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  • Writer's pictureJulia Cuneo

Please Don't Start a Youth Program

This blog post is dedicated to all the executive directors of major nonprofits getting ready to apply for grants to “Get Out The Vote” this election season.

I know your fingers are hovering over the keys, ready to type, “We will meaningfully engage youth leaders to collect progressive voter pledges in their community.” You’re gleefully imagining the dozens, maybe hundreds, of high school youth you’re going to hire for a stipend that amounts to less than minimum wage while they wear out their shoes knocking doors and go over the limits on their phone plans to fill your data bank. You’ll call them “youth organizers."

Please do not do that. As a professional youth organizer, I am begging nonprofits to stop hiring youth for cheap labor every election year and calling it youth organizing. Our youth-led organization has been asked repeatedly to provide bodies and legitimacy to this “organizing”, and every time we say, emphatically, no. Simply registering adults to vote is not our idea of youth-led political action.

I recognize the irony of me, a co-founder of a youth program and freelance trainer in youth leadership, telling you not to start a youth program. One of my core beliefs is that youth organizing is a skill, one that adults can learn with effort and intention. Most of these electoral based youth programs have not put in the time to learn those skills or even asked themselves whether they need to. Here are some starter questions to determine whether your program is truly youth-led and sustainable.

  • Are young people asking you for this program, or do you consider it your duty to “get them involved”?

  • Does this program seek to build youth power independent of your organization or does it simply use youth to build your (adult-run) organization’s power?

  • Are there already youth doing similar work who you could partner with instead?

  • Are you recruiting high school students to do the same work as an adult but for less money?

  • Do you have an experienced youth organizer on staff to lead this unique organizing effort? Will they remain on staff after the election?

Your answers to these questions will illuminate the real intentions and impact behind your youth programming. I would love to see 2022 be the first election year where no new youth programs are created, because the adult-led nonprofits and funders shared their money and resources with pre-existing youth organizers. I’m not holding my breath, though.

“But Julia!” you might say, “Don’t young people NEED programs for enrichment and political education? What about learning loss from the pandemic?” No, they don’t. In fact, the last thing young people today need is more to do. Most of them are overworked and stressed beyond their breaking point. They have the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any generation since we started tracking those kinds of things. What youth leaders need is for you to make the organizing and political education work they’re already doing easier, rather than making more of it for them to do. If your first priority isn’t unlearning the urgency and productivity expectations we’ve all internalized from capitalist schooling, you don’t need to be engaging with youth at all.

"Youth for Reproductive Freedom" Photo by Dale Young for The Detroit News

The best part is, when we let youth decide how they want to engage with electoral work, they come up with incredibly unique and creative strategies that go far beyond meeting a quota of voter pledges. This year, DAYUM is launching a campaign to lower the voting age to 16 for Michigan school boards. This strategy not only engages young people in fighting for their own enfranchisement and power, it also gives us an “ask” of elected officials seeking our support, and it even brings more young people into that conversation. Authentically youth-led campaigns shift the power and focus of electoral organizing off of what we can do for candidates, and onto what they need to do to earn our votes.

Election season could be an exciting time to build coalitions, broaden our networks, and flex our collective strength. Instead, we’re often caught up in fighting over imaginary pots of money. This is one of the only times when our movement doesn’t struggle with scarcity, when there’s plenty to go around — if we share. Yet every two years, these “youth voter engagement” programs reemerge like clockwork. Unfortunately, their longest lasting impact is often burning out passionate, brilliant young people by convincing them to martyr themselves for the Democratic Party. It’s time for that cycle to end. It’s time to hand real power to youth-led organizing throughout our movement, especially during election season.

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