July 29, 2009
Beneath the imposing marble weight of the Capitol building, a group of people who might someday work within its halls meets to discuss the future.
On July 15, the newly assembled 80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs Coalition  convened for its first summit. The group represent the interests of those disproportionately affected by the economic downturn: youth.
The numbers paint a bleak picture: The unemployment rate  among young people is at 17.8 percent. That's eight percent above the national average. In the contracting job market, youth find themselves competing for their first jobs with people who have five years or more of experience in the workforce. It is these youth who then find themselves un- or under-insured. According to a DEMOS report (PDF ), almost a third of young people do not have health insurance. Complicating matters is the weight of students loans. The average college graduate owes $27,000.
If you want your voice to be heard in Washington, you have to establish yourself as a constituency with interests to be championed. Earlier this spring, 80 Million Strong founders, including Co-Chair Maya Enista of Mobilize.org along with the leaders of 26 other organizations  (The Roosevelt Institution, Student Association for Voter Empowerment, Advocates for Youth, the Hip-Hop Caucus, Voto Latino, etc.), decided to do just that. They represent the millennial generation, defined as anyone born between 1976 and 1996. All told, that's about 80 million constituents--a sizable force to be reckoned with.
The summit  brought together over a hundred "millennials" from around the country, all of whom had to submit an innovative policy idea to gain admittance to the conference.
Taking place over two days, the conference featured a line-up of distinguished guest speakers. Among them were the Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Chief Economist and Economic Policy Adviser to the Vice President, Jared Bernstein, and environmental luminary and founder of Green for All, Van Jones.
A sea of suits and folks in assorted business casual ensembles gathered at tables piled with laptops and the latest consensus-building software  designed to allow participants to cast votes anonymously--millennials are, after all, a tech-savvy generation.
The participants set the agenda on the first day of the conference through a lengthy consensus process. That night, summaries of the day's proceedings were written up. The next day, after rallying remarks from some of Washington's most inspiring voices, they were set loose on Capitol Hill to make their voices heard to their representatives.
"They've really taken ownership of the process," said 80 Million Strong Co-chair Maya Enista. The idea behind the summit is that participants will take the ethos of 80 Million Strong back to their districts and tailor their chapters to the needs of their communities, creating a vast network of young voters across the country representing their own interests. Enista estimates that the coalition currently reaches seven million millennials.
As for the reasoning behind her own involvement, Enista said it's in her blood. "My parents emigrated from a communist country and instilled in me a reverence for democracy," she explains. She worked for Rock the Vote  and the Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project  before coming to Mobilize.org and joining up with the other members of the coalition.
Coalition members have identified a set of "mission critical" areas in which they would like to see more opportunities for young people: healthcare (not only access to comprehensive coverage but more jobs for youth in healthcare professions), defense and the green economy.
For many millennials, climate change, health care, immigration reform and college loan debt relief are not issues on which they require much convincing. In these realms, the coalition simply seeks to provide them with a platform.
One of the first to speak was Justin Rockefeller . Steeped in Washington and Wall Street lore, his latest project combines both aspects of his family legacy: a commitment to public service and private sector drive. He is the founder of an organization called Generation Engage , a civic engagement organization dedicated to connecting youth from all socio-economic backgrounds with their lawmakers.
A product of bipartisan lineage, he extolled the virtues of the "social entrepreneurship movement" which he believes "combines the best of liberal and conservative ideology."
No one disputes that there is much more work to be done. Even if the coalition manages to reach out to millennials who would normally have less access to the legislative process--such as those in rural areas or those without college educations--all of the proposed programs would require skills training. The coalition hopes to address this issue by lobbying for more funding for paid internship programs so that high-prestige, resume-building jobs are accessible to those who usually have to take more lucrative summer jobs.
Summit attendee Emily Ryan , a native of Portland, Oregon, has first-hand knowledge of the challenges the current system presents. She has three associate degrees but without a bachelor's degree, she says it's very difficult to find a job.
She became homeless at the age of 16. Since then, she has been committed to involving youth in local and state government. Through her own experience she learned that there were a lot of gaps in the housing and other social service systems that were all too easy for young people to fall through. When she was 18, an internship in Sen. Ron Wyden 's (D-OR) office sparked an interest in addressing her concerns at the federal policy level.
Though she enjoyed the conference overall and appreciated the attempts of the organizers to reach out to rural, low-income or otherwise disenfranchised areas, she worried that the setting might have been a deterrent for some.
"I come from an area and a background that tries and strives to be all-inclusive of non-citizens and others," she said. "Part of it is the language that people are accepting [at the summit]. It's geared toward people who are college-educated and who are citizens." She explained that those who do not fall under that umbrella "might see the type of people at the table and not feel like they belong."
Though not yet 25, Ryan knows a thing or two about reaching out to constituents. She ran for City Council in her community.
"I understand that they're trying to use the easiest language that resonates with policy makers," she said, "[but] sometimes policy makers need to know what's really out there, what language really means."
Ryan was not the only one who sensed this. One of the first ground rules agreed upon by the participants was, "Keep in mind people who are not here--the empty chair--i.e., rural areas, people without means to get here." Soon thereafter, another group suggested, "Be authentic in responses in feedback, keep in mind the communities we represent."
The organizers also recognized the structural barriers. "[I]t's a luxury to come to D.C. and talk policy, to talk issues," said Maya Enista. Though many of the participants secured full or partial funding to attend the summit, for many that was not enough.
Though the group itself identifies as progressive, they were imbued with the bipartisan fervor that characterizes Washington these days.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the coalition and its call to civic engagement inspired Nick Troiano, a rising junior at Georgetown University and former campaigner for Mike Huckabee. He started a social networking site for civic engagement called myImpact.org . "Millennials are very social creatures," he explained. "We do what we see our friends doing."
But this is no Federal Writers' Project . The millennials rose to political awareness during the Bush years, and with hindsight for the Clinton era they understand the power of markets and how to harness it. Throughout the summit, the topic of partnerships between the public and private sectors was discussed at length.
When I asked about the absence of activist artists or more traditional community organizers, I was told by one of the organizers that the participants and the topics covered were generated by the participants themselves and it was not for her to dictate, but also to stay tuned as the 80 Million Strong community was still developing, having only just formed in May.
The hope is that they will create a constituency broad enough to address the needs of all millennials.
"The AARP are a force because they represent the interests of a generation as a cohort," Enista explained, suggesting that 80 Million Strong seeks to do the same at the other end of the generation spectrum.
And so far, they're doing quite well. The 80 Million Strong Coalition is expected to appear before the House Education and Labor Committee in the coming year.