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4 lessons from Gen Z organizers that we could all use before the next election

By Chase DiBenedetto, Mashable | December 12, 2020

Youth activists have a lot to celebrate as the year comes to an end, but they have even more lessons to share with the rest of us.

The 2020 presidential election demonstrated how successful organizers were in turning out an age group with notoriously low voter turnout into an active, engaged electorate with high rates of participation.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a non-partisan research initiative based at Tufts University, youth voting (defined as those 18 to 29) jumped in 2020 compared to the 2016 presidential election. While Gen Zers only make up about half of this demographic with millennials on the other end, the youth bump has become a motivator for young activists to continue getting out the vote among their peers and older voters.

The center reported that youth voter participation increased by almost 10 percentage points between 2016 and 2020 — from a 42-44 percent turnout to a 52-55 percent turnout among those 18 to 29. Overall, voters 29 and under shared 17 percent of the entire vote in 2020 compared to 16 percent in 2016.

In an election year that had high overall turnout, CIRCLE says the data, which is still preliminary from Nov. 18, may show that young people "had a major influence on the electorate."

CIRCLE also highlights how important adequate access to information is for "processes like vote by mail that may have been new or unfamiliar to young voters, and the challenges that would pose for groups like youth of color, youth who do not have any college experience, and others that have been traditionally marginalized in civic life." As such, it found that young people without college experience voted at lower rates, much like their older counterparts who also didn't go to college.

Most Gen Zers voted for the democratic candidate, according to NBC's 2020 exit polls. They were motivated by the current administration's pandemic response, questions of racial justice, and climate change, according to CIRCLE's analysis of young voters nationwide. While young people do tend to vote Democratic, it seems many were driven by replacing a loathed incumbent rather than a devotion to the Democratic candidate.

That's why voting isn't the end of the story. The Gen Z organizers who spoke with Mashable all say they were motived to participate politically by the prospect — not promise — of change. And they want others, no matter their age, to continue to stay involved in local politics and hold leaders accountable to this year's promises.

Take 20-year-old Bella D’alacio, who sees this year as a "wake up" moment for many, including young organizers like herself — a reminder that the issues at the forefront of voters' minds (from racial justice to climate change policy to education reform) are systemic, long-term problems that won't just disappear. She volunteers with United We Dream Action, the grassroots organizing arm of national youth-led immigration network United We Dream, and national gun violence prevention organizations March For Our Lives and Team ENOUGH.

While people celebrate this election's success for different reasons, it's a crucial time to unify the messages of young people with broader coalitions fighting against systemic inequality, D'alacio urges. "These were systems that created Trump, that allowed Trump to happen," she says. "I think it's incredibly important that we're constantly spreading the message that just because Trump is gone, doesn't mean it's over."

Catie Jacobson is a 17-year-old virtual field officer and organizer for national gun reform organization Students Demand Action and is part of her high school's chapter of the Sunrise Movement climate justice campaign. She spent her free time in the weeks leading up to the election calling and texting young, first-time voters, encouraging them to register and participate in an election she couldn’t even vote in.

Like D’alacio, Jacobson plans to continue fighting for issues that affect members of her community, like common sense gun policy. "The question everyone's thinking about right now: We did all this work, there was all this energy and momentum, and we had a lot of really big successes... How can we keep that momentum up and what are we going to do?"

Megan Dombrowski, a Students Demand Action National Advisory Board Member who voted for the first time in November, says her experiences volunteering in this year's election proved that the fight for more progressive policies will be ongoing. “We're really starting to recognize that politics affects us — affects us personally and affects our communities,” the 19-year-old explains. "Even though the elections are over, there's more lessons to come... We can always do better than where we are right now."

With all that in mind, these three organizers want everyone to know, regardless of their age, that political participation is a key way to fight for change, both heading into a new year and new administration, and ahead of the next election.

And that means that everyone (not just their peers) have to stay involved.

"I feel like there's a lot of talk about how the youth are inheriting the world, but I tell my parents all the time... you guys aren't going anywhere tomorrow. We are all going to live with the consequences of our actions," Jacobson explained

1. Find Your Home.

Staying active and informed starts with a bit of self reflection, D'alacio says. "When you want to get active," she recommends, "You should really think about: What are the things that you're passionate about? What are the things you've seen in your own community?"

