The State of Youth Organizing

The State of Youth Organizing

The Nation asked leading youth organizers to suggest specific ways the Obama administration could help them mobilize the most diverse and socially progressive generation.



When the Obama campaign inspired and mobilized a wave of new young voters, youth organizers across the country rejoiced. They anticipated increased funding from donors and foundations to help bring this growing voting bloc into policy debates and community organizing. They hoped for increased media coverage for issues ranging from college costs to green jobs to healthcare reform. Instead, youth organizers have often found themselves feeling as if they’re sitting on a bus that’s out of service. As markets crashed, already meager funding pools got even smaller. Most media outlets chose to spotlight the absence of youth at healthcare town halls, which were often staged at empty college campuses over the summer break, rather than the thousands of environmental and education activists who stormed Washington to support reductions of carbon emissions, creation of green jobs and the passage of the DREAM Act. And with a few exceptions, the Obama administration stopped talking to young people directly.

Despite these obstacles, young activists continued to organize. The Nation asked four leading youth organizers to suggest specific ways the Obama administration and the progressive movement could help them succeed in 2010 to mobilize the most diverse and socially progressive generation.

Biko Baker, League of Young Voters

Until 2008 the League of Young Voters had focused most of our advocacy efforts at either the local or state level. Until very recently, flexing our muscle at the federal level seemed like the “out of reach” brass ring. Although we have a number of key local victories under our belt, like many other groups, we entered this year ready and willing to learn how things work in DC.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned through this process is that it is absolutely pivotal for our generation–and the broader progressive movement–to go from “opposition to proposition.” In short, we can’t engage in reactionary politics, where we are only responding to an injustice or negative piece of policy. We will never be able to bring true change to the world if we are only organizing around problems and never getting to the root causes.

But it seems like in the past several months the Obama administration has focused way too much on the naysayers and haters. If it is truly going to be a vehicle for change, it has to stop being afraid of celebrating the extraordinary work taking place at the local level. All across this country young people are developing businesses, coming up with innovations and creating models that could help this country get its swagger back. Put the spotlight back on us and you’ll see a completely different narrative.

Matias Ramos, United We Dream

The DREAM Act–a bill in Congress that seeks to create an earned path to legal status for undocumented immigrant youth–failed to pass 377 days before Obama was elected. It was introduced again sixty-five days after his inauguration, and thousands of people like me–undocumented students–are still counting the days.

Our country is home to about 2.5 million undocumented youth. Only a fraction of them have an opportunity to enroll in college like I did. That’s a huge loss for our economy, because college graduates earn (and pay taxes on) twice as much income as those without high school diplomas. In 2006, five years after undocumented students were allowed to enter Texas colleges at in-state tuition rates, the state comptroller reported that undocumented workers produced $1.58 billion in state revenues, which exceeded the $1.16 billion in state services they received.

This year there is undeniable and growing energy within our movement, coming from immigrants and citizens alike. United We Dream, a youth-led immigrants’ rights network mobilizing support for the DREAM Act, was established to provide a united front made up of a few national organizations, dozens of student groups and individual students hungry for change. In June hundreds of DREAMers went to Washington for a symbolic “DREAM Act Graduation.” Thousands more participated in more than 120 local actions in twenty-eight states celebrating back-to-school day in September.

We need progressives of all ages and backgrounds to join in this fight. Establishing a progressive immigration policy should be a goal not only for the Latino or Asian-American communities but for all those concerned with social justice and fairness. DREAMers across the country are saying the time is now. We know–we’ve been counting the days.

Jessy Tolkan, Energy Action Coalition

On November 4, 2008, an entire generation’s sense of what was possible changed. For millions of young Americans, with Obama’s election came the understanding that our voices mattered, that we were more powerful than we thought. At the Energy Action Coalition, a partnership of more than fifty organizations united in the fight for a clean energy future, we also dreamed that an Obama administration would pass a strong climate and energy agenda.

A year later we find ourselves looking back to November 4 for the inspiration necessary to keep up the fight. The realities of bitter partisanship have set in, and the attention from Obama that we basked in during the campaign has diminished. During the election, we found ourselves one of the most coveted constituencies around. Direct asks from Obama to get involved were commonplace. We are now considered a safe base–Obama’s strongest supporters–and we are left wondering how that position is impacting our ability to ensure that our issues and our agenda are met.

In the year since the election, we’ve been able to shift our strategy in fundamental ways. We’re no longer fighting those who deny that climate change is real or urgent. Instead, we’re engaging in a debate about real legislation. In March, 12,000 young people descended on Washington for Power Shift 2009, filling Congressional halls to demand passage of a strong climate bill.

But the process of passing legislation in Washington can frustrate even the most dedicated activist. There’s plenty of opportunity to point fingers–at Congress, at the White House and certainly right back at ourselves. We need to understand that our job didn’t end the day we turned out to vote in record numbers. But we need the president’s help. We need him to talk directly to the millions of young people who helped him win and remind them that he still needs them.

Matt Singer, Bus Federation

Let me start by saying what the challenges have not been. Young people are not apathetic about healthcare reform, despite the claims of many in the pundit class. The reality is that 18- to 29-year-olds are the most likely age group to lack insurance and are the most supportive of progressive healthcare reform. The second imagined challenge is a lack of effective organizing models for youth on healthcare. Again, the reality is that a number of groups innovated great tactics for field organizing and media outreach, from the Young Invincibles’ photo petitions to the “Fake Doctor Invasion” street canvasses our organization did.

The biggest challenge in the youth sector over the past year has been a combination of an internal failure of youth organizations and a lack of external support from the progressive movement. Despite a youth sector brimming with organizations that have done amazing electoral and policy work, these organizations tend to be extremely resource-poor and overly reliant on a handful of foundations and major donors. These big supporters have made all this work possible, helping drive record levels of voter turnout. But any model predicated on foundation and major-donor backing was in trouble heading into 2009.

If youth organizations are to more effectively inject our generation’s powerful perspective into policy debates, we are going to have to develop stronger funding mechanisms that bring in resources from the young Americans we represent. The path to strength is to develop grassroots fundraising models for making youth organizations supported the way organized labor is–by millions of individual members who see reason to contribute. Significant membership will also give youth organizations the resources to put organizers on the ground. This will allow us to use the same face-to-face organizing tactics that have proven most effective for youth organizing. Real base-building and deeper organizing will free our organizations from the boom-bust cycle of foundation funding–and make our organizations even stronger when it comes to working in the electoral and policy realms.

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