathways to youth engagement, it is crucial that all young people have ways to vote, lead, and engage. Community organizations must continue to invest in diversifying their outreach to youth everywhere.

Higher Impact of Outreach Among Certain Youth of Color

The lack of contact to some of these groups of youth is particularly unfortunate because, when they are contacted, that outreach is often meaningful and effective. We found that the relationship between being contacted by a community organization and paying attention to elections was strongest for those who had not earned a Bachelor’s degree but had completed high school. 

Youth of color who had a high school diploma and/or some college education (but not a degree) paid much greater attention to local, Congressional, and Senate elections when contacted by a community organization. By contrast, both youth of color who had not completed high school and those who had a Bachelor’s degree or higher paid about the same amount of attention to local, Congressional, and Senate elections whether or not they were contacted.

The research makes a strong case that community organizations can unlock pathways to civic participation for a diverse group of youth and can play a key role in creating a more equitable electorate. Our CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework, released in summer 2022, includes recommendations for these and other community groups to fulfill that potential. 

CIRCLE Growing Voters

Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.