Engaging a New Generation of Leaders

Millennials, young adults between the ages of 22 and 37, will soon overtake baby boomers as the country’s largest generational block. California’s millennials are also the most racially diverse generation in American history: a full 70 percent are people of color. And many come from families that are working but struggling with poverty, against the backdrop of a rapidly shifting economy.

What does it take to support millennials in becoming civic leaders, given the unique lived experience and points of view they bring? This week I had the privilege of moderating an inspiring discussion on this topic at the Southern California Grantmakers Public Policy Conference in Los Angeles on “Innovative Civic and Voter Engagement Methods for a New Generation.”

The panelists, leaders in civic and voter engagement, offered insights on how we can empower young adults through new approaches to grassroots organizing. It’s a topic the Irvine Foundation cares about deeply. Irvine has supported voter and civic engagement as a primary grantmaking strategy for about 15 years. Recently, we have been exploring young adult-focused partnerships as a way to scale and diversify the impact of our funding. The speakers on this panel provided concrete examples of those efforts in motion.

What was clear from our conversation is that supporting a new generation of leaders requires us all to listen, learn, and fund in new ways. Here are topline reflections from our discussion.

Why does it matter?

California’s electorate doesn’t reflect the state’s rich diversity. In fact, there’s a dramatic demographic mismatch between who influences and shapes the decisions that most impact our lives and the characteristics of our state’s population, according to panelist Jennifer Ito, Research Director at the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE).

For example, of the roughly 40 percent of eligible voters in the state who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, most were people of color, much younger, renters rather than homeowners, and were less affluent than likely voters.

This generation gap has real consequences, Ito underscored. Her research highlighted the extensive level at which immigration, mass incarceration, and education policies impact California’s millennials. Although these policies disproportionately impact millennials, our younger generation is not naturally positioned to influence those policies absent targeted grassroots education and mobilization supports.

The power of now

Luis Sanchez, Senior Fellow with the Movement Strategy Center and founder of YVote, an effort to mobilize young voters of color in California, says that civic duty has to be made tangible for today’s millennials. He believes that emerging leaders need to see the purpose and power of their vote. Parkland, Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movements are helping young people see exactly that.

It’s critical to capture young peoples’ interest during this wave of civic activism and support their leadership early. Sanchez says research shows that if young people vote in two consecutive election cycles, their likelihood to become consistent voters notably increases. On the contrary, if young people don’t register and vote in their first election, many won’t get involved again until into their 30s, if they choose to get involved at all.

Engaging young people consistently is also key to keeping them involved long term. Democracy is not about the day you vote, Sanchez says. It’s about the days leading up to and following an election and how you show up to shape your community. Sanchez reflected on his own coming up in Los Angeles, being a product of leadership development programs, and activism that spoke to the issues he and his family were facing. He looked to Amy, a fellow panelist, as a reminder of how he got to be where he is today.

From youth leader to youth organizer

Amy Leang Horn, a Field Organizer with Khmer Girls in Action, exemplifies youth leadership in action. Raised in Long Beach, she was inspired to get involved in her community after a friend was killed in a Long Beach police shooting and people close to her were facing deportation.

As a youth leader, she learned there was little funding for youth programs, so she and her peers took on a massive survey effort to collect data for a presentation to local leaders on the issue. Her work made decisionmakers listen and take the young adult voices seriously. Horn says we have to change the cultural aspects of politics and build relationships with young adults based on the things they care about, which is often at the intersection of multiple identities: age, race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, and more.

Recommendations for funders

The rich conversation offered a number of insights for funders. Panelist Christian Arana, Director of Policy at the Latino Community Foundation, emphasized the need for general operating or flexible support to allow organizations to be nimble. Arana also recommended prioritizing supporting organizations with diverse leadership that’s reflective of and responsive to the communities they aim to serve. For example, he said only 1 percent of foundation funding goes to Latino-led organizations. In response to this data the Latino Community Foundation now has a Latino organization accelerator to boost capacity of Latino-led organizations and those serving the Latino community.

Other recommendations from the panelists and audience include:

  • While a policy win might be important, so is how the campaigns are resourced, how the process builds power among young people, and what role young people can play in the implementation of the policy win.
  • Grantmakers should be mindful that we are not the movement but rather part of the ecosystem. We play a critical supportive role, so we should trust and empower leaders in the field to design strategies rather than doing it ourselves.
  • Funders must organize philanthropy to get aligned on strategic priorities, effective funding practices, and collaborative resource pools, so that nonprofit organizations and leaders can focus their energies on engaging with young adults rather than on fundraising.
  • Foundations should incentivize grantees to learn from each other and to partner and collaborate, rather than fragmenting funds across many isolated projects with limited connectivity or collective impact.
  • Philanthropy should prioritize investments in the “fishhook” region of the state, including Inland Empire counties of San Bernardino and Riverside, the Central Valley, San Diego, and Orange counties. The opportunity to build nonprofit capacity for civic engagement there is ripe and can benefit from robust statewide networks.
  • California’s demographics reflect the nation’s future, so we should support home-grown leaders to share their stories, models, and lessons nationally.

What really struck me in this conversation is that there are roles for all kinds of funders, regardless of whether civic engagement is a primary grantmaking strategy or one that’s in support of other efforts. More importantly, voting is only one element on the spectrum of civic engagement. A number of tried-and-true engagement strategies for different populations exist, and innovative organizations are experimenting to discover what works for the next generations. As funders, supporting organizations to experiment and sharing learnings amongst the field and funders is critical to determine supports for young leaders and to inform future investments.

Because California is not considered a battleground state, funders here have observed that our national peers are often less inclined to prioritize civic engagement here. It’s up to Southern California grantmakers and our philanthropic colleagues across the state to invest, given the positive impact this new generation of leaders is poised to have on the future of our region, state, and our nation.

I’m inspired daily to support promising organizations activating a new generation of leaders like Amy. As funders, let’s rally to support millennials with the resources to set their own agenda now and to partner across generations for our shared future.

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