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How Do We Keep Obama’s Youth Mobilized?

Resource type: News

The American Prospect |

Original Source

Barack Obama’s campaign politicized and organized more youth than any campaign has in recent history. The Prospect asked nine organizers, writers, and thinkers at the forefront of progressivism and youth activism to suggest one way of incorporating these youth into the progressive movement. Here’s the digest:

Jeff Blodgett: Write Them into the Progressive Agenda

Ivan Frishberg: Convince Them to Love the Government

Sally Kohn: Stand Them on the Shoulders of Progressive Giants

Gara LaMarche: Ask Them to Support Likeminded Groups

Peter Levine: Keep Them Behind Obama

Courtney E. Martin: Fund Community-Organizing Programs for Them

Kristina Rizga: Connect the Campaign’s E-mail List with Activism Databases

Kevin Simowitz: Let Them Unplug, Hit the Streets

Erica L. Williams: Give Them Civic Education

Write Them into the Progressive Agenda

Young voters’ overwhelming support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has been credited to everything from his revolutionary use of technology and the Internet to his own youth and energy as a candidate and his general “cool factor.” While credit should be given to the campaign for the unprecedented empowerment of youth and the issues they care about, these voters have spent their entire lives waiting for a candidate who offers more than the often hollow promises of election season and actually speaks to their interests. They’ve been waiting for someone who exhibits real leadership in ushering in a new era that transcends politics as usual. Barack Obama embodies those characteristics, and his candidacy gave young voters a reason to come out and participate in record numbers.

So, the good news is that this election, the youth vote was not mobilized around just one particular issue and that young voters aren’t going away quietly. But the progressive movement needs to take notice of this powerful bloc of voters and citizen advocates who are ready to work for change. It’s not this millions-strong faction that needs to join the progressive movement — it’s the broader progressive movement that should incorporate youths’ interests and concerns, including climate change and the green-collar economy, access to affordable education, and ending the war in Iraq, into policy agendas. The progressive movement should also continue to give youth opportunities to develop their skills as organizers and leaders in their own right. If we fail to expand the progressive agenda, if we fail to offer youth leaders a seat at the table, we are missing a huge opportunity to grow the movement and align it with the interests of these new voters.

Jeff Blodgett, executive director of Wellstone Action and former Obama campaign Minnesota state director.

Convince Them to Love the Government

For three national elections in a row, youth voters have dramatically increased their turnout and their preference for Democratic candidates. Their shift toward greater involvement and more progressive values found natural harmony with Obama but was more than just the product of one spectacular campaign.

In its coming of age, the millennial generation has been profoundly affected by economic struggles, the violence of September 11, and two wars. Millenials see the need for environmental stewardship and for the government to serve the common good.

For progressives to deepen their relationship to millennials, we need to deliver on the promise of government that works. We should continue to listen to youth on the issues, invite them in to the political process wherever we can, and ensure that we deliver more optimism and results, and fewer opportunities for cynicism.

We can do much institutionally to strengthen the ideological support of youth and consolidate it for the future progressive movement. Young voters need representation and infrastructure just like every other group in politics. However, nothing will be more effective at capitalizing on youth participation in this election than working arm-in-arm with youth to fight global warming, build a clean-energy economy, provide affordable health care, return us to a nation of peace and prosperity, and deliver on the full promise of progressive change.

Ivan Frishberg, political director of Environment America.

Stand Them on the Shoulders of Progressive Giants

Obama’s youth must learn that a progressive movement already exists. We must not assume, with the arrogance that often plagues our generation, that our engagement marks the start of something new. Instead, we must understand how the historic election of a progressive, African American president stands on the shoulders of the past. Decades of conservative domination and savage capitalism are giving way to the common good and a positive role for government. The civil-rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the labor movement all helped lay the groundwork for today.

This election offered youth a lesson on how movements are built. While Facebook and text messaging certainly shaped the outcome, Obama’s margin of victory came through on-the-ground organizing — the face-to-face, door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor organizing strategies that built the progressive movement, which Obama himself honed as a young man. Youth interested in social change and politics should connect to community-organizing groups in their regions and learn these skills.

