ICYMI: Youth engagement and voting town hall

By ERA Coalition intern Jenny Horn

Equal Rights Amendment Coalition CEO & President Zakiya Thomas opened the town hall regarding youth engagement and voting by welcoming everyone and thanking those who could attend for joining the virtual discussion. She continued to thank the Harnisch Foundation for their part in sponsoring the extensive town hall series the ERA Coalition and Fund for Women’s Equality are hosting throughout the year. Thomas concluded her opening remarks by introducing this town hall’s discussion leader, Kimberly Peeler-Allen, ERA Coalition Board Chair and Co-Founder of Higher Heights. 

Kimberly Peeler-Allen introduced the topic and four speakers, explaining that we all know voter outreach is going to be crucial in the issue of equality this year, which is why we’re talking now with some of the youth-led organizations doing this kind of work on the ground and at the frontlines. We’re excited to talk with these speakers to learn more about which issues in particular young voters care most about, and thus plan a message around those priorities as we extend our support to this generation of voters.

First introduced is Victoria Hammett. Hammett is the Deputy Executive Director of Gen-Z for Change, which is a non-profit organization that utilizes social media to make a positive impact. She herself is also a tiktoker and regularly posts content regarding political advocacy, current events, and social justice. 

Second introduced is Cassie Rubio (she/they). Rubio is a queer Latinx organizer, educator, and writer based in Los Angeles, California. They are Co-Chair of The Feminist Front, an intersectional gender justice organization uniting youth to build greater feminist futures in their communities though political education, grassroots organizing, and healing arts. 

Next introduced is Julia Squitteri. Squitteri is the Founder and Executive Director of the Ruth Project, a gender equity advocacy organization fighting to train youth how to rectify gender inequity in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s name. She is also a researcher who is currently working with the ACLU, specializing in Title IX, dress code reform, gender-based violence, feminist history, and self-advocacy training. 

The fourth and final speaker introduced today is Ritwik Tati (he/him). Tati is a rising sophomore at Stanford University originally from Haddon Heights, New Jersey. He is also the Organizing Director for Generation Ratify, the youth-led movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Tati first delved into the world of grassroots organizing while pushing against the PennEast pipeline in New Jersey.

How to reach younger voters

Peeler-Allen then ushers the speakers directly into a discussion, asking first how groups like theirs reach young voters and talk to them about the issues in a captivating way, specifically in regard to the techniques and mediums they use.

Hammett said that Gen Z for Change primarily utilizes social media in order to reach younger audiences. “We started as a group of young influencers, as individuals you don’t usually see in a political space, rallying to get people out to vote in the first place.” Following the 2020 election, they continued with the momentum they had gained to keep younger people civically engaged by employing what young people use most – social media.

Rubio then explained that the Feminist Front has been working a lot around younger engagement and voter registration specifically, using their Electoral Justice Now Project throughout the 2020 election which primarily called people into the voting space by pushing issue-based organizing. “By cultivating different partnerships with other organizations and groups, we were able to get a large number of new voters registered, and this will largely be the work we plan to continue as we move into midterms,” Rubio explained.

Peeler-Allen redirects the discussion to Tati, asking him how he operates to get younger people to care about the Equal Rights Amendment specifically.

“In terms of using social media, we do a lot of work creating informational posts as well as highlighting and uplifting the work of more local organizations. We consistently try to post action items for how organizers and activists can get involved more deeply. Being more personal online and in social media has been incredibly helpful in reaching these younger audiences and displaying to them why it’s important to care about such high priority issues,” Tati said.

Peeler-Allen posed the next question to Squitteri, asking her how the Ruth Project has been able to mobilize and really speak to young people to get them to fight for gender justice.

Squitteri said, “A lot of our work is really focused on empowerment and the model we use says that if we’re going to elevate young people’s voices, we have to first show them the impact that they themselves can make. We show these young individuals exactly what they can do and which steps they can take to make real tangible progress and change. In essence, teaching the younger generation and giving them the tools they need really takes the primary focus.”

How to do “relational organizing” effectively

The discussion flows into the next topic, addressing how each of the speakers engage in relational organizing, going beyond just asking people to vote but how they go about engaging these voters to see voting’s importance and significance.

Squitteri explained, “I always like to ask people about just one issue they care about, and start there. We want to fight a lot of the dejected perspectives we’ve been seeing amongst younger voters, and starting with a personable important issue and working backwards from there is a great start to instilling a stronger individual perspective on voting.”

“We’ve really been trying to cultivate the more community-building piece, as it’s so vital to someone’s care towards a certain topic and therefore motivation to vote. With people being so isolated in recent years, highlighting community in every possible way has been increasingly important to get people, especially the younger generation, to care,” Rubio added.

“In terms of combating cynicism,” Hammett explained, “I do think it’s important to first acknowledge the cynicism and relate to it – as we all can – so we can validate those feelings of frustration and helplessness. Acknowledging these emotions before reminding them of the community and importance of voting will help reiterate these ideas without exhausting them and sounding like a broken record.”

Tati added that Generation Ratify really emphasizes “that those who are going to engage with relational organizing really need to have their own personal narrative, so you can begin work and communicate with others in a more specific, targeted way. It’s also increasingly important to remind people that there is hope so they do know that their work and their actions will ultimately have an impact.”

Breaking down silos in organizing

Peeler-Allen directed the conversation towards the next topic regarding the work of breaking down the silos in this particular type of organizing, and why it’s important in the first place. 

Tati said Generation Ratify really emphasizes that “these fights like the fight for the ERA is a fight for all, and by relying on our partners and the resources they supply us, we can continue to break down the silos and bring this newer generation to the movement.”