Pinpointing these topics steers you towards actionable steps. If you're interested in racial justice, get involved with groups that advocate for things like police and prison reform or mutual aid programs in your neighborhood. If you want to get involved in common sense gun reform as it relates to student safety, join legislative discussions with Students Demand Action, March For Our Lives, or Team ENOUGH. If you are drawn to climate justice, check out the student-led Sunrise Movement, the Climate Justice Alliance, or the Sierra Club, Dombrowski suggests.

To that end, Sarah Audelo, executive director for Alliance for Youth Action, urges people looking to stay politically involved right now to ground their activism in a "political home" — an issue-based community that provides some sort of engagement in a political space, whether that's through education, direct action (like protests), or legislative advocacy. Alliance for Youth Action is a network of advocates and youth-led organizations, including both Students Demand Action and United We Dream, that build spaces for young people to engage in both local and national politics across the country. Audelo says these "homes" can be a national organization, a local chapter of a social justice group, or a school club — but they all provide opportunities for continued discussion and political participation in issues that matter the most to you. The alliance's affiliate network is a good place to start if you're looking to find your own political home or get involved in an organization focused on youth organizing.

"Joining an organization to get involved is one of the best ways to make sure that [your] voices can continue to be heard and change will continue to be made," Audelo says. She credits Mijente, a Latinx-led political engagement organization, as her political home. "If folks don't have an organization in their communities that would serve as a political home, they should start one."

One of Dombrowski's political homes, for example, is in the gun reform advocacy of Students Demand Action. She became involved in political advocacy two years ago, after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting inspired her to join the organization and participate in youth registration efforts during the 2018 primaries. Her concerns were safety and democratic political participation.

"Before Parkland," Dombrowski reflects, "I didn't realize the power I could have." But, because of Students Demand Action, she felt more confident in her ability to address big issues like gun control. "I wanted to get involved desperately, but I was really doubtful about what I could do," she says. "I would just recommend that if anybody is in that position to just ignore that little nagging voice inside their head, and then go for it, start volunteering with an organization."

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting motivated D'alacio to find her political home, as well. She lived in the same South Florida county and her sister was a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. D'alacio was concerned for her community, including the high population of Latinx Floridians like her Cuban immigrant family. She was also hyper aware of climate change's impact in South Florida, especially during the most active hurricane season on record. "Growing up, you always hear, 'Oh, Miami is going to be underwater in 40 years,' and everyone jokes about it. But it's my home," she says.

D'alacio wanted to fight for common sense gun reform and advocate for first and second generation young people like herself, to protect policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or promote environmental justice for communities of color disproportionately affected by climate change. So, she joined March For Our Lives and Team ENOUGH, started a local chapter of IGNITE (a nonprofit that encourages women to get involved in political advocacy), and became an advocate for United We Dream.

For Jacobson, whose mother was involved in the public safety group Moms Demand Action before her daughter started volunteering, finding a political home in Students Demand Action's gun reform advocacy was straightforward, especially with the support of her peers. "A few friends and I, we were thinking about school safety, but also rural gun violence... We were afraid of gun violence," she explained. So, she joined the organization. Jacobson's age was initially a source of frustration as she sought a way to get involved politically, "but it also gave me extra momentum," she explained. "That was a really big motivator for me in getting involved.”

2. Research, discuss, and build connections

Both Dombrowski and Jacobson say that their own journeys to becoming (and staying) politically active began with research, both online and through the resources provided by their political homes.

"Educate yourself! I think that's something really present in the youth today — even just on Instagram — seeing how many people are so committed to educating themselves," Jacobson reflected.

But, Dombrowski says, "make sure you're getting the right information from a diverse blend different sources."

Audelo says that Alliance leaders start by reading 'Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements' by Charlene Carruthers and 'Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity' by Paola Ramos. She also recommends podcasts (like Futuro Media's 'In The Thick') as easy and accessible ways to build your knowledge and political participation.

