This year has been full of political chaos, lies, pain, and confusion. But through it all, I am both focused and encouraged that my generation, especially my brown and black brothers and sisters, will once again help shape the nations’ discourse in ways that improve our democracy.
A Pew Research Center survey looked at a broader group of Millennials ages 22 to 38, finding 62 percent said they are “looking forward” to midterm elections, up from 46 percent in 2014 and 39 percent in 2010. According to a recent NAACP pollon voters in the nation’s most competitive races, African Americans will have an impact in at least 20 of the 61 most competitive races, and communities of color will play a significant role in over half of those races. Millennials of color will be an important factor in what happens at the polls in November.
School is back in session for the NAACP’s Youth and College Division, members are entering the school year after a tough and emotional summer. While young folks should have been enjoying summer jobs and internships, spending time with family, relaxing and enjoying friends, many were instead faced with weekly doses of trauma.
Trauma that was often personal and disturbing enough to motivate us to become active and register as voters.
This summer,#LivingWhileBlackbecame a consistent theme of high-profile close encounters with police, often for no other reason than possessing a deeper shade of melanin. From Parkland to Vegas, to families being separated at the border. From Chikesia Clemons being dragged to the ground at the Waffle House in Saraland, Alabama, to mass gun violence in the streets of Chicago. The trauma hasn’t stopped. Neither have solutions spontaneously appeared, causing high level frustration for communities of color; a frustration, that NAACP President Derrick Johnson described in aNY Times Op-Ed, could play out at the ballot box.
Oftentimes people ask me, as the NAACP Director for Youth and College, “why don’t Millennials vote?” To that I say, you can’t use lies to persuade young people to vote; you can’t bribe them, you can’t even try to catch them with catch phrases. Young folks haven’t voted because they don’t see value in their individual voice adding to the collective democracy that currently exists. Playing into fear, threats or “our ancestors died for your right” aren’t the reasons young people pay attention and vote.
For everyone older who wants to know what gets us excited or causes us to turn up, there are no magical answers. Young folks are moved by solutions, by affirmations, by issues that feel personal, when the obligation to vote is connected to their culture, when it is peer-to-peer engagement, when they hear about what impacts decision makers or policymakers will have on their future, when they know their vote will shut down corporate or private interests, when they feel connected to a larger movement and especially when policies or candidates run on values and interests transparently on young people issues.
Before I was at the NAACP, I was once the elected National President of the United States Student Association (USSA), which represented a membership of over 2 million college students. In 2012, USSA registered 130,000 new voters in 11 states using these very tactics and strategies. Young people don’t ignore elections because they don’t understand; they ignore elections because they are fed up! So, the work we have to do as organizers is move them back into a posture that connects their vote to real change that they can see in their communities. Then, we can also recruit young low propensity and new voters to participate because we are helping them see the opportunities that come from the political power of Millennial and Generation Z voters.
The NAACP Youth and College Division recently completed our Electoral Power Train the Trainer program, which turned 20 new young black leaders into professional and skillful national civic engagement trainers. We reviewed everything from messaging to GOTV tactics, on campus voter registration to backwards plans and how to recruit and retain volunteers. Now, these young student leaders are preparing to host two local trainings with their peers during back-to-school events, and then they will each help the national office train one of the skill sets with online civic engagement webinars.
I am lucky to have a full-time job that does the work most necessary to improve our society. I am excited and focused on supporting Millennials in this upcoming mid-term election because I know it has long lasting effects on my community. The work won’t stop here; we still have the census, redistricting, the presidential election and more. We have already begun to make differences in St. Louis, Vermont, Minnesota, Georgia and Florida, and we will continue to see it through. Everyday our communities suffer because of bad elected officials. We know it and we’re not going to let it happen anymore.