Is America’s youth too indifferent, distrusting and self-absorbed to participate in politics? Not according to Mobilize.org, a nonprofit organization with offices in Washington, DC and Berkeley, California. For the past six years, it has introduced thousands of young people between the ages of 12 and 30 to the excitement and rewards of political engagement.
Guided by its mission to ”educate, empower, energize,” Mobilize.org organizes workshops, regional forums, and national events, communicates with a list-serv of more than two million, and provides political tools, resources, and topical information on its one-stop Web site, Youth Policy Action Center (www.youthpolicyactioncenter.org). Armed with the Mobilizer’s Guidebook, 10 Steps to Mobilize, young people from middle school, high school, and college campuses have formed more than 200 Mobilizer teams to organize around issues important to them and their communities. Whether composed of a few or many members, the teams can call on Mobilize.org’s staff and advisors to help them identify issues and devise strategies for change.
Most organizations working to involve youth in politics
Most organizations working to involve youth in politics focus on voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives leading up to an election. Mobilize.org has a broader aim: it wants to engage young people in public policy year-round, not only in advocating for issues affecting youth but also in thinking about the kind of society they want to inhabit. “We are trying to get at the root causes of disempowerment,” says Enista. “That’s why we look at who has the power, and how we can access it.”
Mobilize.org describes itself as an all-partisan network
Mobilize.org describes itself as an all-partisan network. Impatient with the partisan acrimony that has characterized two-party politics at all levels of government, it focuses on issues that unite young people. “We’re not so unrealistic to think that everyone will play nice and park their ideological beliefs at the door,” says Maya Enista, Mobilize.org’s new CEO. “We’re saying let’s try to rise above our differences and concentrate on issues that affect all of us, like college affordability and interest on student loans.”
Enista’s commitment to upholding the all-partisan ethic was tested when she joined the staff of Mobilize.org three years ago and worked hand-in-hand with David Smith, the founder and former director of Mobilize.org. Smith is a conservative and Enista a liberal. Enista admits it was hard at the beginning. Some progressive friends called her a traitor for working with an all-partisan group, and she and Dave were getting mired down in disagreements. “After a while we said, ‘Hey, how can we call ourselves an all-partisan organization when the two people at the top can’t get along? If we believe it’s good for voters to think beyond partisan lines, then it has to be good for us, too."
In March of this year, Enista replaced Smith as the head of Mobilize.org
Enista and Smith not only forged a strong working relationship, they also became close friends. In March of this year, Enista replaced Smith as the head of Mobilize.org. Smith, who at age 28 was nearing the organization’s retirement age of 30, took on a new executive director position at the National Conference on Citizenship in Washington, DC. Enista says that while the transition has been drama-free, it was not without emotion. “Right now I feel sad because I’m going to miss being partners with Dave. It’s hard to think of working without him.”
At the same time, Enista feels prepared to carry on Mobilize.org’s mission to encourage youth to be a force for change. Instead of bemoaning all that is wrong with the political system and how powerless youth are, Mobilize.org teaches that politics is a two-way street: government policies have an impact on the lives of young people and young people can have an impact on the politicians who makes those policies.
A crash course on how to gain political access is readily available on Mobilize.org’s Youth Policy Action Center Web site that boasts, “It used to be that only highly paid lobbyists had the tools to change public policy. Now you have them, too.” Besides alerting visitors to legislative actions affecting youth, it instructs them on how to find their elected local, state, and national representatives, contact politicians and local media, track bills and who is voting for them, and follow the money driving political campaigns. Visitors can also tap into another level of involvement by using the Web site’s interactive features, including a blog, youth videos, and social networking.
July 2007, Mobilize launched Democracy 2.0
In July 2007, Mobilize launched Democracy 2.0, its own two-year experiment in participatory democracy. It began by posting a 10-question survey on its Web site asking young people to weigh in on what the government is doing well or poorly and to list ideas, programs or processes for improving the political process. In addition, they were asked to list three characteristics of the Millennial Generation—those between the ages of 12 and 30—and how those characteristics could be useful in addressing societal problems. Respondents see themselves primarily as social networkers, multi-taskers, and communicators. They also think they are more open-minded, informal, inclusive, and egalitarian than previous generations of young people.