Beyond pure research, D'alacio grew her knowledge and activism through conversation. She recommends finding a person you're comfortable discussing politics with — in her case, that was her boyfriend — and building on that conversation with people who give you space to learn.

Jacobson says similarly that it's important to extend this discussion to people you interact with on a daily basis. "I think it has to be having those conversations with our parents and our siblings and even our teachers and our classmates."

D'alacio took away another lesson from this year's organizing, which involved mass phone-banking, online voting guides, and COVID-safe protests: Use the tools already at your disposal to learn, share, and advocate. Social media is a powerful way to diversify your conversations, D'alacio says, and, most importantly, amplify your perspective. "I think especially with social media, we all have a following — even if it's 200 followers or 10,000 followers, that is your following. That is your community," she says. "They want to hear what you have to say. That's where change starts."

Jacobson says that the long term goal of critical discussion both online and in person should be to become comfortable asserting yourself and to make connections with people outside your typical social circle. "If there aren't already spaces at the table for us, we need to make those for ourselves, because we do deserve a place at the table."

3. Focus energy on your own community

On-the-ground volunteering, digital activism, and crowdfunding were essential elements of this year's social justice movement and voter turnout, but that spirit of generosity must continue post-election, as activists seek to maintain the momentum of 2020.

D'alacio suggests researching smaller organizations in your community, ones that are already established but might not be getting as much national attention as larger organizations. She says its most important to donate time and money to these organizations now, "because that's where the change starts — in your own space."

Volunteering can encompass just about anything: Join a national organization that lobbies for policy reform in the areas you're interested in, volunteer with local chapters, phone bank for campaigns, and donate money to causes and mutual aid funds in your area.

For Dombrowski, volunteering at her local polling site was an eye-opening and empowering experience that enabled her to learn much more about local elections than she would have otherwise known. "Being able to work the polls helped show me how full proof the whole system is. The city clerk and everybody involved is just so confident, and there to help," she says. "I would highly recommend anybody else to do it too."

This applies outside of the Presidential election year — almost 70% of the country's jurisdictions reported difficulties staffing poll workers in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the Center for American Progress., a nonpartisan tool by voting rights organization Fair Elections Center, provides prospective poll workers with eligibility guidelines, compensation rates, and links to apply ahead of the next election.

4. Follow up with the people and policies you voted for

The three activists (and their peers) are very aware that we all have to stay engaged with newly-elected officials to ensure that the results of November's elections produce actionable policies and change. “Young people will be holding his administration accountable,” D’alacio says. “We're not going to just sit back anymore… We've been fighting, so this is just another step.”

She says this applies to all levels of government. "The President was elected, but the President doesn't make all the decisions that are going to affect you in your town," she says. From school superintendents, public defenders, and police sheriffs, "it's really important to realize that politics is everywhere."

Audelo says this is something she emphasizes for all the activists she works with. "Every level of government impacts folks lives, whether it's a school board or a city council."

Moving forward, Dombrowski intends to hold newly-elected officials to their gun reform promises. "Gun violence did not end on Nov. 4 and it won't end the day after Joe Biden is inaugurated," she says. Her and her peers plan to continue lobbying, education, and registration efforts among hard-to-reach populations in order to push progressive policies on all levels, working alongside already established organizations in their communities. They're also channeling resources to support survivors of gun violence, and will "help educate students and legislators and all different kinds of people about the toll that gun violence is taking on our communities," Dombrowski explained.

"Even though this election is over, there's more elections to come," she says.

Jacobson, for her part, says she'll continue phone banking and engaging in peer-to-peer education to ensure accountability among the politicians she helped get elected. "We took a great first step in electing a bunch of gun sense candidates that are willing to support legislation that has been proven to reduce gun violence," she says. "But, you know, our work is not remotely close to done... We're going to see Students Demand Action volunteers and myself showing up — phone banking, lobbying, advocating for legislation that will protect us."

Keep an eye on the voting records of the politicians who are supposed to represent you, and reach out to their offices if you feel they're no longer uplifting your voice. Sign petitions, take to social media, and keep voting in local elections, rather than focusing only on national policies.

"It's not about a transaction year," Audelo says. "It's not about showing up and 'peacing out.' Nov. 3 was the start to a lot of work ahead."

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