Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Youth Policy Summit Rundown

The youth policy summit of the Generational Alliance has drawn to a close here in beautiful Oakland, CA. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring together some of the youth movement’s most power leaders.  We discussed building organizational capacity, looking back at the successes (and failures) of election ’08,  strategies for keeping new voters from non-traditional communities engaged, and, most importantly, determining our policy focus for President Obama’s first 100 days in office – i.e. What policy victories can we legitimately expect and how soon? Which campaigns are worth our effort? We determined that health care, college affordability (which is mainly an issue about budget and appropriations) and green jobs were the top three areas in which we can get traction. But you know me. I can never stay focused only on the issue at hand. I’m constantly stepping back and critically observing. Here are a few thoughts :
  • I still hate the idea of a “youth movement”. To be a movement defined by identity and not goals is, in my view, shortsighted, self defeating, and unfocused. Shortsighted because unlike race and gender, people don’t claim this identity for life. This movement is based on a level of identification that numerically lasts at best between 7  and 10 years. And for many, that time line is actually not just determined by chronological age but by life circumstances. So the minute that “young people” get married or become parents themselves, they often stop identifying with carefree 19 year olds. Not a terribly well defined or dependable idendity to build a movement upon.  Self defeating because we are creating our own kiddie table of politics instead of working to include “kiddies” at the big table.  Unfocused because the name of the movement doesn’t define our values or goals. We should not be a movement of something (young, 30 and under, diverse, progressive people) but instead a movement for something (civil rights, human rights, economic equality, progressive polidy and values).  The fact that I opened my post by characterizing the event as a gathering of “progressive leaders of the youth movement” rather than “young leaders of the progressive movement” says something. Reveling in our youth and our power actually does very little to develop and hone that power in a way that creates concrete policy goals and victories. The way to change the perception of  young people as they relate to political power and change isn’t to state over and over again who you are (young) but instead to do what needs to be done (change policy, create new structures, enter and innovate the system) while you are who you are.  While the subtext of much of the work that we do is that our generational identity actually is grounded in our principles, we must take the critical next step of articulating that in our language. I didn’t move into this segment of my life work to be a youth activist. I am a young activist that works to engage a new generation of leadership for civil rights, human rights, equality, etc. and I am so frustrated by being labled in such an unproductive way.  Nevertheless…
  • This “movement” has some incredibly smart, passionate people in it. Seriously. Sitting daily in an office of white, buttoned up liberal men that have phd’s in nuclear proliferation and have been lobbying since a965,  it was so refreshing to sit in a room of people that aren’t desperately in need of wrinkle cream, wear jeans, and reference the lyrics to T.I.’s “Live Your Life” right before explaining a sociological theory of self interest and self preservation. Smart, smart people. I was completely humbled. And unlike the people with whom I work – upper crust Washington – these people are not just book smart, they are people smart.  And honest. And caring. And funny. And soulful. And passionate. And excellent communicators. And technologically savvy. And creative. Our leaders have the unique ability to be what so many of our elders in the movement have stuggled to become - a whole, complete person. We mix the political with the spiritual with the emotional with the philosophical and the FUN in ways that encourage full personhood and a bringing of ones entire self to this work. It also allows us to find the intersectionality of every issue that we work on and engage audiences on many different levels. It's impressive. I genuinely believe that my generation is in great, capable hands. If we can overcome the fact that…
  • Policy is the Achilles heel of the youth movement.  Yes, that's right. Basic policy work. And that’s a big, big, big, unfortunate heel. We were a room full of smart, passionate, incredibly talented organizers – 80% of whom didn’t know the process of a bill becoming a law. 90% of whom had no idea what a committee is, let alone who resides in which committee. I was shocked - these were some of the basics that I was introduced to at LCCR and were the foundation upon which all of my work is built, whether my job title includes the words field organizer (as it formerly did) or policy and advocacy (as it currently does), these are the basics of our nation's system that are fundamental to this work.  I worry that this lack of sophistication and focus is the core of our marginalization not just as a movement but as a demographic of people. Why is this the case? While many organizers want to remind policy folks  that there is no change in policy without “the people”, the grassroots often forgets that there is no tangible, visible change without policy...and people don't stay involved without tangible, visible change.  And while the movement is ready to acknowledge this point, as evidenced by the convening of this summit, there is a steep, steep learning curve. This is the core of the youth movement – an activist community that is adept at integrating the art, technology, and general voices of a young population into an energy that demands change and questions the status quo. But that energy will go no where without leaders that understand the inner workings of the game. (I wonder if this is because most of my peers have never worked anywhere except for the youth empowerment organization that they work in now…this also says something about the lack of professional mentorship in startup organizations) Now, to be fair, the purpose of this conference was to learn how to now integrate policy into the work that galvanized the youth vote and I think that there are some groups that have been doing it all along (USSA for example, who’s legislative director Angela is a fierce sister fresh out of college) and others like Hip Hop Caucus who has the right idea of turning their attention now to civics education. But we better get it in gear fast. Because empowering a generation to use their voice and demand change without teaching them the process by which change will actually come, is buildling a house on the sand. Especially when you acknowledge the truth that…
  • Who are we kidding? Many people voted because of Obama. Deal with it. I think one of the main failures of youth vote advocates this election season was in the shallowness and transparency of our messaging. The message that “young people voted on the issues” never broke through to mainstream media because it frankly wasn’t true. It was a message set up to support our organizational missions and demand legitimacy and credibility not just for our constituency, but mostly for our own work. And I understand that. But there is a difference between saying that young people care about the issues – that is true – and that young people voted because they care about the issues – not true. You can care about issues and stay your butt home on the first Tuesday in November, particularly in our communities (young, black, latino, disenfranchised). Because guess what? Young people have always cared about not having clean air to breathe, or money in their pockets, or their loved ones at war. And while yes, the past 8 years have brought us to a boiling point, logic would not tell our communities that voting is the solution. Obama is what made them channel their frustration about the issues onto the ballot. And denying that reality is going to make tomorrow a cold blast of water when we go back to our newly registered voters and find out that they  actually know very little about “the issues” or how those issues will really be changed. 

Just my thoughts.


  1. Hey Erica,

    I think you are definitely onto something here, but I do take issue with some of what you said regarding issues that voters of our generation "always care about" - specifically, clean air to breathe, money in pockets, loved ones at war.

    Sure, everyone cares about those things, including young people, but Bush has turned basic human rights such as those into valuable luxuries that, unfortunately, have to be voted upon to decide whether or not we in this country want/get to keep them.

    I definitely think that the allure of Obama pulled in A LOT of young people, but I also think the Bush years have strengthened the awareness of young Americans and actually unleashed a more active, engaged, informed citizenry.

    I've put up a post about my reaction to this, as well as the reaction from Future Majority's Michael Connery, over at my blog: http://thedanifesto.blogspot.com/2008/12/obama-08-or-insert-issue-here-08.html

    Thanks for being so involved; I find your work to be really inspiring.

  2. A Beautiful Fire,

    Greetings Erica! It was just great viewing you and listening to your most eloquent presentation on CSpan Q & A on 8 Mar 09. I am equally impressed with your commanding Blog. I wish you continued success in serving as "A Beautiful Fire" with an obvious purpose to spred a most positive fire under the tower of human strength within the American masses.

    I invite you and your adherents to my start-up Blog at http://assentmediation.blogspot.com
    The Blog is entitled Mediation...Considered.
    Mediation is surely a process which might serve your progessive ideals well.


    Urban R. Cleaves