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You Voted. Now What?
On November 4th, 23 million young people came out to vote--the largest number since 1972 and 3.4 million larger than in 2004. But more significant, this year's election became about much more than just voting. Volunteering in record numbers, young people became the superforce of the Obama camp, sustaining and energizing what became one of the biggest grassroots movements for a presidential campaign ever seen. Young people gave up higher-paying jobs for less money to knock on doors, organize block parties, foment online campaigns, make T-shirts and music, and drive voters to the polls. From college campuses to working-class communities, young people realized that, as a group, they have the power to change things in their own country.
Many progressives hope that the elation and idealism that Barack Obama's campaign helped inspire will turn into a lifetime of community service. There is hope that something can be done about the ever-increasing income gap and poverty, growing unemployment, porous healthcare, environmental degradation and broken schools in low-income communities. And while the president and Congress deliberate policy and allocate funding, the direction of their work will depend, in part, on the continued grassroots activism of young people.
That's why TheNation.com and WireTap magazine partnered to kick off "You Voted. Now What?"--a series of stories highlighting some of our nation's most inspiring and successful young activists, coast to coast, working on building new opportunities for the previously dispossessed. Through these stories we hope to highlight a broad range of potential paths for channeling some of the prodigious energy unleashed during the Obama campaign. We begin with an overview of the political landscape in which young people can continue their activism, from part-time volunteering to lifetime careers in public service.
1. Be Like Obama: Become a Community Organizer
After graduating from Columbia University and a brief stint in business consulting, Obama became a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He worked with churches and blue-collar communities to hold local officials accountable, and helped open college preparatory and job training programs as well as playgrounds and after-school programs.
As Obama went on to Harvard Law School, and later the US Senate, he credited his years as a community organizer for giving him the skills to listen, bridge different communities and turn complex issues into winnable solutions. Most importantly, as he organized community meetings and actions, he discovered the importance of "change from below" -- an idea that truly lasting change happens only when ordinary citizens define their own needs, work on solutions together and push their government to respond.
Today, there are more than 600 youth-led community organizations working on creating green jobs, removing toxic waste facilities, combating corporate pollution, working toward prison reform, assisting at-risk youth, making college more affordable, organizing for immigrants' rights and many other issues.
Future5000.com, the first-ever comprehensive database of youth activism, offers an easy way to search by region for activist campaigns currently underway across the nation. The range of organizing and volunteering opportunities is vast. (A search in the State of New York yields 103 organizations alone.) Many of these organizations collaborated to create a "Youth Agenda" that lists the top eight issues youth groups pledge to work on together in the next decade. First three on the list: Creating green jobs, making college more affordable and accessible, and providing healthcare for all Americans.
If you're looking to go beyond volunteering, to commit to community organizing as a career, there are several programs that provide paid fellowships in some of the most effective progressive organizations nationwide. The Center for Community Change, Young People For, the Center for Progressive Leadership, the Drum Major Institute and PolitiCorps all offer paid fellowships that provide training in practical skills, one-on-one coaching and assistance with job hunting.
2. Join the National Service: The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, Teach for America
In a recent speech at the University of Colorado, President-elect Obama declared, "When you choose to serve -- whether it's your nation, your community, or simply your neighbor -- you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That is why this is a great nation." Obama went on to affirm that he will ask all young people to serve their communities and the world and to provide funding to help make that a sustainable commitment.
What would this service look like? AmeriCorps partners with non-profit and faith-based organizations to work on issues ranging from public education to environmental clean-up. The Peace Corps, established by John F. Kennedy in his first months in office, sends volunteers around the globe to work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations and entrepreneurs. Teach for America recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income communities throughout the United States. And YouthBuild provides education, counseling and job skills to unemployed young American adults.
3. Become a Politician
At the age of 27, Tony Payton is the youngest member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Andrew Gillum was elected to serve in the Tallahassee, Fla., City Commission at 23. Both Payton and Gillum represent the growing number of young elected leaders in congressional, state and city seats in the US dedicated to speaking to the issues of underrepresented communities. While working in Washington, DC is often more coveted than serving locally, municipal and state officials often have a greater impact and far wider political parameters in which to operate. That's why they can sometimes enact far more progressive legislation than their federal counterparts. For instance, Massachusetts recently decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and San Francisco now guarantees healthcare for all city residents.
18 to 29-year-olds represent over 20 percent of the population, but only 4.8 percent of all government seats nationwide. That's why youth organizers have established several programs to help young idealists become professional politicians. The Center for Progressive Leadership recruits progressive leaders from communities with the least access to political power and connects them with trainers and organizations through paid internships and fellowships. The Young Elected Officials Network provides ongoing personal development and professional support for young elected officials.
Young people helped elect our country's first African-American president. Record numbers of volunteers chose working for their ideals over high-paying jobs. But the work isn't over. Not by a long shot. Barack Obama may be able to seize the moment and push a new kind of politics, but not unless he is pushed to do so. He can only realize what he was elected to achieve with the continued energy of a new generation intent on real change. Here's to anticipation for what a new generation of first-time voters can do to change their communities and the world.
Kristina Rizga is the executive editor of WireTap magazine, project director of Future5000.com, and a member of the editorial board of The Nation magazine. All photography by Rebecca "B FRESH" McDonald.
Also in Youth Activism
- Best WireTap Stories of 2008 by The Editors
- Free Wheels: The Scraper Bike Movement Rolls On by Jamilah King
- Young Organizers Speak: We Are a New Coalition for the Common Interest by Matt Singer, Jefferson Smith
- Young Organizers Speak: It’s A New Era by Biko Baker