The collective hand-wringing over whether 18- to 29-year-olds would turn out to vote in this past election has happily ended. A record 24 million young people cast a ballot, a 19 percent increase over 2004. The historic number of young voters and campaign organizers inspired by Barack Obama clearly demonstrates that the so-called apathetic generation cares deeply about the country’s future and wants a louder voice in political life.
But now that the election is over, what should be done to harness the energy and commitment of the tens of thousands of young people who worked phone banks and braved the cold to knock on doors? The answer rests, in part, on our collective ability to invest in youth organizing, not just for the next election cycle but for the long-term with the aim of cultivating a new generation of progressive civic leaders.
My own experiences as a young activist strengthened my belief in the benefits of early political engagement. Fresh out of college, I began working with organizing groups after witnessing first-hand the effects of police brutality on black, Latino and Asian communities across New York City. I learned important lessons about how to unify diverse groups around a shared purpose, the importance of compromise and how to forge lasting relationships across racial lines. Most important, I developed a strong commitment to movement building and the confidence in my own ability to play a role in the process.
Of course, my story is hardly unique. I work with groups comprised of thousands of young activists who know the value of collective political action. President-elect Barack Obama’s own organizing experience proved formative: his compassion and empathy for the struggles of everyday people across America were built as a 23-year-old on the South Side of Chicago. And although Republicans turned “community organizing” into a laugh line at their convention, Americans across the political spectrum have woken up to the power of mass mobilization.
Even if most young organizers do not ultimately run for president, they nonetheless develop habits and skills that immeasurably benefit the progressive movement. Grassroots activists attend town hall meetings and show up at the polling booth–not just every four years but for local and state elections as well. They feel a profound sense of ownership in and responsibility for their communities.
In the last decade, more than a hundred community-based groups have sprouted up across the country to engage youth around a host of issues from public school reform to environmental justice. In East Los Angeles, Inner City Struggle helped pass a city-wide resolution establishing mandatory college preparatory courses to give the city’s under-served youth a greater chance at higher education. Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice in New York City helped launch a multi-year environmental campaign that created public parks and miles of green pathways along the Bronx River. And in Denver, Colorado, youth organizers with One Nation Enlightened led a broad coalition that fought successfully for an innovative statewide law to combat racial profiling.
While youth organizations like these have existed for years, Obama has encouraged a renewed spirit of service that can be leveraged and expanded. These groups deserve continued commitment, support and resources to grow and meet the needs of the thousands of young people energized by the election. The Obama administration should also make good on its commitment to shared sacrifice and responsibility by putting forth a national service plan that provides for youth organizing.
For too long we have fallen into the trap of involving young people in political life only during presidential elections. And while the strategy can sometimes pay off–as Obama’s base of active supporters across the country has demonstrated–it ultimately shortchanges young people who can play a long-term active role in public life and the communities that stand to benefit.
With the economy tanking and Wall Street jobs drying up, young people increasingly will be looking for ways to serve their communities. The question is whether we will take advantage of this opening to identify and support the very people needed to lead our country.