Until a few months ago, Ella Chenai Tunduwani saw themselves as the quiet, back-of-the-classroom type, one to offer thoughts privately on the way out the door.
Tunduwani, a 14-year-old from Seattle, was already stepping out of their comfort zone by volunteering with Kirsten Harris-Talley’s campaign. Harris-Talley was running for an open seat in Washington’s legislature, and Tuduwani’s leftist politics aligned well with the candidate’s. Tunduwani couldn’t have guessed, but would shortly learn, that they excelled at asking strangers for money.
For young volunteers like Tunduwani, campaigning usually means stints phone banking, text messaging, and knocking on doors—the grunt work, basically, that powers politicians of all political shades. Tunduwani did that, and much more.
Within weeks of volunteering, the high school freshman and dozens of other young campaign workers were included in what Tunduwani refers to as the “adult meeting” with the “campaign-campaign,” not just the youth team. They’d throw out ideas, and those ideas would turn into initiatives.
“Youth were not only welcomed, but heard,” said Tunduwani, who ultimately received a paid fellowship with the campaign’s fundraising arm.
By any measure, youth political engagement shot up during the Trump presidency. Estimates from Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement suggest 53%–56% of eligible Americans under 30 voted in November, about an 8-point increase from 2016.
“We saw incredible youth participation in the year of 2020,” said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of the Tufts center, which researches ways to include youth in politics. “That includes voting, but it also includes rates of marching and protesting, as well as … trying to talk to friends, talk to family members about the election.”
The number of young people volunteering with political campaigns more than tripled between the two presidential elections, the center’s surveys indicate. About 18% of U.S. residents between 18 and 24 volunteered for a political campaign in 2020.
In Arizona, Dillon Belmont spent election season putting together voter testimonials for social media and contacting voters. Belmont, now 20, split his time between two state legislative races for seats representing a suburban Phoenix district, serving as social media manager for both. To win in Legislative District 20, Belmont’s candidates, Democrats Judy Schweibert running for a state House seat and Doug Ervin running for state Senate, would have to overcome a Republican advantage in registered voters.
The stakes were particularly high in Schweibert’s race. Republicans held 31 of 60 seats in the state’s House of Representatives, and Schweibert was one of two Democratic challengers with a real shot at tying it up. Success in the race, a top priority for the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, could give the Democrats control of a part of the Arizona legislature for the first time since 1992. Belmont said “a lot of eyes” were on the campaign, and no room for a new Arizona State University grad to weigh in on policy.
When the election’s considerable amount of dust settled, Schweibert, a teacher about whom Belmont effuses about as refreshing, relatable, and a “real human person” in politics, won her race while Ervin, who was running for state Senate, lost. Democratic losses elsewhere in the state meant Schweibert won’t be in the majority.
For a race so consequential, the cupboards were pretty bare. Schweibert and Ervin shared a staff of four-and-a-half workers—Belmont was part-time—as well as four interns and any volunteers they could gather. Most of the volunteers were retired or near to it. Attracting younger volunteers, Belmont said, proved difficult.
“There are unique challenges that young people specifically have, that get in the way,” said Belmont, who was recently hired as a legislative staffer. “It’s definitely worth the effort for campaigns and elected officials to attract them and hear what they have to say.”
We’re really dealing with issues of access, not issues of apathy.
At 18, Andrew Hong already had two campaigns behind him when he signed on to Harris-Talley’s run this spring. The work in his first, a primary challenge to an incumbent congressman in a heavily Democratic district outside Seattle, was standard: knock on doors, make calls, put up signs. His second, a Seattle City Council race, took him deeper. Hong said he and the other younger volunteers spoke and were heard, but they were still expected to listen more than lead.
Harris-Talley’s campaign was a sea change for Hong. Running in a state legislative race that ultimately drew 77,508 votes, the campaign had 63 young people, ages 12 to 22, sign on to its youth team, 10 of whom, including Hong and Tunduwani, were paid fellows. They ran the campaign’s Instagram account and also shaped the platform on climate justice and youth rights. Hong raved about how a high school freshman conceived and ran a small business “power hour.”