And today’s youth should teach the progressive movement something, too. Their generational experience of race is not, for the most part, about overt racism, nor is it about a naïve claim of colorblindness. Growing up in a multicultural America with increasingly complex identities, more young leaders understand that achieving racial justice means acknowledging our differences alongside our interconnectedness, practicing rigorous inclusion and carefully ensuring that our policies in the future work for those most harmed in the past. With their influence, the progressive movement has the potential to not only look more like the nation it hopes to represent but also advance bold policy change that truly helps everyone.

Sally Kohn, director of the Movement Vision Lab at the Center for Community Change and regular contributor to AlterNet and The Huffington Post.

Ask Them to Support Likeminded Groups

The people contributing to Obama’s smashingly successful campaign — the millions of online donors and activists and the thousands of paid and volunteer organizers — are in the driver’s seat when it comes to what happens with the movement they helped build. It would be naïve to expect Obama et al. to divest themselves of this political resource, and they won’t. But I hope they consider asking this citizen army to do two other things.

Many paid organizers can take their place in progressive organizations in states they now know well and where their numbers already dwarf the existing progressive infrastructure (as in, say, Virginia). In the next few years, this can be a critical factor not only in achieving Obama’s national priorities, like tax reform and health care, but also in furthering progressive change at the state level.

The online community could be asked to sign up for a new organization — say, Change for America — not focused on Obama and his election but on the agenda that they share with him. Soccer moms in Tucson, college students in Ann Arbor, social workers in Oakland: They all donated and canvassed and phone-banked and rallied for months to get Barack Obama elected. Suppose he now asked them to write to their members of Congress on the economic recovery bill or to go to a town meeting on health care. What a powerful and unprecedented resource. And suppose, by the way, that progressive donors help build this organization by challenging ordinary small donors with a match. Foundations play an elaborate circle game trying to leverage one another with such grants, but just imagine what could be unleashed if we used our funds to challenge and empower citizens.

Gara LaMarche, president and chief executive officer of The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Keep Them Behind Obama

Barack Obama won an unprecedented 66 percent of the under-30 vote. Ronald Reagan set the previous record with 59 percent in 1984. The Reagan cohort has remained conservative ever since. Obama now has an opportunity to achieve a lasting realignment.

On the campaign trail, he electrified youth by asking them to work on public problems: “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”

“Active citizenship” means more than helping the needy (which defined the liberalism of the Clinton era). It means talking with diverse people about challenges, analyzing and debating, and then working together to solve problems. Youth are hungry for this kind of work.

During the campaign, Obama gave youth many ways to plug in, from “friending” him on Facebook to taking a semester off to organize. Now that the election is over, he needs to offer a similar range of opportunities to cement their engagement. An issue like climate change requires a full spectrum of participation, from pledging not to drive once a week, to advocating legislation, to weatherizing homes as an Americorps volunteer, to becoming an EPA scientist. At a time when jobs are scarce and the public sector is weak and archaic, citizens’ work should be the hallmark. Then, there will be Obama Democrats in 2060 the way there are New Deal Democrats today.

Peter Levine, director of research and director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Fund Community-Organizing Programs for Them

No truly inclusive progressive movement will exist until the money for it does. For years the right has done a masterful job of funding leadership development for youth of all different class backgrounds. Until the left can do the same — and not just capitalize on privileged kids’ capacity to volunteer for a whole summer during college — we will propagate the same elite, intellectual slice of youth, rather than the full spectrum key to a robust progressive movement.

Community organizing, much maligned this campaign season, is actually a critical model for the up-and-coming progressive youth movement. We have to think nationally — and yes, globally — but act locally. Following Obama’s lead, the progressive movement needs to continue to build infrastructure that invites youth into community-based groups and actions and then funnels these youth into development opportunities in electoral politics, media, and campaign management at the national level, where they can network with other youth and find mentors.

We must continue to acknowledge the complexity and sincerity of youth today; we must not attempt to seduce them with trendy technology or celebrities. They’ve got lots of energy; it’s time we truly nurtured them to make the nation a more just, courageous, and peaceful place.

