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As the country faces a crisis of trust, there are leaders across the U.S. who are working to fix broken systems and strengthen our democracy. In 2019, national venture philanthropy organization New Profit identified seven democracy entrepreneurs who are using innovative models of organizing, supporting a new generation of leaders, and shaping a narrative that promotes unity. This multi-part series features interviews with these democracy entrepreneurs. Learn more about New Profit’s Civic Lab initiative.
With 11 affiliates, Alliance for Youth Organizing supports and scales the work of local organizations, building a movement of young people, by young people, and for all people.
Executive Director Sarah Audelo recently shared her insights with Giving Compass. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you share a bit about Alliance for Youth Organizing’s history?
Our organization is a national federation that is made up of individual youth-led affiliate organizations. We were founded by four of those affiliates. In the late 2000s, they all found out about each other. They decided to create a place to learn, fundraise, and drive more money into their organizations. We were originally called the Bus Federation because a bunch of young people would pile into a bus and start canvassing in neighborhoods to turn people out to vote. All of this came from a desire for folks to come together.
How is Alliance for Youth Organizing helping to create a more robust democracy in the U.S.?
We are a few different things, but mostly we are a capacity builder. We work with these youth organizations to be strong and healthy organizations in their communities. We're providing them support on everything from issue campaigns, specifically around democracy reform and voting rights, and also acting as a funding intermediary. We can connect donors directly to a group or they can move resources through us.
How we connect to democracy: First, all of our groups are doing some type of electoral engagement work to turn out the youth vote. Second, we're really working to tackle the existing system that makes it harder for people to engage. For example, voter registration is really complicated in states like Texas. We’re trying to work with our group there, MOVE Texas, to get the law changed so it's easier for people to register to vote and easier to turn out to vote.
We are also pushing candidates to target young people and see them as an important part of the electorate and a vote they should be chasing. All of that is about building a stronger, healthier democracy.
Why is entrepreneurship needed in this space?
With youth-led organizations and youth-centered organizations, you’re really working with a generation that hasn’t had decades of work that tells them, “no, you can’t.” Instead, they have this fresh, new approach to get to these outcomes that we all want in terms of increasing voter participation. Our folks in Chicago at Chicago Votes created a Parade to the Poll program where they work with cheerleaders and marching bands at high schools to march young people down the street to participate in voting. Our folks at Minnesota Youth Collective do voter engagement and education events at drag brunches to reach young people where they are.
We want to make sure that people are making educated, informed decisions about the country, but we can also make it fun. That’s where you get that entrepreneurial spirit in a lot of this work.
What can philanthropists do to better support democracy entrepreneurs and civic leaders in the U.S.?
This work happens 365 days a year. Elections don’t just happen in presidential years. There are judicial races, ballot measures, city council elections, and gubernatorial races up and down the ballot. We have to make sure groups are able to do their own organizing and advocacy work to change laws or stop bad laws. All of that organizing and advocacy work is important to build our democracy, but also to keep people engaged for the long run.
Donors can make sure organizations have enough money to register young voters, to turn out young voters, to ensure that they're able to do things like have parades to the polls, host candidate forums, or run digital programs to reach their audiences. Peer-to-peer work is helping to develop voters for the long run.
It’s all about investing in our leaders. We have new young leaders coming in who are entrepreneurs themselves who have brilliant new ideas about how to engage their peers and make sure they can meet them where they are. But we have to invest in those leaders. We have to make sure they know how to be an executive director, write a budget, and fundraise. We need to make sure they have a community of peers. We talk about investing in people now, but really we're building out a more robust democracy infrastructure for the future.
What are you hopeful about? Where do you see bright spots?
The generational approach to this work is absolutely a bright spot. Young people have been resilient. We've seen the horrible shooting in Parkland birth March for Our Lives. We've seen young people take to the streets around climate change and the creation of the Sunrise Movement. We've been continuing work by young immigrants with groups like United We Dream. The groups that we work with are working with young people across the country on a multitude of issues.
Young people want to engage, but it's about making sure that there are people there to engage them. It’s about making sure there is capacity, whether it's staff or volunteers, to reach that young person who wants to engage, but doesn't know how.
What can we do as everyday citizens to help rebuild trust in our communities and strengthen our democracy?
There are organizations in nearly every community in the country that you can join. Attend civic meetings. I always like to remind people that these are not spaces to be intimidated by. We’re all experts of our own experiences and that expertise is vital for us to share with those who are making decisions on our behalf. Get involved, specifically when there are young people out there who are struggling to find a home. Maybe there is an intergenerational organization that's not welcoming or maybe it's a community that doesn't have many options. Create your own. Create that home for people to come to.