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Secure a progressive America by investing in our nation’s youth

Brianna McCullough, 20, a sophomore at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, walks through campus on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Brianna McCullough, 20, a sophomore at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, walks through campus on Nov. 10, 2022. Support for abortion rights did drive women to the polls in the midterm elections. But for many, the issue took on higher meaning, part of an overarching concern about the future of democracy. “If they can take this away, they can take anything away from people. And I don’t think that’s right,” McCullough said.

The day after the midterm elections, the Sunrise Movement issued a statement entitled “We are so damn proud of young people.” It wasn’t in celebration. Instead, the youth-led movement of climate change activists issued a bold challenge: “[O]ur leaders must invest in us — from running candidates who fight for the issues that matter most to our generation, to delivering policy at the federal level that make our lives better, to putting money into critical youth organizing efforts that have historically been undervalued.”

Sunrise made a point most progressive leaders have ignored: Young people are sick of being taken for granted and they won’t put up with it anymore.

Young people played a key role in the recent elections. Energized young voters stopped the predicted wave of far-right victories, setting the stage for a still undecided fight for control of Congress. According to day-after estimates from CIRCLE at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, 27 percent of Americans ages 18-29 voted in the midterms. That’s the second-highest youth turnout for a midterm election in 30 years. Young people, particularly Black and Latinx youth, voted overwhelmingly for candidates with progressive platforms.  

But the role of young people in elections is just one indicator of their potential power — a power that establishment leaders of the progressive movement chronically dismiss, under-resource, and undermine. This leaves the movement with untapped energy that could strengthen its effectiveness now while cultivating the next generation of leadership.

We ignore history when we deny the power of young people. Black students who staged lunch counter sit-ins and faced police violence led to the downfall of legal segregation in the 1960s South. Young men sent to die in the Vietnam War burned their draft cards and sparked a protest movement that turned the tide of public opinion and ended the war. Undocumented students whose hopes and dreams hang in limbo continue to push for a more just immigration policy and the permanent protections they deserve. These are just some examples of youth-led activism that have defined American movements for social justice in the last century.

But authentic engagement with young people has been largely sporadic, transactional, and superficial. Super PACs spend millions of dollars to boost the youth vote in the lead-up to elections but after votes are cast, the attention and resources stop. When a progressive cause needs a compelling voice to testify in front of political leaders or groups to bring bodies and energy to a rally, they urgently call on young people. But the calls cease when the public relations moment passes. Philanthropic donors eagerly fund initiatives that help youth gain access to food, education, even sports, but they shy away from allowing young people to exercise their power.

Adult leaders too often sideline youth leaders who push for their rightful place at decision-making tables; they view young people as props for change rather than agents of change. 

But youth-led movements can be extremely powerful. The immigrant-rights group United We Dream started in the early 2000s as a set of dynamic immigrant youth protests and grew into a network of fearless, young advocates who stopped deportations, met with members of Congress, and brought together undocumented youth to strategize for immigrant rights. Over the course of years, United We Dream evolved into a sustainable, national movement. By developing sophisticated strategy, infrastructure, multifaceted campaigns, and funding partnerships, the organization has become a driving force in the immigrant rights movement.

United We Dream’s work to defend young immigrants has been focused and unrelenting over the course of 14 years; they are largely credited with keeping Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections alive while ensuring that their families are not sacrificed — with the intention of creating permanent paths to citizenship. There are many other youth-led efforts across the country, and most would not even be recognized by adult progressives as potential centers of power.

As longtime funders and supporters of young people, we know the power of their work, especially youth organizing. This has three important components: drawing upon the experiences of young people confronting inequality or injustice; building the leadership of young people for a lifetime of civic participation; and mobilizing their peers and others to push for long-term, structural change. Young people of color play a critical role because they know how structural racism can shape policies of education, immigration, incarceration, policing, gun violence and more. They fight injustice because their lives depend on it.

We recognize the importance of being their allies and strive for the patience, humility and sustained investment that authentic allyship requires. Unfortunately, most people who lead and fund progressive causes have not learned these critical lessons.  

Building the more equitable, multiracial society that progressives want requires the energy, power and leadership of young people. Where there were electoral victories for candidates running on progressive platforms, young people will hold them accountable for what they promised. And where there were losses — even in states such as Texas, Florida and Arkansas, where the progressive agenda is on life support — youth organizing will defend our rights and plant seeds for the future.

Elections may be yesterday’s news but the time to invest in youth and become true allies is today. We must build on this modest progress and not take it for granted. A progressive vision for America will only prevail if youth lead — and if we adults offer our support and investment and get out of their way.

Lori Bezahler (@LoriBezahler) is president of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation and chair of the board of Race Forward

Sanjiv Rao, formerly with the Ford Foundation, is a senior fellow at Race Forward and board member of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation.

Tags progressives young people Youth vote

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