How the Youth Civic Engagement Sector is Unique

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In our research, we looked at the characteristics that unite youth civic engagement groups and set them apart from the larger sector. These differences are important because they speak not only to the present moment, but also to the future of organizing. Understanding what young leaders need and how they operate is critical to the future of local-led movements for equity and justice as demographic trends continue and they grow into greater leadership roles. 

Young Leaders of Color Bring a Fresh Approach

The demographic data shows that the majority of organizations in the youth civic engagement sector are led by young leaders of color. They have often come up through community- and issue-based organizations. As a result, they often have deep and trusting relationships in the community, and continue to represent these communities and issues for the long haul. 

They also bring fresh and innovative approaches that are hallmarks of their generation. Without exception, the young leaders we surveyed take an intersectional analysis of power, making connections between issues and the forces that exclude different groups of people. They reject approaches that ignore the way issues connect and and have a sophisticated understanding of how various forms of oppression like sexism, racism, and xenophobia reinforce one another ands impact low-income communities of color. Previously siloed issues such as climate change are seen through economic and racial justice lenses to become “climate justice,” focusing on the disproportionate impact on already vulnerable communities. 

This understanding leads young activists to embrace the view that centering the most affected people leads to gains for everyone, because it is protecting those who are experiencing the most harm. Simply put, if we set up a society that delivers for people subject to multiple forms of discrimination or violence, that means we are recognizing the humanity, dignity, basic needs and rights of everyone. This is quite different from the “respectable minority” or assimilationist approaches many older organizations have embraced, which emphasizes similarities between marginalized groups and the mainstream. In a bid for acceptance and opportunity, the old approach treats difference as something to be underplayed rather than lifted up and celebrated. More importantly, it leaves the gatekeepers of power intact. 

In the past, organizational goals were likely to focus on single-issue changes that would address inequities but not challenge the roots of institutional power. The new generation’s politics are rooted in a deep understanding of how power works and how communities are often pitted against one another to compete for a scarce or isolated benefit. Young leaders are concerned that progressive movements are winning battles but losing the war – in other winning elections, but not real change. They have a visceral fear that systems will make small accomodations without really addressing injustice, and their communities’ voices will not be heard. They see progress in terms of actual gains for people when it comes to healthcare, education, dignity, safety, and economic opportunity. 

This intersectional approach means their goal is often transformation of our systems. Young leaders have a deep critique of white supremacy, capitalism, and how those systems prop up one another. They question or outright reject reform of systems like prisons and policing, since that approach fails to address the root causes of violence, inequality, and oppression. This is not to say that the youth sector does not appreciate incremental change or work toward it, but their ultimate goal is building new and more just systems. 

New Mexico Dream Team, for example, has its roots in the immigrant rights movement; the group evolved because young people’s needs were being ignored and they didn’t have a space for themselves. At the time, they began pressuring President Obama for executive action on DACA rather than waiting for Congress to pass the Dream Act. They bring this approach to other immigration issues, believing that reform is insufficient, and that ICE must be abolished and the border demilitarized. They know incremental wins through policy change are important. But they are united in making sure their campaigns have a broader vision for transformation, and that short-term wins feed into a larger restructuring of society and an overhaul of the status quo.

Another way that organizations take an intersectional approach is by working in partnership on issues that directly impact young people. Youth-led organizations are more willing to collaborate outside their key issues or demographics than more established groups, and it brings results. Poder in Action in Arizona is focused on police violence, and they partner with Puente, which focuses on immigrant rights. They found common ground in opposing the school-to-prison pipeline, and began working together and succeeded in getting police and armed security guards out of schools. They focus on large school districts that are over 90% Latinx. The expertise that each brings educates both organizations about how abuse of power plays out in different communities. Poder in Action also works with Climate Strike. Even though Climate Strike is a mostly white organization, they have taken a public stand for Brown victims of police violence, educating their own base. And both groups co-hosted candidate forums in Tempe, helping to expand Poder’s geographic reach.

One challenge for social justice organizations with a transformational approach is tapping into the importance of civic engagement and voting. It can be hard to get young people excited about voting for candidates or issues that don’t reflect their vision or desire for profound change. Just voting against a candidate who is worse is not enough of a motivator for many young people, especially when current systems are so rife with inequities and abuse of power. Trump’s extreme right-wing politics and racist attacks motivated young people to vote, even after Bernie Sanders was no longer in the race, but it remains to be seen how this will play out in 2022 and 2024.

Youth Organizations Embrace Flexibility and Innovation

The youth civic engagement sector is innovative, creative, and flexible in its approach. While young people are eager to learn best practices for organizing and organizational leadership, youth-led organizations are also quick to pivot and come up with creative responses to challenging times. They embrace data and technology to solve problems and target their base, and they are, unsurprisingly, very adept at using social media creatively to create campaigns and respond to misinformation. For instance, in the face of continued attempts at voter suppression, United We Dream launched the “Reclaim the Web,” initiative, which connects people to a What’s App channel that exposes misinformation, gives people the info they need about voting, and the tools to respond and set the record straight online. The channel has age-specific approaches that help people tap into their own networks to correct misinformation and stop the spread of damaging lies targeted at immigrant communities.

