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Young Righteous - And Voting

For many young people, voting has never been worth the trouble. But this election may turn that around. Outrage is drawing thousands into electoral politics for the first time, transforming youth into a force to be reckoned with.

“AFTER GOING TO CITY COUNCIL MEETING after city council meeting with a hundred supporters and losing 2-7 each time, we thought, ‘this sh*t is not working.’ We decided that to stop this road from being built, we had to get involved in the electoral scene. We developed a political action committee and a political consulting firm. In four years we’ve gone from a 2-7 vote to a 5-4 vote. We replaced three of our strongest opponents with three champions. We filed a successful ethics charge against one of our strongest opponents, since she was in bed with the developers. The road fight is still going on right now, and we’re hard at work preparing for this November’s council races. Long-term, we’ve built a new political force led by young people of color that has reshaped Albuquerque politics.”

This is Eli Lee. He used to be director of an organization called YouthAction. He realized that youth organizing is great. It’s essential. But you have to build electoral power, too. His company, Soltari.com, runs some of the nation’s most sophisticated grassroots political campaigns.

I met Eli a couple years ago. I had never been into electoral politics before. I think I had only voted once in my adult life. Even when I was a youth activism consultant for Rock the Vote in the 1990s, I didn’t bother to vote. In my eyes, my job was connecting Rock the Vote with “real” political activism—the grassroots kind.

It’s not that I was totally against voting (although I do remember thinking it was funny when some anarchist friends protested outside the 1996 Democratic convention with a “F**k the Vote” sign). It’s just that I moved around so much I didn’t know who the local candidates were and I had no reason to believe my one measly vote mattered. To this day, no one in my adult life has ever asked me whether I voted or not. Not once. Not my parents. Not my “political” friends. And I never asked anyone either until last year. Our view: voting was the lowest form of political activity.

I’ve spent most of the past two years as part of a team that created The Future 500 (Future500.com) —the first serious attempt at a directory of Youth Organizing and Activism in the U.S. Twelve of us talent-scouted 500 of the most kick-ass youth groups in 50 states. When people would ask me what the groups achieved, I found I usually got the biggest reaction when I told people stories of electoral victories—like the above from Eli Lee. The problem was, there weren’t many such stories. The vast majority of Future 500 groups—among the most vital youth organizations in the U.S.—were not doing much with electoral politics. Ditto for large-scale legislative and corporate campaigns. Most of the hottest youth groups focus on social and community issues—without connecting them to a legislative and electoral agenda. There are reasons for this. One, non-profits are forbidden to do anything resembling partisan politics (most are even scared to use their legal 20 percent lobbying allowance). Two, no one ever taught us it’s possible to play politics on our terms. Three, we think politics stinks (it does), and we’re too good to get our clean little paws in it.

Last November I had a small revelation. I say “revelation” because what happened next was definitely outside my control. I was working in San Francisco and I was upset about Prop N, a cynical ballot measure targeting homeless people—pushed by Supervisor Gavin Newsome. I was rooming with an artist who found a discarded couch, wrote “Gavin Newsome’s idea of a homeless shelter” on it, and convinced me to help him drop it off at Newsome’s house in the plush Marina district. That was fun. I got inspired to vote.

A few days after the election, I sent out this memo to 120 hip-hop activists, organizers, and political folks:
“Warning everyone: I am fired up about this ... I voted in San Francisco this year and guess what? I didn’t know what to vote for on 80 percent of the candidates and ballot initiatives! Lucky for me, someone gave me a Bay Guardian Voter Guide and it saved my life. Still, it took me an entire hour to vote and fill out the eight-page, confusing-ass ballot that was written in three languages.

“I’m all for registering and turning out young voters. But unless we give kids voter guides, we’re setting them up to feel stupid!”

I suggested on a whim that we start a League of Hip-hop Voters, modeled on the League of Conservation Voters (which I actually knew nothing about, except that it was highly effective). Within hours, my inbox was overflowing—61 people from 13 states and D.C. wrote back to say they wanted to get involved in this new effort, which did not exist yet—some offered to start a local version, and before I knew it, more than 80 people had volunteered in writing for specific tasks. A young entertainment attorney from LA named Kyle Stewart even left her job. Kyle did a landscape analysis of dozens of major voting groups. Everyone told us: No one is really doing this and someone needs to do it.