Courtney E. Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.

Connect the Campaign’s E-mail List with Activism Databases

Youth voters today are the most racially and ethnically diverse group that is overwhelmingly progressive and inclined to support bolder government action and less social conservatism. As the new president and Congress begin to deliberate policy and allocate funding, the direction of their work will depend, in part, on the continued grass-roots activism of this generation.

One key way to organize youth voters is to connect them to the existing field of youth organizing. Today, more than 600 youth-led organizations work on local and national campaigns, including ones to create green jobs, and to organize for immigrants’ rights, health care, and affordable college tuition, among many other issues. (, the first-ever comprehensive database of almost all youth-led organizations, offers an easy way to follow activist campaigns currently underway across the nation.) The national leaders among these 600 organizations created Generational Alliance, which in a way serves as the AARP for 18- to 30-year-olds. Generational Alliance members created a “Youth Agenda” that lists the top eight issues youth groups pledge to work on together in the next decade. The first three on the list: creating green jobs, making college more affordable and accessible, and providing health care for all Americans.

Let’s put more resources into Generational Alliance and to scale these organizations up and to work with youth voters in the long term. Early next year, we can ask President-elect Obama to inform his e-mail list of youth voters about Generational Alliance and as a way to continue their activism — depending on their interests, and in their own way — on everything from community organizing to issue and policy campaigns.

Kristina Rizga, executive editor and publisher of WireTap, member of The Nation’s editorial board, and project director of  

Let Them Unplug, Hit the Streets  

With an entire generation of youth voters and activists poised to define themselves as Obama Democrats, stretching the progressive movement beyond the pinnacle election moment will depend on getting youth to consider the way this election was won: door-to-door and conversation-to-conversation. Our new progressive moment can capture the hope that change is possible by recognizing the “slow and respectful work” of organizing (as Bob Moses once described it) as essential to making that change.  

Progressive organizations must design strategies and campaigns that engage young people in meaningful and strategic ways. One of the Obama campaign’s great successes was its ability to get youth knocking on doors and making phone calls. The Obama campaign taught youth the seminal lesson of community organizing: It’s all about relationships. A progressive movement that touches the Obama campaign’s youth will continue to value personal stories and the opportunity to connect with others across divisive lines. Rather than complaining about what it is not, the new progressive movement has a chance to dream what can be and work together to realize those dreams.  

Organizing youth is about more than compiling a list of e-mail addresses or Facebook messages. Young people have earned the right to be treated as more than an emergency fire brigade, called upon only in moments of desperate need. Should a new progressive moment structure itself around the belief that actively organizing youth is fundamental to its cause and provide concrete steps for youth to get involved, we have no reason to doubt that youth will answer the call and do their part to help make change.  

Kevin Simowitz, fellow at the Center for Community Change with Generation Change’s Virginia Organizing Project.  

Give Them Civic Education  

The young people mobilized by Obama’s campaign were politicized in a strongly personal way long before the election contest even began. Their politicization grew from the cost of their own and their friends’ involvement in the seemingly endless Iraq War. It grew from their increased college and credit-card debt. It grew with the realization that the air they breathe gets dirtier every day. It came from a very simple but meaningful desire to make their lives better. What the campaign did, along with the longstanding work of many progressive youth organizations, was channel that energy and passion into the electoral process.  

It is now the responsibility of those same organizers to show youth the next step in that process. Civic education — educating these new voters on the policy-making process and how their voice, art, technology, and activism can influence it — is the way to transform into tangible results the decidedly progressive principles and values for which they voted.

At Campus Progress, we have spent the last four years working with youth to spread the word about what it means to be a progressive and how values like equality and justice can be affected through the political process. As representatives of the most diverse generation that our nation has ever seen, we are prepared to arm youth with the information and tools they need to move beyond engagement and onto results — making our nation’s laws and policies reflect the ideals that define our movement.

Erica L. Williams, director of policy and advocacy for Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress.

Compiled by Carolyn Petri



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