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Young Voters: Don’t Write Them Off

Why anyone who believes that under-30 Americans aren’t tuned in to the future and ready to act is fooling themselves.
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Biko Baker head shot

Rob "Biko" Baker is the executive director of the League of Young Voters.

Don’t believe everything you see on TV. Last fall, pundits and mainline Democrats and Republicans turned up their noses at the Millennial Generation. Pointing to our entirely average 2010 midterm election turnout, news outlets nationwide returned to the well-worn narrative that “young voters are experiencing an enthusiasm gap.” It’s true that President Obama’s absence from the ticket and a serious shortage of cultural icons and celebrities promoting participation had an impact on our ability to raise the noise level in our target communities.

But as the leader of a national team of extremely talented and passionate young activists, I have to tell you, anyone who believes that under-30 Americans aren’t tuned in to the future is fooling themselves.

Across the country, leaders of youth engagement organizations like ours, the League of Young Voters, are plotting field plans with one date in mind: November 6, 2012—the next presidential election. At the League, we are seriously worried that our country is becoming less tolerant of those of us who represent the future, as it seems that elected officials are looking to cut programs that empower young people or people of color to become the future leaders of their communities. 

Now is the time for us to start getting loud. Our generation has to use our growing numbers to influence the conversation.

For years, my peers in the youth engagement world and I have argued that our generation will embrace politics if we are talked to on our level—not down, not up. The straight scoop from our peers is the backbone of social networking, the online “Like/thumbs-up” endorsement system that filters out truth from talking points. In short, one cannot fake the credibility that comes from an organization having thousands of Facebook fans and retweets on Twitter. And because online and offline organizing is the bread and butter of our work, the League was brash enough to believe that our State of the Union watch party and online discussion (which we lovingly called #BarackTalk) could be a first step in starting a national discussion among the youth political sector’s strongest leaders and the music world’s most influential critics.

So, as a first step in a new partnership with AllHipHop.com, the League set up cameras and broadcast live from the D.C. offices of the New Organizing Institute immediately after the State of the Union address. We were blown away by the impact our event had on the web. We received over 8,000 live views, putting us on the front page of Ustream, and 1,800 people joined the conversation on Twitter.

Mahlon Mitchell, photo by David Hoefler
An American Uprising:
Wisconsin and beyond: While wealth and power concentrate in the hands of a few, the rights, jobs, and services that everyday Americans depend on are on the line. Across the country, people are rising up to defend them.

That doesn’t mean Millennials are going to be able to retweet their way to change. We face a tremendous set of social problems, many of them—like immigration reform, healthcare reform, and reproductive justice—stretching back through decades of violent social upheaval. Youth unemployment is at record highs, and the federal government is proposing sweeping cuts to the arts and education programs that would fill out the resumes of young professionals. Then there is the plan to eliminate the health care reform package that is one of the greatest accomplishments since the New Deal.

Now is the time for us to start getting loud. Our generation has to use our growing numbers to influence the conversation. We can’t let decision makers ignore us, otherwise the momentum that we’ve built over these last several years will stagnate. We cannot allow those who are stuck on 20th century paradigms to control our futures.

Instead we need to step up and build the strong local economies that give young people a chance to compete. The very same technology that is bringing us together on the Internet, can be used to transform our communities into self-sustained economic powerhouses. We just need the opportunity to bring our ideas to scale.


Rob “Biko” Baker wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Biko is executive director of the League of Young Voters, a national civic engagement organization that works to empower noncollege youth to become winners and players in the political game.

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