Democracy 2.0 Summit
In October, 47 youth leaders gathered in Washington for the Democracy 2.0 Summit to review and evaluate the 1600 responses they received to the survey and to write a Democracy 2.0 Declaration of Our Generation based on those results. Using interactive keypads, they voted on the key ideas to include in the Declaration. “After working for 12 hours,” says Enista, “I suggested calling it a night but 12 people said they didn’t feel finished. So we bought them a pizza and got back to work.” The declaration, which will be subject to revision as it is circulated and debated online and offline, stated the Millennial Generation’s vision of a citizen-centered democracy in which citizens have more opportunities to voice their concerns, propose solutions to problems, and play active roles in decision-making. (See attachment: Declaration 2.0)
At midnight, after the group put the finishing touches on the draft, they walked over to the Jefferson Memorial to read it to Jefferson. “The Declaration was the culmination of Dave’s dream of civic engagement,” says Enista. “We were 12 people representing 1600 voices. Reading our Declaration aloud to Jefferson and hearing our voices echoing in the night was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”
The staff of Mobilize.org acknowledges that it has drawn political inspiration from the movie American President and the television series The West Wing, both written by Aaron Sorkin. “After a long day of work,” says Enista, “we used to watch West Wing. Sorkin is a driving force in our lives. The sensibilities of West Wing’s President Bartlet and his receptiveness to citizens were models for us. We use a lot of quotes from The West Wing.”
The Democracy 2.0 activities were a lead-up to the three-day Party for the Presidency that Mobilize.org hosted over the New Year’s weekend. Three hundred young people representing most of the U.S. congressional districts gathered in Hollywood, California to demonstrate the vision of democracy Mobilize.org is working for and the kind of relationship participants want to have with their government.
Using wireless, hand-held interactive keypads, Mobilize.org ensured that every participant’s voice would be heard and vote counted. Asked to vote on the 13 most important issues facing the country, the final tally ranked America’s role in the world, the effect of money on politics, and environmental sustainability as the top three most critical issues. Next, participants were asked to choose which of the 13 issues mattered most to them and to form groups with others who shared that interest. The task of each group was to write a grant proposal for a project that Mobilize.org might fund. Of the 26 proposals submitted, a panel of judges chose the 15 most promising to pitch their ideas to the larger group. Using the interactive keypads, the audience evaluated each presentation based on four categories: innovation, creativity, feasibility, and adherence to Democracy 2.0 principles. The six finalists each received a $5,000 grant from Mobilize.org that included an offer of technical support. This past January, Mobilize.org staff worked with the grantees to help them prepare budgets and strategies for implementing their proposals. (See attachment: Mobilize.org Grantees)
Mobilize.org staff deemed the Party a huge success. “It was by far the most diverse group we ever brought together,” says Enista, ”and we accomplished a lot.” The three hundred participants, whom Mobilize dubbed Democracy 2.0 Entrepreneurs, left the Party for the Presidency armed with solid action plans to engage more young people in civil engagement and the political process throughout 2008. “Politics as usual doesn’t fly with our generation,” says Enista. “A recent survey found that 44 percent of Millennials identify as independents because neither party is speaking about issues important to us. We called the participants entrepreneurs because it represents the spirit of our generation.”
This past year Mobilize.org’s staff of five operated on a budget of $500,000. About 40 percent of monies come from foundations, 30 percent from individual donors, and 30 percent from workshops and sales of the Mobilizer.org guide. The projected budget for 2008 is $750,000, but Enista hopes to raise $1 million. “I have to get busy raising money for salaries,” she says, “so that we can focus on our programs.”
While the number of young people who voted in the 2004 presidential election increased by 3 million from the 2000 election--and the turnout is expected to be even larger in 2008, many political observers still dismiss young people as unreliable voters. Enista disagrees. “When politicians speak to issues that matter to young people, like college affordability and net neutrality, they’ll get the youth vote. A lot of young people are just realizing that they have the power not only to put politicians in office, but also to vote them out. I’m hoping for the day when the youth vote won’t be a story anymore but will be recognized as a reliable and powerful voting block.”
Democracy 2.0 Declaration
Democracy is an unfinished project. It’s time we upgrade.
