The midterm elections are less than three months away, and recent voter registration data suggest that young progressive voters are galvanizing to take the ballot box by storm in November.
Friends of the podcast may recall that we’ve discussed the importance of youth civic engagement and youth leadership and how programs like affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young People For and Young Elected Officials Network empower young folks to become politically engaged. And in this special August 17 episode of “The Progressive Happy Hour,” we joined co-host Cici Battle on the road in Tallahassee, Florida to chat face-to-face with YP4 alumni and a YP4 civic engagement trainer about how their experiences as young people inform their work in the progressive movement.
YP4 alum Alexandria Washington kicked things off by sharing how YP4 helped her focus on the social justice element of her work as a PhD student and environmental justice activist, explaining, “My research for my dissertation is centered around how children can be healthier by allowing them access to fresh produce.” Washington also encouraged young people to take the issues they’re concerned about to the ballot box: “I’m letting people know, ‘you’re worried about affordable housing, you’re worried that there are no sidewalks, [but] local policies and local laws affect you quicker than policies out of the White House. We need to be aware of the changes we can make with the power of our vote.’”
Fellow YP4 alum, educational specialist and juvenile justice activist Alyssa L. Hernandez shared how her mother’s early and consistent encouragement to “be a leader, not a follower” helped her find her voice and agency at an early age. By the time Hernandez was an undergraduate student, she had already joined the South Chicago school board, and says that experience helped shape her path helping students transition from the juvenile justice system to traditional school districts. “Part of the role as a school board member is to sit for hearings on suspensions and expulsions, and what I could see was the external reasons [for students’ behavioral problems]. What can our schools do much earlier so they’re not setting the bathroom on fire?”
Florida Senate Democratic Caucus legislative analyst and YP4 Alum Carlos Nathan spoke about the importance of making politics accessible, particularly for young folks whose families have not historically been politically engaged. “Pick up a newspaper. See what’s going on and what your government is talking about.” As to the narrative that young folks are politically apathetic and the importance of youth outreach, he said, “It’s not that they’re not interested—they just don’t know they’re interested. [They] have to learn what it feels like … We need to go out and engage those people. Reach out to college kids to let them know about internship opportunities. If we lead them, they will follow.”
YP4 alum Dustin Daniels, chief of staff for Tallahassee, Florida Mayor Andrew Gillum, followed. Like the others, Daniels shared that his experiences growing up in an economically depressed area motivated his path to political leadership. He said, “I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and her paying with food stamps. Without people at the table who have those experiences in positions of leadership, that narrative doesn’t change, and the policies that we need for better outcomes for people don’t happen.” He stressed the importance of encouraging those who aren’t politically active to become engaged, saying, “People become disenchanted with politics because change happens slowly, but at the end of the day, when people disengage, things get even worse than they are.”
Cici also spoke with YP4 Civic Engagement and Policy Manager Andrea Sosa about her own experiences as an immigrant young leader. Sosa stressed how important it is to intentionally cultivate young folks’ civic engagement, and said, “I give credit to folks who were willing to invest in me, and guide me through the process of what civic engagement looks like.” She also spoke about how she navigates the barriers to civic engagement that young people and young immigrants face, “As an immigrant, I’m not eligible to vote, but there are lots of other ways to get involved. I can still hold elected officials accountable. I can propose ideas and policy. Traditional civic engagement leaves out a lot of folks who are interested but can’t participate …. If you have the right to vote, it’s a privilege. If you aren’t using the responsibility, they’re being complicit in a system that will contribute to oppression of communities across the world.”
Listeners can learn more about these inspiring young leaders and follow their work on Twitter. You can find Alexandria on Twitter at @alexandriajwash, Alyssa on Instagram at @alyssalhernandez, Carlos on Twitter at @ropedin2011, Dustin on Twitter at @DustinRDaniels, and Andrea on Twitter at @andreasosa. And if you know an inspiring young leader, you can nominate them for the 2019 – 2020 YP4 fellowship at YP4.org.
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