Squitteri added that when it comes to breaking down silos, it’s important to identify the specific barriers that we need to be broken down through action. “Additionally, talking with other people can help us get out of our own identity groups and perceptions, and only then we can really begin to understand how much of our work is interconnected and how we can help one another by stepping outside of our comfort zones in order to better collaborate.”

“We really focus on the importance of intergenerational organizing and work, and working across differences as Bell Hooks often discusses in her works. We as the younger generation don’t necessarily have to start fresh in the work that’s been set out for us, but we need to learn how our language and knowledge can uniquely contribute to the existing spaces within the narrative work to be done,” Rubio added.

Hammett agreed that working inter-generationally is incredibly important. “Gaining the knowledge and wisdom from those who have been in this work for so long and combining that with how that work can most efficiently thrive in today’s society is an incredible key to getting the message to a larger demographic of individuals.”

Using social media

Peeler-Allen uses Hammett’s last point to pivot to social media specifically, and the best methods and practices for social media outreach on issues organizing.

“We find that people really enjoy and learn best from movements themselves where they have more specific action items they can get behind, like signing petitions or blocking certain website tips,” Hammett explained. “When it’s a specific instruction about how to aid a certain movement, people find it easier to interact with the movement itself and can then get involved on a deeper level.” 

Squitteri said the Ruth Project likes to share student speeches at school board meetings and work really closely at the local level. “Hearing students speak at the root has had an incredible impact, and sharing these speeches on social media really helps inspire others through demonstrating that anyone can make a change even through smaller actions at more local levels. Another method is to share something that’s true but shocking to get the attention of others who maybe haven’t heard about a topic before but feel overwhelmed to get involved in a movement they didn’t even know existed.”

Rubio advised that it’s additionally important to collaborate and unite across partners and platforms so you can have maximum reach. “Whether that’s having town halls like these or sharing the same infographics on Instagram, the organization in this messaging is what often helps others feel like a movement is important and its action items are attainable.”

“Reminding others that you don’t need to be a huge influencer or superhuman on social media to make a difference is very important,” Tati chimed in. “We like to ensure that our followers and supporters are prepared, and harnessing the energy others already have and reflecting that in social media has had a great impact for us.”

Peeler-Allen turns the conversation more specifically to the issue of equality and the Equal Rights Amendment in the midterm elections, asking how the panelists message this issue for younger audiences?

Hammett said that she thinks education really comes first. “So many people don’t even realize that the ERA isn’t ratified, and then following that information with a call to action is the best way to get that message to those audiences.”

Rubio said the Feminist Front tries to emphasize that the conversation on the ERA is still here and not dead! “This is a victory we can see in our lifetime, and by tying the ERA to other issues and movements we can show these individuals how important it is across the board. Then following with action items for them to follow through and actually become a part of the movement themselves. There is still urgency in this fight!”

Going off of that, Tati said that emphasizing the impact that the ERA would have when published really highlights its importance, especially to people who aren’t as aware of what it would do in their lives. 

Squitteri brought up the connections between Title IX and the ERA, and the point that a lot of the younger generation has already interacted with Title IX. “We can expand their thoughts regarding equality from their schools to the national level. We emphasize how much Title IX has done for equality, and how much more the ERA could and would do, and then show how we can advocate for these constitutional protections. The ERA is so much bigger and would go so much further.”

What does success look like for your group?

The group then discussed what success itself looks like when talking to a young potential voter, or when posting an educational video on TikTok or Instagram.

Hammett explained that they can see “the numbers themselves in terms of registrations, clicks, saves, etc., and you can see bluntly the impact you’re making, but what means more often on social media is seeing and hearing how someone who used to maybe hate the movements I supported or didn’t understand my larger messages come back to me and say that after following me for so long, everything sort of clicked for them and they’ve come around the understanding why the issues I talk about are so important. Seeing that individual difference and knowing I can help teach that same growth to others is beyond meaningful.”

Rubio said it’s really a stamina game. “You can’t be so over-obsessed with the numbers that you lose sight of what’s important, so for me, looking at the depth of engagement and who is constantly active with our movements helps sustain that idea of success.”

Squitteri said the Ruth Project does look at numbers, too, “but as everyone else has reflected, you have to go beyond that so see how your engagement has evolved over time. We are a really mentor-ship heavy organization, so we look not only at our own progress but the evolution of those we’ve worked with to see our continued reach over a longer period of time and across larger audiences.”

Tati explained that Generation Ratify measures their success through the follow-through on the action items they post as opposed to the interactions with the posts and videos themselves. “Seeing how our presence on social media actually cultivates action is an amazing way to see our impact and true tangible reach.”

Advice on getting involved for the first time

To close the discussion, Peeler-Allen asked each speaker for their advice to young people looking to get involved and join the cause. How do they do that right now, at this moment?

“As a younger person wanting to enter the organizing space, it’s really important to read up on policy, start talking to people on a grassroots level, and follow organizations like ours on social media and how you can get involved locally to get started in the work,” Tati advised.

Hammett agreed, saying “I completely reiterate what Tati just explained. Getting involved locally in your community is super important. Look at the organizations, school clubs, and just keep an eye out for those things.”

Rubio suggested doing things with their friends to start. “Organize with them, start a club if there isn’t one to be found, and lean on each other for support as you delve into the world of organizing! It’s scary to do things on your own especially when you’re young – you’re not alone and make it an invitation to go to calls, rallies, and everything and anything else!”

Watch the full town hall

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