On Thursday, May 31st, the Youth Engagement Fund convened more than 100 donors, researchers and organizations at the Ford Foundation to learn from one another and strategize about how best to support younger generations as they embrace voting and other forms of civic engagement. The daylong event featured panels filled with field leaders and experts in civic engagement and youth organizing.
Some of the major themes from the day included supporting young voters and civic leaders as new voters and emerging leaders within a broader political context rather than as actors in a separate sector, the importance of mainstreaming racial and gender justice campaigning within traditional civic engagement programming, and the need for strategies to catalyze non-partisan participation that last beyond a single election cycle.
Race, Gender and Civic Engagement
As with most, if not all social justice movements, civic engagement has countless intersections including gender, race, ethnicity, class and many more. During the panel discussions, presenters stressed the importance of speaking to and addressing those intersections when advocating for youth engagement. For example, if you’re telling a story based on race, be sure to discuss race from a place of power instead of a place based in apology or fear. Panelists emphasized that each person’s culture and identity at those intersections is equally American and they don’t have to lose their identity or ethnicity to be American or participate in non-partisan civic engagement. Cristina Tzintzun of Texas-based organization Jolt argued that racial justice in particular can be a critical catalyst for voter engagement in Latino communities. She and others noted that even the national conversation on immigration is influenced by racial anxieties about a ‘new majority’ of racial minorities transforming the U.S. electorate in coming decades.
Panelist quote: “Imagine what Black folks could create if they weren’t dealing with racism; imagine what women could create if they weren’t dealing with harassment.”
Many of the speakers and audience members noted that more organizations with historical commitments to racial and gender justice in their organizational DNA are integrating voter engagement as core components of their strategies for change. Funders must provide civic engagement capacity resources for these organizations in order to convert more potential young voters of color into new voters.
Focusing on the Long Game
YEF Director, Austin Belali, opened the session previewing a five year strategy to, “build a historic wave of new, habitual voters and position young people in communities of color to run campaigns and organizations in their communities”. Throughout the convening panelists strongly encouraged organizations and funders to always focus on the “long game” – beyond a single election year. They emphasized how difficult it is to see real ‘wins’ in a year’s time and that grant makers of civic engagement should reevaluate their reporting processes to be more iterative. When working in a local community, groups who contextualize their civic engagement efforts today with an eye on 5-10 years in the future are defining winning differently. A win could be creating a relationship built on trust with a community. A win could be talking to someone at their door and having them show up for a training and heading to the polls to cast their ballot in an unknowable future. These wins may appear small from the vantage point of an annual grant cycle,but for local communities each victory creates the groundwork for lasting change. Abby Kiesa from CIRCLE, introduced a provocative concept that civic engagement funders should focus less on the overall percentage turnout of “youth” in election years as a measure of civic health. Instead, Kiesa encouraged funders and organizations to focus on closing the massive voter participation gaps between disadvantaged young people and their more affluent young peers. While no single measure of participation is sufficient, several speakers advised philanthropy to apply an equity perspective to measuring progress toward democratic participation. In that same vein, they emphasized the significance of training the most marginalized young people so they can empower themselves and their peers to create the future through democratic participation we all want to see.
Panelist quote: “View young people as a movement, not a moment.”
Moving Civic Engagement into the 21st Century
A few panelists and audience members discussed the role of technology in civic engagement. They noted technology is a useful tool to engage, support and build relationships with young voters. They also stressed that technology alone will not be the answer. Technology has to be used to complement the existing strategy, not replace it.
Additionally, panelists noted that while the world in which we operate has changed, funding patterns have remained stagnant in many issue areas. They suggested it was time to invest not only in projects, but in the young people we want to see mobilized. They urged funders to reevaluate funding patterns that will better serve the world we currently live in.
Panelist quote: “Voting isn’t everything – it’s a tool in the toolbox. We also have to engage young folks in other kinds of civic engagement at the same time.”
Wellstone Action, United We Dream and others are running leadership programs to develop a new generation of campaign leaders in states. While in the past, leadership development was understood as a synonym for candidate recruitment, organizations are now recognizing a critical role for young leaders to be placed in strategic campaign and organizational roles within the local electoral arena. Political giving is one of the fastest growing areas of philanthropic spending within communities of color but campaign managers rarely reflect the racial diversity of the communities they claim to serve. Panelist Jamecia Gray from Florida, actually went through Wellston Action’s data bootcamp and other trainings to develop her skills as a campaign operative and remarked about the need to equip more young people of color to run campaigns in the communities they grew up in.
Expanding Civic Engagement and Democracy
One thread that ran throughout the different panel discussions was the idea of expanding the definition of democracy and civic engagement. Instead of trying to fit our needs and the needs of young voters into the “democracy box” that already exists, it’s time to expand what that box actually looks like. One panelist emphasized the importance of giving young people the training and the power to define what democracy and civic engagement means to them personally. If there is a power shift and young people are empowered, they can do the work behind the scenes to make the real, lasting change everyone is looking for.
Panelist quote: “Democracy without the pursuit of justice doesn’t always result in the democracy we were in pursuit of.”
Bill Vandeberg from the Open Society Foundations asked how efforts to engage young voters as new voters and train the next generation of campaign leaders connect to broader efforts to build power for marginalized communities. With so much at stake for the country from redistricting reform to building a more reflective and multi-racial democracy through voter participation, an infusion of energy and talent from young people at the margins of our society and economy is essential. As demonstrated on May 31st, philanthropists concerned with the wellbeing and health of U.S. democracy can no longer afford to treat younger generations as an afterthought.