Opportunities & Recommendations

Here is what we the funders, more established civic engagement groups, and all those supporting grassroots organizing could do to confront the challenges and kick open the door to a more vibrant, inclusive, and successful movement building nationwide.

  1. Invest in & Incubate Youth-Centered Civic Engagement Spaces: Young leaders of color need political homes in their states and communities – to grow, develop new skills, sustain, and address the legacies of white supremacy in social change movements. Without such infrastructure, we will not succeed in building a new generation of leaders and creating pipelines to grow and expand power.This strategy has been successfully employed by the right over the last 4 decades, concentrated in the South and Southwest, resulting in strong coordinated conservative leadership and several states where bad policy is tested regularly for national implementation. Investing in leadership development and spaces centering youth of color will strengthen the ability for youth of color led organizations to respond to coordinated efforts to maintain the status quo and further dismantle our democratic values, norms, and institutions.Now that youth voter turnout in federal elections has hit 50%, big funders are starting to pay more attention to their potential. Now is the time for foundations to launch bold new initiatives investing in youth of color-led groups and to create real metrics around racial equity in grantmaking. To build a vibrant youth movements across the southern and southwestern states, foundations need to embrace multi-year funding, give more general support, reexamine grantmaking for unnecessary burden on grantees, and tear down the barriers that have made it difficult for youth of color groups to not only sustain but soar with the resources afforded to white-led and focused groups.

    YEF’s youth civic engagement collaboratives are a model for what youth-centered civic engagement spaces could look like. Our collaboratives are state-based strategic organizing hubs first established in Arizona and Georgia in 2021. They center young people of color-led organizations in efforts to expand the electorate by mobilizing young voters – many of whom are first time, immigrant, or low propensity voters in communities of color. They lead voter engagement campaigns inexorably tied to issue-based organizing campaigns focused on reproductive justice, overhauling immigration, education reform, criminal justice, and climate justice. The goal of the collaboratives is to make life-long activists out of young leaders and to amplify the impact of youth organizing on the larger political landscape. To achieve this, we have partnered with experts on best practices, trends, and strategies to invest in youth civic engagement. The youth civic engagement collaborative model provides opportunities for young people to exercise leadership, set priorities, make strategy decisions, and build organizations on their own terms.

  2. Provide More Training & Holistic Support to Youth Leaders: A key part of building these collaboratives is making sure young leaders have the skills and support needed to thrive in their organizations and communities. Due to centuries of white supremacist thought that dismisses the power of youth of color, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on young people of color to prove themselves early on in their careers. Youth leaders often feel they are constantly under disproportionate scrutiny, and that if they make a mistake it will be taken as proof that they are too young to lead. They desperately need supportive spaces where they can get support from peers and work with mentors to recognize their individual contributions and build confidence in their work.Young people entering into the workforce often seek trainings on everything from the super practical aspects of nonprofit management like fundraising and overseeing staff to holistic areas like wellness and self-care. Especially in smaller organizations, youth leaders are often hired for their organizing skills, but lack experience in areas like financial management or media relations. Skill building opportunties focused on the best ways to use data and new technologies is also important even to young people,  as COVID-19 endures and voter engagement tactics become more sophisticated. Finally, young leaders need leadership development and mentoring that is rooted in racial equity and anti-racism – programming that is sorely missing in many places.The funder community has a real opportunity to get onboard with new investments like endowments for youth groups, wellness funds, networking and learning opportunities, and funding more overhead and admin to ease the financial pressure on youth leaders. Programs like Demos’ Inclusive Democracy Project, a peer-to-peer learning cohort of national and state leaders, deserve greater support and replication as a winning model for shared strategic development. Cohort based leadership development opportunities like Rockwood Leadership Institute’s individual sessions and fellowship programs have a role to play in fostering relationships between organizers of different generations and exchanges where youth can be open about their struggles and innovative ideas for structural and organizational development. Foundations need to step up and do their own work by having staff go through anti-racist trainings like Dismantling White Supremacy or curriculum offered by Race Forward to undo individual and organizational practices rooted in white supremacy and biased power structures.

    The pressures on young leaders of color and the relative newness of so many of these organizations – all but 3 of the organizations that responded to our demographic survey were founded in the last 10 years – means that extra support is needed to help these organizations stabilize and allow them to thrive. It is imperative that philanthropy adjusts giving practices to facilitate long-term sustainability of youth of color-led civic engagement organizations.