The more we looked, we realized that the void we had stumbled onto was bigger than we’d realized. There was no national organization teaching progressive young people how to win elections. New organizations like Wellstone.org and ProgressiveMajorty.org are planning to address this. (See 2004 Survival Guide, page 45).

A few dozen of us are now devoting ourselves to building the League. Some are working on a non-profit organization, the League of Young Voters, which is going to work with dozens of national organizations and hundreds of local ones to train progressive 18- to 30-year-olds to get smart about politics.

Some of us are working on a 501(c)4/PAC entity called League of Independent Voters/League of Pissed Off Voters, which will use the Internet (Moveon.org-style with geographically segmented e-mail lists) to facilitate the creation of local progressive voting guides. People in each community —Cincinnati for example—will score their local, state and national candidates. They’ll create scorecards (posted on Indyvoter.org) and endorsement slates (Pissedvoter.org). These will be printed out then used to walk precincts, and canvass high schools, colleges, cafes, bus stops, liquor stores ... the beach. People will pledge to vote the slate for their local area. Once these votes are verified by an independent pollster—Voila!—we’ve got an instant network of local progressive voting blocs that can hold politicians accountable.

We believe this voting bloc strategy can capture the imagination of young non-voters—and cut the political teeth of a new generation of organizers who didn’t know they were organizers before. Initially, we will target 3 to 5 million cynical young progressives, aiming to inspire more than a million of them to take the pledge and vote the slate in 2004. In a tight race, we believe the voter-bloc effect could swing a presidential election (In 2000, Oregon was decided by 6,765 votes, Wisconsin by 5,708, Iowa by 4,144, and New Mexico by 366 votes, not to mention Florida) as well as congressional, state and local races. (Even the Green Party holds 174 local offices in 24 states.)

We’re starting small. With word-of-mouth and no budget, we already have more than 25 functioning Politics ‘n’ Pancakes brunch discussion groups across the country (eight in swing states), a precursor to the voting blocs. We’re putting out a book in January with Softskull Press called How to Get Stupid White Men Out Of Office (and by the way, some people of color are just as stupid and need to go, too)—which tells 15 local stories of young people actually swinging elections––replacing mayors in Selma, AL and New Paltz, NY; swinging a Senate seat in South Dakota; electing progressives to Congress like Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Raul Grijalva in Tucson, AZ; and even getting elected themselves—like 22-year-old City Councilor Dan Siegel in Providence, RI, and 24-year-old State Rep. Alisha Thomas in Georgia. There are tons of exciting models no one knows about (like Secretplan.org in Oregon, Democracyaction.org in Florida, and Bostonvote.org). In partnership with dozens of national organizations, and hundreds of local ones, our non-profit organization, the League of Young Voters (youngvoter.net), is going to train progressive 18- to 30-year-olds to get smart about politics.

I have never felt so invigorated in my life—and I’m sure the same is true for most of the other people involved. Since we previously knew nothing about electoral politics, we’re inhaling it (but not inhaling). Dozens of us are recruiting local political mentors and passing around books like Blinded by the Right, by David Brock; Mobilizing Resentment, by Jean Hardisty; Bush’s Brain by Moore and Slater; The Emerging Democratic Majority, by Judis and Teixeira; and Making Policy Making Change, by Makani Themba.

The League is only one exciting new initiative inspired by the current political climate. Dozens of groundbreaking new strategies for 2004 are being hatched as you read this. The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (the campus network that organized the March 5 student strike on 450 campuses) is developing its strategy. A group of hip-hop-generation organizers are launching a National Hip-hop Political Convention May 19–22, 2004, in Newark. Established groups, way too many to name, mostly members of the Youth Vote Coalition (youthvote.org), are launching major new initiatives. Even Rock the Vote is getting remarkably more strategic, with an online advocacy arm addressing issues young people care about and a 40-city Community Street Team Program.

But you know what?

Let me tell you a secret. None of these high-falutin organizations mean jack unless people like you who hate—or pretend not to care about—electoral politics get involved and get your clean little paws into the litter box.

Haven’t you been holding it in long enough?


William Upski Wimsatt is an essayist and political organizer. He is a founding member of The Active Element Foundation and the author of No More Prisons and Bomb the Suburbs.

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