Photography by Rebecca ‘B FRESH’ McDonald.
On November 4, 23 million young people came out to vote–the largest number since 1972 and 3.4 million larger than in 2004. But more significant, this year’s election became about much more than just voting. Volunteering in record numbers, young people became the superforce of the Obama camp, sustaining and energizing what became one of the biggest grassroots movements for a presidential campaign ever seen. Young people gave up higher-paying jobs for less money to knock on doors, organize block parties, foment online campaigns, make T-shirts and music, and drive voters to the polls. From college campuses to working-class communities, young people realized that, as a group, they have the power to change things in their own country.
Many progressives hope that the elation and idealism that Barack Obama’s campaign helped inspire will turn into a lifetime of community service. There is hope that something can be done about the ever-increasing income gap and poverty, growing unemployment, porous healthcare, environmental degradation and broken schools in low-income communities. And while the president and Congress deliberate policy and allocate funding, the direction of their work will depend, in part, on the continued grassroots activism of young people.
That’s why TheNation.com and WireTap magazine partnered to kick off “You Voted. Now What?”–a series of stories highlighting some of our nation’s most inspiring and successful young activists, coast to coast, working on building new opportunities for the previously dispossessed. Through these stories we hope to highlight a broad range of potential paths for channeling some of the prodigious energy unleashed during the Obama campaign. We begin with an overview of the political landscape in which young people can continue their activism, from part-time volunteering to lifetime careers in public service.
BE LIKE OBAMA–BECOME A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
After graduating from Columbia College and a brief stint in business consulting, Obama became a community organizer in the far South Side of Chicago. He worked with churches and blue-collar communities to hold local officials accountable, and he helped open college preparatory and job-training programs, playgrounds and after-school programs.
As Obama went on to Harvard Law School and later the US Senate, he credited his years as a community organizer as the time when he learned to listen, bridge different communities and turn complex issues into winnable solutions. Most important, as he organized community meetings and actions, he discovered the importance of “change from below”–an idea that truly lasting change happens only when ordinary citizens define their own needs, work on solutions together and push their government to respond.