  3. Invest in State Movement-Building and Issue Education, particularly off  the coasts and in areas in the South and West that have not gotten the attention they deserve given their potential to shift national politics. State work is also the best place to incubate and develop youth leaders and progressive policy ideas. Youth’s impact on the state level policy landscape is already immense, most currently with waves of activism around the country to abolish police funding and presence in k-12 education. Investing at state level is the best way to make sure we are continuing this momentum and building movements that are truly responsive and inclusive to the needs of people that come from different classes, races, religions, and cultural experiences.Part of making progress in these states is focusing not just on candidates come election time, but issues over the long haul through integrated voter engagement strategies. Integrated voter engagement embraces long-term organizing with issue engagement and civic engagement to motivate local communities to see a dynamic view of power and how to flex it. Movement partners embracing this model develop an incredibly strong understanding of intersectional politics, often by building tables and coalitions across issues like climate change, worker wages, student debt, gun safety, criminal justice, and democracy reform. Embracing an intersectional strategy ensures the greatest number of people united behind the issue, and provides an opportunity for young organizers to build lasting connections with peers and community members as they build new campaigns against new and enduring injustices.Throughout the last two years, YEF has been hard at work understanding the state landscape and where investments could make the best impact in the South and Southwest. Speaking with movement partners revealed a near universal need for infrastructure development to scale existing strategies and build coordinated youth organizational power for stronger outreach and engagement.

    Texas: Due to the sheer size of Texas, investments are necessary to scale existing programs and incubate new organizations, especially in rural areas and along the U.S. Mexico border. Conversations on the ground reveal the potential for a lot more collaboration and energy in youth organizing. The Texas Youth Power Alliance is a coalition that includes Texas Rising, JOLT, Youth Rise Texas, and MOVE Texas. Their goal is to bring youth organizing to scale across the state. They focus on making sure young people are represented at coalition tables and are currently developing a youth justice agenda with shared issue areas for their next legislative session. They have also initiated training for youth organizers throughout the state. Into 2022, TYPA members are working closely with YEF staff and consultants to scale their existing coalition efforts into a state youth table where youth organizations can meet and grow to provide targeted and coordinated outreach to the many communities in and outside of urban areas in the state. We envision a strong youth table dedicated to building resilient youth power to boost existing narrative change work, win at the local and municipal level, and protect the right to vote for generations of Texans to come.

    New Mexico: New Mexico is ripe for a youth civic engagement collaborative. The New Mexico Dream Team is the state’s only youth-led statewide organization; they are multi-generational in focus though youth-led, and they are the first to say that creating a purely youth-centered space would be of great value in coordinating youth organizing efforts around structural reform efforts. They want a hub where youth organizations could strategize and collaborate together to make meaningful changes in key cities to test progressive policies. Establishing a  youth-centered space could make space for more transformational policy and movement building  in the state, which could help to shift the state’s  nonprofit sector into advocating for larger structural changes primarily in criminal justice, education, and immigration policy. Similar to Arizona and Georgia, a New Mexico youth collaborative could be a place where people could share trainings on grassroots organizing, learn how to build strategic campaigns, and find motivation and support.

    Arizona: Like New Mexico, people familiar with One Arizona often describe the organization as being a youth-centered civic engagement space. This may be because they have a young POC leader and a strong commitment to organizing young people. But creating a Youth Power Coalition dedicated to youth civic engagement is still something that One Arizona is cultivating rather than something they have firmly in place. They have a staff person assigned and ideas about how they could use such a space to enhance their organizing efforts, but are hoping for the opportunity to meet with other organizations who have done this or who are also getting started with it. Investments in this emerging youth table are critical to sustain development and scale shared program and outreach goals. Arizona’s youth organizing landscape is relatively stronger than other South and Southwestern states, with more coordination and overall capacity, though primarily focused in urban areas. Providing increased investment and attention to infrastructure in this state would increase coordination and outreach capacity to ensure youth organizations reach the greatest number of young Arizonans.

    Georgia: Georgia did not have a coalition space specifically for youth civic engagement organizations, a reason why YEF established one of the first Youth Civic Engagement Collaboratives in 2021. Although Georgia has programs and organizations that are dedicated to this work, there was nowhere for youth to actually develop their own agenda and convene with others doing this work. For some of the groups organizing around youth civic engagement, making sure that the youth space is politically aligned around transformational lens, including Black and queer liberation, was important to their willingness to participate, and became an important point of discussion as they plan this new effort. Throughout 2021, YEF staff worked with ProGeorgia leadership to ensure the space was welcoming to and led by Black and queer youth of color. Investments in this collaborative effort hold the potential to expand on current electoral success and resource some of the most directly impacted groups by our broken democracy.

  4. Embrace the Culture Shift in Activism Underway Today: Gen Y and Z are invested in community care and self-care as intrinsic to social change. They see the pitfalls of capitalism, and how the culture of valuing being overworked, underpaid, and devalued stands in stark contrast to the changes they are fighting for and so often leads to burnout and cynicism by age 30. Today’s young leaders want a deeper transformation, even and especially in social justice organizations. They know the fights we are fighting take long-term resilience. They know the old way of working does not work for so many lower- and middle-class people, people of color, immigrants, and others often sidelined at work. There is a broad call to stop reproducing capitalist values of being overworked, underpaid, and unsupported in favor of really embodying the values of care and wellness, especially for the people who work at an organization. Embracing workplace policies like offering vacation blocks, separating personal and vacation days, or offering unlimited paid time off, shortening work weeks, and providing trauma-informed services and support for mental health struggles are critical. Youth leaders want to prioritize health, healing, wellness, and confronting ancestral trauma into their organizational culture.