How the digital age changed youth activism

Hundreds of #BlackLivesMatter protestors marched in Minneapolis last April after the police shooting of 18-year-old Tania Harris. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr User)

By Frank Dutan and Carson McGrath

The millennial generation is the largest and most diverse generation in US history.

And according to the Pew Research Center, millennials now have the numbers to outvote any other generation before them, including the biggest voting age group, the Baby Boomers.

Yet millennials’ voter turnout rates are significantly lower than those of other generations, ranging from 46 to 50 percent during the last three presidential elections.

Illinois state Rep. Will Guzzardi said millennials are restless and tired of a gridlocked Congress that cannot cooperate. Political polarization halted legislation on the issues millennials are most concerned about – which are education, healthcare and the economy, according to a Millennial Impact Report released last month with support from The Case Foundation.

“There are critical challenges facing our generation that we are going to have to deal with, and if we leave the problem solving to our parents and grandparents’ generations, that is not going to cut it,” Guzzardi said.

The 29-year-old Democrat said that these issues should not be seen as partisan – that millennials are more prone to overcome their differences in order to reach a solution.

“Even though we are the youngest members, sometimes we have to act like the adults in the room, ” Guzzardi said.

Guzzardi joined a network of millennial legislators both at the state and congressional level. The Future Caucus, started by U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and William Hurd, is the first such assembly for young Congress members. The caucus was organized by the Millennial Action Project (MAP), a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to supporting millennial policymakers and leaders to create political cooperation. The Millennial Action Project is funded by private donors and investors. They have partnerships with several institutions, including Google, the Hewlett Foundation and

Though millennials’ voter turnout is far lower than other generations, they tend be be politically active in other ways. According to the Millennial Impact Report, 46 percent of those surveyed had volunteered, 52 percent had donated to a political cause and 64 percent had signed a petition in the past month.

Of the 1,050 respondents, 85 percent said that they were registered to vote. States such as New York tallied record voter turnouts among millennials in this year’s primaries.

There’s a sense that millennials are beginning to feel their own electoral power, even if they are fundamentally unhappy with the system as it is.

“They use the word post-partisan, and to me I think that fits best to what millennials would actually like to see, that let’s just put this whole idea of parties and people taking sides in the past and let’s just assume that we all have slightly different opinions,” said Rep. Beth Fukumoto of Hawaii, who, at age 33, is the youngest legislator ever to serve as Hawaii’s House minority leader. She, like Guzzardi, is part of a state-level Future Caucus group.

“I think millennials tend to be a bit more pragmatic,” she said.

In some ways, they need to be.

Millennials today face harsher financial situations than their parents did. In 2016, U.S. student loan debt exceeded $1.2 trillion and is still growing.

Burdened by student debt, an expensive health care system and high rates of youth unemployment, thousands millennials converged on Washington D.C. at the beginning of April.

“Congress, do your job!” they shouted.

A protestor holds up a sign that says "Corporations are not people" at the three-day Democracy Awakening demonstration in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carson McGrath/GroundTruth)
A protestor holds up a sign that says “Corporations are not people” at the three-day Democracy Awakening demonstration in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carson McGrath/GroundTruth)

Gustaw Sagan, a 29-year-old U.S. Army veteran, traveled from Philadelphia to D.C. to participate in Democracy Awakening, a three-day demonstration aimed at convincing Congress of the need for democratic reform.

Similar to MAP, Democracy Awakening was non-partisan.

“I was suggested not to wear any paraphernalia of any candidate,” Sagan said, “because that’s the whole message – we want to include everybody.”

Down the same streets in Washington, D.C., protesters in the 1960s stormed to voice their opposition to the racial, social and environmental injustices of the time. Millennials today are not only getting involved in government, but are marching with signs, singing chants, and holding their fists in the air in defiance of the same injustices their parents and grandparents fought to abolish.

“[It was] a coalition effort of more than 300 groups working to bring thousands of people to Washington in support of money out of politics and voting rights reforms – which is the first time those issues have been put together on this level, so it is a historic action,” said Elise Orlick, a democracy fellow with U.S. PIRG.

