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Guest Post – The Power of Youth-Led Organizations: Issue Organizing, Voter Engagement, and Leadership Development

By: Eric Braxton is the executive director of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing

This guest post is the first in a series about whether and how youth electoral engagement can have broader goals, including connections to civic life and democracy more generally.

Young voters are playing an increasingly important role in elections. CIRCLE has found that young people made up the margin of victory for Obama in several swing states in 2012, and they may again decide major races in 2016. With the demographic change sweeping the country, young voters of color are particularly important. They are one of the fastest-growing parts of the electorate, and for those concerned about social justice, young people of color are also among the most consistently progressive voting blocks.

The path to political significance for young voters is, however, not without challenges. The midterms in 2014 had the lowest youth voter turnout in recent years. While young people have the potential to influence elections, the turnout rates for several groups, including non-college youth and Latino youth, have been particularly low. In addition, studies have shown that large numbers of young voters are unaffiliated with either of the major political parties. While the parties are scrambling to reach young voters, many of their their attempts have been clumsy and awkward.

In the effort to reach young voters and increase overall civic participation by young people of color in particular, youth-led organizations have been largely ignored by leading civic engagement funders and practitioners, but could have tremendous impact. In the 1990s, a new set of organizations began engaging young people with an approach that combined youth development, leadership development, and community organizing. These new youth organizing groups engaged mainly low-income young people of color and offered them social, emotional, and academic supports; helped them develop skills and a critical analysis of the issues in their communities; and supported them to organize campaigns to create lasting, systemic changes. In our last national field scan, the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) identified approximately 180 youth organizing groups across the country.

While these groups have focused most of their organizing on issues like educational equity, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and immigrant rights, an increasing number of these organizations are engaging in non-partisan voter engagement efforts. Our 2013 field scan found that 41% of the groups we surveyed were involved in non-partisan voter engagement and another 34% were interested in getting involved.

These groups have some special advantages in reaching infrequent voters. Most voter engagement programs engage younger people to do canvassing and voter outreach. Youth organizing groups, however, have a pool of young leaders who are from the communities in which they are working and have several years of leadership development and campaign experience. This means they can talk to infrequent voters with a kind of passion and authenticity than cannot be matched. By combining leadership development, issue organizing, and voter engagement, these organizations help young people develop a sophisticated analysis of how power operates and the different strategies needed to create meaningful, long-term change. A recent longitudinal study on youth organizing alumni found that they remain more engaged in their communities than comparable peers.

This is how youth organizers describe their experience combining issue organizing and voter engagement:

Our young people who can’t vote because they’re under 18 or Dreamers were especially excited to do vote work because it’s a way to impact the political process and have clout. Our youth registered 5,000 voters and contacted more than 10,000 voters for GOTV over the last three election cycles. They love meeting with elected officials and telling them ‘we’ve registered and turned-out this many voters in your district.’ It changes the tenor of the meeting.” —Jenny Arwade, Communities United (Chicago, IL)

We have successfully completed fourteen voter engagement programs since 2009 and built a database of over 42,000 voters with 84% consistently supporting our policy issues. We engage with voters each election cycle through door-to-door outreach and phone-banking. Our efforts helped pass a $7.2 billion education bond in Los Angeles and state Proposition 30, which raised revenues to save public education and vital services from further drastic budget cuts.” —Maria Brenes, Inner City Struggle (East Los Angeles, CA)

In 2015, FCYO and Quadrant Metrics conducted an analysis of how youth organizing groups were involved in voter engagement. The subsequent report found that, if properly supported and aligned with other civic engagement organizations, youth organizing groups can play a significant role in increasing voter turnout, passing beneficial policies, and increasing civic participation among young people. The report identified four key recommendations:

  1. The civic engagement sector should identify youth-focused strategic initiatives that can drive public discourse
  2. The civic engagement sector should double down on youth organizing groups with a proven track record in executing large-scale voter engagement programs and identify others with the potential to scale up.
  3. Youth organizing groups should shape the Millennial generation through highly visible and emotional “moment to movement” campaigns, primarily using communications and organizing methods.
  4. Youth organizations and non-youth organizations should create partnerships to formalize a leadership pipeline for 21st century organizers and related professions – a longstanding gap in the sector – and develop methods to track youth alumni.

As we seek to increase voter engagement and overall civic participation among young people, and young people of color in particular, we must recognize that youth organizing groups are critical partners. Because they are led by young people from the communities in which they work, these groups understand how to reach their peers. Their combination of year-round leadership development, issue organizing, and voter engagement creates a virtuous cycle of long-term engagement, increased voter participation, and community transformation. These groups need additional investment if they are to achieve these changes at scale.