The ways that youth civic engagement organizations adapted their 2020 organizing plans to the pandemic is the best illustration of this creative and nimble approach. Organizations had to turn on a dime, shifting to all-virtual organizing and retooling their in-person canvassing programs and events. New Mexico Dream Team realized the virtual organizing tools they’d developed to warn people of immigration checkpoints could be adapted to organize around other issues. Florida Student Power Alliance was building out a campus voting program in March when the pandemic hit,  just before the Democratic presidential primary. They’d already printed voter guides and t-shirts printed when the stay-at-home orders came. They quickly shifted to distributinging voter guides online, and changing from canvassing to text banking. They went on to host digital town halls and continue to text voters, both of which have become key parts of their education and outreach. 

Throughout the pandemic, some of the state and local partner organizations expanded to offer food distribution, legal aid, financial support, and mental health services – integrating direct services into their organizing around the Census, state and national elections. This was particularly true for local organizations that approach their work in a community-centered way. The NAVA Education Project mobilized volunteers to help run a food pantry during the COVID crisis, and passed out voter registration cards to people who came in to use the pantry. 

Texas Rising noticed that COVID-19 brought a lot of intersecting crises to the fore, and made intersectionality more visible and palatable to their communities, enabling them to build relationships around racial justice, housing, and healthcare. These relationships have helped them better respond to community needs. Online trainings are better attended than in the past, and more people now want to testify at city council and campus meetings. The robust level of organizing gives them hope for 2022l and beyond. It has also given them the opportunity to push back against stereotypes, promulgated by Texas leaders hellbent on keeping businesses open and scapegoating young people for rising COVID deaths. They were able to show that, to the contrary, young people are concerned and engaged and put the focus back on the politicians’ failure to protect people.

Indeed, several organizations found that the skills and relationships they’d already built with their communities took on a whole new energy during a time of national crisis, and their young leaders became trusted voices in the uprisings against police violence. One Arizona had been feeling a loss of momentum with their inability to run voter registration outreach during the pandemic. But when the protests began after George Floyd’s death, it served as a re-energizer. They noticed that 1,000 new people registered through their online ads and their program began to take off. They realized that people were talking about the issues they’d been organizing around at the protests, and it made them want to vote.

Youth See the Importance of Healing Trauma

Another hallmark of youth of color doing movement building is an emphasis on care, support, resilience and healing that is markedly different from previous generations. As a report from the Astraea and Wellspring foundations describes, “Over the last two decades, there has been an increase in movements recognizing the impact of generations of trauma, systemic violence, oppression and war on their communities. Organizers are refusing to separate an awareness of the traumatic impact of state violence from their strategies to build collective power.” 

This holistic, heart-centered approach acknowledges not only the urgency of the moment but also the impact that generations of decades of past trauma have had on communities and people. It does not expect people to compartmentalize everything they are going through – or issues that may be reignited by inequities in organizations at work. This approach has not been recognized by established progressive political organizations. That is starting to change, however, and young leaders of color avidly embrace what is increasingly becoming called “healing justice.”

This approach can take different forms. Some organizations offer greater mental health support, open discussions and trainings on the impacts of racism, healing rituals, regularly acknolwedge the Indigenous land they are on, or ffer programming that uplifts histories of resilience. What they all have in common is a strong belief in the need to deal with past trauma in order to create foundational change, and not push it aside as something that will automatically be healed if they just win the current political battle. Whether people intend to bring up trauma and the need for healing, the topic always comes up. People need safe spaces, and healing justice provides an intentional way to create them.

Nowhere is this approach described better than in One Arizona’s statement of values, which reads “We believe in respecting Indigenous knowledge – trusting those closest to the pain – and always striving for inclusivity, compassion and transparency. Because of these values, we operate with a commitment to trust and accountability, constant growth, and reflection, diversity in leadership, alignment, and loyalty. We are focused on systems change: the transformation of people, community, and institutions.” Their transformative vision, centering of the most harmed, and dedication to healing justice is woven into the foundation of their youth civic engagement work.

Funders Should Act as Partners & Mentors

Funders are an integral part of youth engagement work, not outside of it. Many of the young leaders interviewed made it clear that they see some funders as partners and trusted advisors in organizational and individual development. Several youth leaders we interviewed, when asked who their most important partner was on the national level, named a foundation or a program officer. This is because of the trusting relationships they have developed and the faith that foundations have shown in them as leaders. It is also likely due to changes in philanthropy in recent years that value honest reflection and reporting over a “smoke and mirrors” approach to grant reports. 

Youth leaders appreciate philanthropic partners for their guidance and emotional support, and for the ways they can help with problem-solving. Foundation staff have helped open the doors, particularly for youth of color leaders, to donors and movement partners who may have otherwise ignored them. Initial $50,000 investments in Rural Arizona Engagement, a group focused on mobilizing youth in civic deserts across Arizona, helped increase organizational capacity to scale their programmatic and fundraising strategies to increase their voter contact, staff capacity, and organizational reach. Since YEF’s staff has that experience of being young activists not too long ago, they understand the challenges that new, young, people of color-led  organizations face and what kind of help is needed.  Another consulting organization, Piece by Piece Strategies, provides access to funders and is working to build a new kind of relationships with youth-led groups and help them move from a model of scarcity to one of abundance. They work hard to keep the focus on building an organization that can win according to its community-centered values and not just trying to appease a funder.