Although voting-age millennials outnumbered baby boomers for the first time in the 2016 election, fewer voted last year than in 2012. And because millennials have the potential to sway elections for the next several decades, there’s incessant pressure on the younger generation to become more politically engaged.
“We care about the world we’ll leave behind for our kids and grandkids.”
A year ago, 28-year-old Ben Brown set out to ease that pressure when he launched the Association of Young Americans, an organization that develops political engagement tools to boost younger Americans’ interaction with elected officials. Brown, whose background is in renewable energy, wants young Americans to turn to AYA the same way older Americans turn to AARP—which has about 38 million members and remains one of the nation’s most influential special interest groups.
Now Brown has found an ally to help him carry AYA to new heights—AARP.
The organization, previously known as the American Association for Retired Persons, awarded AYA a $35,000 grant last August and both organizations say that was just the beginning of their relationship. The connection started with a tweet from AARP Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff Kevin Donnellan, who read about the then-two-month-old AYA in a YES! Magazine article last May. Donnellan, fascinated by the potential of an AARP-like organization for young people, tagged Brown in his tweet of the article and concluded his message with “Let’s talk!”
The interaction swiftly evolved into a series of phone conversations between Brown and Donnellan. Brown elaborated on his goals, and Donnellan saw an opportunity to help pass on knowledge about political engagement.
“AARP is not an organization just for older people,” Donnellan says. “Our members care about their legacy—we care about the world we’ll leave behind for our kids and grandkids.”
Donnellan anticipates increasing collaboration between the two organizations, as they tackle issues that affect all generations.
“Making sure that we have a strong and vibrant Social Security program is as critical for younger generations as it is for today’s older generation,” he says.
“I always wanted to get involved with the issues I care about, but I didn’t really know how.”
Then there’s the student debt crisis. “There are people in the 50-plus age group who are either still paying off their student loans, helping their children and grandchildren pay off their loans, or in some cases, taking out loans because they’re going back to school to upgrade their skills and education.”
In February, AYA used a portion of the grant from AARP to work with Phone2Action, a nonpartisan technology company, to build a dashboard on AYA’s website that allows members to email, call, and/or tweet any legislator—local, state, or federal.
Because climate change and criminal justice reform are important to AYA members, Brown says the current administration’s hardline positions on these issues makes utilizing the dashboard even more critical.
“Most times, people would wait for a friend to send them an email or see something on social media asking them to sign a petition or click a button to email a legislator,” Brown says. “That’s very powerful, but we also want people to be able to do that whenever they want. Now, when they read something in the news that gets them excited or upset, they can just go to the dashboard and easily contact their mayors, senators, and legislators.”
Melody Benjamin, 17, joined the association in January and is already putting the dashboard to use, despite being too young to vote. A few weeks ago, the San Diego resident sent an email to California Senator Kamala Harris, expressing her concerns about the future of women’s reproductive rights after Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Although Benjamin hasn’t received a direct response from Harris, she is now on Harris’ email list and receives regular updates.
“I always wanted to get involved with the issues I care about, but I didn’t really know how until I joined AYA,” Benjamin says.
Brown is also making organizational changes. Originally he had set out to hire lobbyists to work in Washington, D.C., on AYA’s behalf, as AARP does. But now he says he wants to see membership, which is currently in the “low thousands,” reach the “tens of thousands” before doing that. Also, Brown eliminated a mandatory $20 membership fee as he now asserts that people should have easier access to their legislators free of charge. However, members wanting to take advantage of special perks, such as discounts on Lyft rides, still pay the $20 fee.
Brown says it will be a long process before AYA fully develops an identity and brand for itself. But he can count on one thing—support from AARP.
“We’re very impressed with what we’re seeing from [AYA] and Ben’s a smart guy with a good vision,” Donnellan says. “Seventy-five percent of AARP members vote in every single election and it would be great to see him get 75 percent of millennials to vote in every single election, too.”