The young volunteers and fellows helped organize Zoom meetings targeting specific communities in the district, which comprised a swirl of languages, ethnicities and economic situations both in some of Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods and some of its richest. The region’s Black, East African, and Latinx communities have set anchors there. The city’s center of LGBTQ life is in the district, as are Seattle’s historic Asian, Jewish, and now-vanishing Italian neighborhoods. More than half the young campaigners live inside the district.
Harris-Talley was the main draw. A community organizer previously tapped to fill in on the Seattle City Council, Harris-Talley’s progressive positions attracted youth who’d entered politics in the fights for climate action and criminal justice reform. Harris-Talley’s background gave the campaign a different feel, Hong recalled. Many of the adults had careers outside politics in community organizing before joining Harris-Talley’s campaign, Hong said, and weren’t “pureblood electoral organizers.”
“We were organizing for more than just an election,” Hong said. “Especially the youth team, we did things that may not necessarily have been electorally beneficial, but … would make community better.”
Hong points to the “accountability council” of district residents to which Harris-Talley has pledged to report. The council, a group of residents and leaders organized by the campaign, is expected to monitor Harris-Talley’s progress on issues raised during the campaign and push her to action if she comes up short.
“This was kind of one of the first opportunities for youth to get real experience doing electoral work and not just be phone banking all the time,” he continued. “I think they didn’t expect it to be this big, and neither did I.”
Kiesa, the Tufts researcher, said it has long been clear is that more young people would join campaigns if the doors were opened to them. Each election season, the number of young people who tell survey takers they’d like to volunteer far exceeds the number who actually do.
“We’re really dealing with issues of access, not issues of apathy,” Kiesa said.
American politics are worse for the absence of young people, Kiesa contends. Young people make up large portions of the electorate everywhere in the country and should be represented, she said. Beyond the democratic imperative, young people also know their communities’ needs and that knowledge should be put to work meaningfully.
Meaningful work is what Klaire Gumbs found with the New Georgia Project, one of several large voter registration efforts credited with making Georgia a swing state in the 2020 general election and the upcoming Senate runoff on Jan. 5.
Gumbs, 24, spent her days speaking with potential voters about money and money trouble. Many are buried in debt, struggling to make payments to preserve their credit scores. She spoke with one man faced with the choice between paying a usurious short-term loan or buying groceries for his family. He chose to pay the loan.
Gumbs connected the ballot box with those pains. Working from the temporary center of America’s political universe, she spread the message that a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-issued moratorium on evictions and other protections meant to make the pandemic’s economic shock survivable are “on the ballot” during the runoff election that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Volunteers called in to help from across the country, most of whom are decades older than her; participants in one recent phone bank session were all senior citizens.
Gumbs said she’s looking forward to taking a week off after the election. It’s been a long eight months since she joined the New Georgia Project in April, though President-elect Joe Biden’s win was a welcome, validating surprise.
“Honestly, it wasn’t something I expected,” Gumbs said.
Biden’s victory in the state, she said, showed Georgians want to see the minimum wage rise, gender equity in pay, and Medicaid expansion so more low-income residents can get health insurance. “To me,” she continued, “it feels like people have finally realized what we want for Georgia. … It makes everything worth it.”
Harris-Talley’s win in Seattle wasn’t a surprise, exactly. She was better known and better funded than her opponent, another progressive Democrat. That didn’t make the victory any less thrilling for Tunduwani.
“It was amazing,” Tunduwani said after the election. “At that moment when she won, I was just thinking back to all those conversations I’d had, all those times I’d gone out of my comfort zone. And I just said, it was worth something.”
The youth team is figuring out how to persist, Tunduwani said. The team want to keep pushing for change in the areas that animated them. And they really enjoy one another.
The lessons others can take from Harris-Talley’s campaign, Tunduwani offered, are simple: Reach out, and recognize the strength that young people bring.
“A lot of youth are underestimated, not only because they’re youth but because a lot of youth come from historically underserved populations … that aren’t typically seen as the people who will be able to run a campaign,” they said. “Don’t underestimate youth organizers.”
Levi Pulkkinen is a Seattle-based independent journalist covering news and social issues. His writing has appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Guardian, The Hechinger Report, High Country News and a host of regional publications, including The San Francisco Chronicle, InvestigateWest and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he served as senior editor. He has received top regional honors in most news reporting categories considered by the Society of Professional Journalists, and specializes in criminal justice and health care reporting. Pulkkinen is a graduate of Western Washington University.