Recent opinion polls show that young people across the country are deeply dissatisfied with the nation's elected leaders and eager to see government pursue progressive policies on issues ranging from gun violence, to sexual assault prevention, to immigration. Young people also are registering to vote in record numbers, creating new hope that change may be at hand.
But whether this surge in interest and engagement among the nation's young people turns into a surge in advocacy and activism — and actual voting — is far from a slam dunk. There is an urgent need and opportunity for philanthropy to invest in efforts to organize and inspire young people, including young people of color, so they can become the transformational force we need in our communities and our country.
The California Funders for Boys and Men of Color, a group of foundation CEOs dedicated to improving outcomes for boys and men of color through systems change, are supporting one such effort. This August, hundreds of youth advocates of color from across California gathered in Sacramento for four days of learning and advocacy during the Youth Power Summit, where participants had the opportunity to speak directly with candidates for California's superintendent of public instruction, among others.
The young people who gathered at the summit are leading campaigns for racial and economic justice across the state — fighting for quality schools, an end to youth incarceration, immigrant rights, a healthy environment, healthier communities, and more. Organized by the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color and PolicyLink, the summit gave them an opportunity to bring their diverse movements together and build their power, leadership, and voice. One of the highlights was a rally on the steps of the state Capitol, where participants shared their vision for a more just and equitable future — a future that includes police accountability, sentencing reform, workforce opportunities, and trauma recovery services.
We're supporting this effort because we know we can't wait for today's young people to start playing an active part in our democracy — we need their energy, their enthusiasm, and their activism right now. Young people want to be heard, create change, and lead in their communities and the country. While we marvel at the young activists who have captured the nation's attention since the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we have yet to fully recognize that young people, particularly youth of color, are an underappreciated and under-supported force for change. And we can't afford not to support the civic engagement of these changemakers.
It's true that years of data show young people participate in elections and civic activities at significantly lower rates than other age groups. But instead of blaming this participation gap on young people themselves, we need to recognize and address the barriers they face in becoming engaged and involved — from a lack of quality civic education in our schools to complicated and discriminatory voter registration and absentee voting policies.
We also need to change the culture of our social movements so young people can find a welcoming seat at the table and exercise their leadership in the field of social justice. This is what the Youth Power Summit was about: building the skills, engagement, and networks of young activists.
Today, one out of every six Californians is between the ages of 5 and 18. According to the 2010 census, 70 percent of Californians under the age of 25 identify as people of color. Young people deserve, and are demanding, a voice in shaping policies that will have a profound and enduring effect on their ability to find affordable quality education; access to decent health care, clean air, and water; and safety in our communities; among many other issues.
As grantmakers committed to equity and social justice, we know that our work and the work of our movement partners will succeed only to the extent that young people are active and engaged in the democratic process — and the future of their democracy. That's why philanthropy must explore ways to catalyze and build power among the rising generation.
Mya Middleton, a 16-year-old from Chicago who spoke at the March for Our Lives event in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, summed up the power and the potential of youth engagement when she told the assembled crowd: "We are the turn of this century. We are the voice of change. We are here to fix what America is falling short of."
Let's work together to ensure that young people have a real chance to make a lasting difference.