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When Eugene Vang, 20, was in high school getting ready to apply for colleges, he began looking for ways to get more involved in community service or other leadership activities.
He started attending a leadership program where students like himself talked about community issues. Vang, who is Hmong, comes from a family of 11, including eight siblings. His parents came to the United States as refugees from Thailand in the 1990s. He was born and raised in Merced, CA, a town about 60 miles northwest of Fresno and that has a population of 85,000 people.
“We talked about why south Merced, where my family lives, looks so different from north Merced. Why did we have fewer grocery stores? Why did we have less resources? Why did my parents have to struggle so hard for basic necessities?” Vang recalled. “I had never really thought about it before. But the most important thing I learned was that I could do something about it. I could be a part of changing that and that I could be a part of a movement that is bigger than me to create the change we want in our communities.”
What started out as a way for Vang to beef up his college resume became much more and changed his perspective on the world. Vang became more involved in programs like 99Rootz, where he learned about social justice issues in the Central Valley, about the political process and how to organize and mobilize his peers.
He is now a part-time youth organizer with 99Rootz, which is run by Power California. This statewide youth civic engagement organization empowers young voters of color in rural, urban and suburban communities. As an organizer, Vang helps recruit other young people from rural communities like Sanger, Merced and Fresno and trains them on voter registration, outreach and grassroots organizing.
Power of Young Voters of Color
Young people of color like Vang are a part of a shifting electorate in California and speak to the potential power they could have in shaping California's future. According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 60% of California's voting-age population is people of color and more than half are under the age of 44.
This year, Vang along with nearly 200 other young people across the state in organizations and programs like 99Rootz are mobilizing tens of thousands of young voters of color to the polls as part of Power California’s Fight For Our Future campaign.
“The campaign has trained young people of color to reach out to other young people from their communities about what’s on the ballot and at stake in this election,” said Luis Sanchez, executive director of Power California. “It’s not just about the presidency. We are educating voters about important ballot measures like Proposition 15 that will have a direct impact on their lives and communities. We also want to make sure young people have the information they need about how to vote, like their multiple voting options, so they can make their voices heard.”
With a little over a week left until Nov. 3, the campaign has already reached close to 100,000 people, Sanchez said.
Historically young Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian Pacific Islander voters are considered “low-propensity” voters because they don’t turn out as consistently and at rates that match their voter eligibility.
But that’s really a symptom of a larger problem — not the problem itself, youth civic engagement experts, like Sanchez argue. Oftentimes, traditional political campaigns and political parties ignore or neglect young voters of color and the results of those decisions are reflected in their low turnout.
Youth voter turnout has also started to change and increase, especially in the last few election cycles. Organizations like Power California and the 25 youth organizations in its network are helping to change that.
Campaigns like Power California that rely on young people reaching out directly to their peers can be particularly effective in mobilizing younger voters, says Dr. Veronica Terriquez, a professor of sociology at the UC Santa Cruz, who has done extensive research on youth civic engagement.
“In 2018, we conducted an experiment to study the effectiveness of the 99Rootz voter outreach program. We compared a predicted voter turnout between a randomly selected ‘control group’ of voters between the age of 18-34 who received no voter outreach and those of the same age who received information via phone and text from 99Rootz. We found that young voters who spoke to 99Rootz youth volunteers turned out to vote at an estimated average of 18% points higher than comparable voters,” Terriquez said.
Central Valley was not the only region where this model has been successful. Terriquez was also able to study Power California’s peer-to-peer program in Southern California and found young people were also successful in increasing turnout among their peers for the same election.
Terriquez believes campaigns like these helped fuel historic turnout by young voters in the 2018 midterm election. In 2018, 18-24-year-old voter participation increased by 200-400% in various regions in California compared to the previous 2014 midterm. These young voters could also have a profound impact on this year’s potentially historic youth turnout as well.
Power of Peer-To-Peer
“Traditional political campaigns or parties often fail with young voters because they don’t really take the time to understand their experiences or what they care about. It’s very transactional and young people see through that,” Sanchez says. “But when young people hear from other young people who come from the same community or have shared similar hardships, there is more trust and deeper engagement.”
Jaqueline Cruz, who is 22 and a senior at Cal State Los Angeles, started working with Power California three years ago. She started out phonebanking and registering voters, and now she helps coordinate volunteers and paid teams contacting voters.
She had never been involved in any political campaigns before working with Power California. She is a DACA recipient and can't vote. Her status is a big motivation for her.
Her family moved to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles when she was two. She never thought much about her status until she began applying for college, and she realized how it might limit her options. "It used to make me mad to see people who had all these opportunities and financial support and just watch them waste it. Sometimes it still does."
“Even though I can’t vote, it feels like I am doing my part,” Cruz said. “I can’t directly influence the process as a voter, but I can influence others by giving them information about issues and the impact on our communities so they can then make an educated choice when they go vote.”
There's one call she always remembers. The person was about to hang up, which happens a lot. He was initially annoyed and didn't want to talk. But she was able to get him to stay on the phone.
"He asked me how I was going to vote. I explained to him as a DACA recipient, I couldn't vote, but I thought it was really important that other young people who could vote, did. His attitude changed. He apologized and promised that he would vote. I always remember that one — how he wanted to hang up but I changed his mind about voting.”
Similarly, Noe Gudino, who is 27 and lives in Richmond, CA, believes that his background as a young Black Latinx person who was in and out of juvenile hall makes it easier for other young people to connect with him.
Gudino is a member of RYSE Youth Center and coordinates a team of young people calling voters every night from 3-8 p.m.
"Growing up, I had no reference to voting and have no recollection of my parents voting or anyone in my family being a part of any organizing. Most people in my immediate family don't get involved in politics," Gudino said. Gudino’s experience is a lot like other young people of color who may not have grown up with voting as part of their family experience. Their parents may not have been able to vote or not have known how. As a young person, they may be a first-generation voter.
"Talking to young people on the phone, there is a familiarity you get. There's a connection you can make when they reveal their age, and they realize you are in the same ballpark. We can relate because we are similar in age. I tell them my point of view while listening to theirs and try to address their concerns and questions," Gudino said.
Voter Outreach in the Time of COVID
Due to the pandemic, voter outreach in this election looks really different. Instead of bringing everyone together to knock on doors or make calls together, young people are making calls from their own homes. Where once they would all be in the same physical room together eating pizza and snacks between phone calls, now callers are connected virtually in a Zoom room as they make their calls. But that has not deterred people like Gudino.
“Working under COVID conditions has been difficult. It’s hard being in the house all time. I miss the community. But what’s keeping my energy up is being focused and connected to everything happening in my daily life; watching and reading the news. It motivates me to want to change something. I am going to keep working hard like my ancestors. These have been challenging times in history and that’s stopped some but not many. I am going to be a part of that many.”
Author's note: Kay Cuajunco assisted in interview with Noe Gudino.
Top Image: 99Rootz youth leaders at a volunteer phone bank at an office in Atwater, Merced County in Spring 2020. | Crisantema Gallardo