We, the Millennial Generation, are uniquely positioned to call attention to today’s issues and shape the future based on the great legacy we have inherited. Our founding fathers intended for every generation to build, indeed to innovate, on the American experience. We realize that as young people we are expected to be the leaders of tomorrow, but we understand that as citizens we are called to be the leaders of today.
We are compelled by the critical state of our present democracy to establish a new vision.
In a world often damaged by conflict and intolerance, we must commit to develop common ground through equality and open mindedness.
In a world often damaged by social isolation and materialism, we must commit to community at the family, local, national and global levels.
In a world often damaged by instant gratification, we must commit to creating sustainable solutions.
In a world often damaged by apathy and disillusionment, we must commit to civic participation and inclusion of all voices.
The present state of our democracy impedes opportunity for real change. We must connect the specific issues failing our population with their underlying systemic causes.
Our government seems unable or unwilling to adequately address our broadest problems, including economic inequality, America’s role in the world, and the effect of money on the democratic process. But we must remember, our government is only as effective as the sum of its citizens. Low civic participation means the most disadvantaged people in society are neglected and we overlook many potential solutions to our problems.
Our generation is telling a different story. We are uniquely positioned to foster community engagement through social networks of all kinds. It is our responsibility to use information and technology to upgrade democracy, transform communication and advance political engagement and civic participation.
We are social networkers, we are multi-taskers, we are communicators and we are opinionated. The informality of our generation breaks down traditional barriers and opens doors for inclusiveness and equality. Most importantly, we are leaders in a society that yearns for leadership.
It’s our democracy; it’s time to act.
Greening the White House
The G3 proposal has three goals: a “green” White House, a “green” America, and a “green” world. Making a well-known public symbol of our country, the White House, environmentally-friendly will set an example for the nation and inspire citizens to pursue similar sustainable lifestyles. The G3 proposal enables the Millennial Generation to fulfill its commitment to political and civic participation through the creation of eco-friendly homes and communities. The effort will combine a coalition effort to “green” the White House through a grassroots campaign centered around increasing public knowledge through press events, a Green March, workshops, speakers, and a pledge signed by the 2008 presidential candidates.
On The Trail
The On the Trail proposal seeks to teach college students the necessary skills for working on a political campaign by combining real-life experience with professional trainings. On the Trail will primarily operate through in-person training camps where participants gain expertise in message development, campaign technology tools, fundraising, campaign operations, and grassroots
The Youth Collective Action Research for Empowerment (Y-CARE) Project employs young people under the age of 30 to conduct, evaluate, present and follow through with local action research. We believe that action research, when properly reported, can be used effectively as an advocacy tool for policy change. The Y-CARE project seeks to clarify and substantiate the youth voice based on facts and statistics researched and recorded by young people and, in doing so, help the political machine better understand the youth population. The goal of the project is to have its research incorporated into local policies either through change or affirmation of existing legislation.
Engaging Pennsylvanians by Returning Politics to the People
The Engaging Pennsylvanians Project seeks to educate the citizens of Pennsylvania about the influence of money in politics and the necessity for campaign finance reform. This project will collaborate with Democracy Matters campus groups to advance public financing programs in the state by educating and engaging citizens. It will build a grassroots educational campaign that creates an interconnected network of individuals in communities throughout the state who will assist with petition drives, the recruitment of allies to the cause, letters to the editor, and the organization of a lobby day. The goal of this project is to raise public pressure on local officials to pass a legislative bill that will change the role of money in the Pennsylvania political arena.
The iREP Project seeks to help youth establish a position within various existing school and political organizations in their communities to give a representative voice to members of the Millennial Generation. IRep hopes to become an umbrella organization that provides advice and support not only to the representatives filling new positions but also to those already participating in similar roles across the nation. This project will create positions and sustain a network of youth who have an active role in their governing legislative bodies while simultaneously increasing youth awareness of public issues and the necessity of using their democratic voices.
Youth For Civic Learning (YCL)
The Youth for Civic Learning Proposal seeks to create a youth-led policy campaign to increase innovative civic learning courses and programs in public schools. Youth advocates will speak from their own experiences in civic education to persuade school administrators and leaders to incorporate modern and transformative civic development courses into their curriculum. We believe this work will provide our country with an adult generation armed with the tools they need to participate fully in their democracy. By providing this education in public schools, no member of the socioeconomic strata will be left out of the empowerment loop.