Though millennials now have power in numbers, they still represent a minority of people in government. This is where organizations like MAP and the Future Caucus come in. Events like DA allow for millennials to physically air their grievances so that their peers in office can listen and push for the proper legislation.

Ohio Future Caucus member Frank LaRose said that because many caucus members are new in government, they offer a fresh view of what issues need to be addressed for the long term.

The Republican state senator worked with legislators to create an online voter registration form, making the process more accessible. LaRose said the voice of early-career colleagues helped the online registration come to be.

MAP specializes in engaging millennials in politics through their leadership programs, making it easier to be involved in the political process. MAP focuses on an issue-based approach to politics, rather than a partisan one.

“We do a better job of governing when we consider the opinion of our colleagues across the aisle,” LaRose said.

Whereas MAP focuses on political engagement, another organization, founded by millennial Ben Brown and a former energy consultant, lobbies government bodies and negotiates benefits on behalf of America’s 80 million millennials.

The Association of Young Americans (AYA) is a member-based organization and, like MAP, is nonpartisan. The organization, founded in May, has a few hundred paying members and is still counting.

“It is our right to communicate with our representatives all the time, and that is where our power comes from,” he said.

The organization plans to create engagement platforms that enable young people to contact their elected representatives on all levels – through emails, tweets, and phone calls – on a range of issues. Brown said that he eventually plans to equip members with their own personal lobbying tools.

Political groups like MAP and AYA lay the foundations for connecting young people within government for political action and engagement, and they’ve created a network of millennial leaders focused on issues that attract young people.

Organizations like Black Lives Matter (BLM), founded by a group of young activists, target racial injustices within the United States

DeRay Mckesson, a 31-year-old prominent BLM activist, was recently arrested while protesting the police killing of Alton Sterling, an African American male. On July 13, Mckesson and other BLM activists went to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss policing and criminal justice.

BLM has currently branched off into many different directions. Mckesson and his comrades have their own organization called WeTheProtesters. They’ve launched several police and criminal justice reform campaigns, all of which can be found under Campaign Zero, which is a 10-point plan for stopping police violence that was launched earlier this month.

Though the Future Caucus is not formally partnered with BLM, Guzzardi said members understand the effectiveness of working with other groups.

“In order to heal communities, particularly communities of color, but to heal communities all around our state, we have to come together and change the way the system works,” Guzzardi said.

A young boy raises his fist at a protest against the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. Shortly after 24-year-old Clark's death, the hashtag #Justice4Jamar started trending on Twitter. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr User)
A young boy raises his fist at a protest against the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. Shortly after 24-year-old Clark’s death, the hashtag #Justice4Jamar started trending on Twitter. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr User)

This means crossing partisan lines in ways that the Future Caucus, MAP and AYA are doing it. They are leading by example – overcoming differences to lay out long-term solutions that will better this future generation.

This sense of urgency — of foregoing ideological differences to reform our government — was the reason that many millennials took part in Democracy Awakening.

Young people created a hashtag “#StayWoke” to describe their movement and to demonstrate that they are in fact aware of the tumultuous consequences that is to come if congress does not act in time.

Mckesson wore that same phrase on his chest during his arrest in Baton Rouge this month.

Each generation has its activists and politicians, from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, but millennials are the first to walk with smartphones in their pockets. These digital natives have the ability to fuse their virtual and actual realities – hence the viral spread of #staywoke on all social media platforms.

Phillip Duarte, a student-activist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, opted out of the demonstrations at Democracy Awakening and lobbied Congress instead.

“Yes, it is important that people stay engaged through social media and build power through it,” Duarte said. “But then that power needs to translate into actual people getting out onto the streets, going into state houses and Capitol Hill and meeting with their legislators, telling them what they want.”

Many millennials feel that the government is not representing their concerns, but by using different methods such as lobbying, protesting and collaborating through post-partisan relationships, they will make sure that their voices are heard.

Groups like MAP, AYA and Democracy Awakening bridge the gap between activism, advocacy and political engagement.

Leaders like Fukumoto predict that this year’s presidential election will be a turning point for US politics.

“I do think this presidential cycle is going to call into question the whole way parties operate in the country,” she said. “And maybe that’s what starts the conversation of, ‘We can do this differently.”