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How youth organizers in Texas mobilized Gen Z to score local victories and build for the future

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On one of the final days of early voting in the 2020 presidential election, a woman marched up to the Carver Library polling station in Austin, Texas with a purpose. Another woman trailing behind her told the crowd of onlookers, “That’s my mother, Joyce. This is her first time voting. Will you cheer for her when she comes out?”

Joyce wasn’t just someone who had previously chosen not to vote. As her daughter explained, Joyce was formerly incarcerated — which meant, according to Texas law, she had to complete her sentence and the conditions of parole or probation before regaining her right to cast a ballot.

This election and this work are a chance for us to make systemic change in our society.

For me and the other young people who work with Youth Rise Texas — a nonprofit organization that uplifts youth impacted by familial incarceration or deportation — it was a moment of catharsis and celebration as Joyce walked out of the library having participated in her first election.

Like many of my fellow organizers at Youth Rise Texas, I’ve had friends and family affected by unjust immigration laws. I’ve also experienced firsthand how my family, hailing from Bolivia, has been othered in this country because of the way we look and the languages we speak. This election and this work are a chance for us to make systemic change in our society.

Our get-out-the-vote street team worked for moments like this one in the weeks leading up to Election Day. We organized youth through local high schools, taught them about the voting process and why it’s important, hosted weekly Zoom “power hours” to discuss voting, provided rides to the polls, created a GOTV zine with information on registering and casting a ballot, and registered nearly 1,000 first-time voters.

As frustratingly slow as it was for the results to come in last week, when they finally did we were relieved to see clear support for a return to the values of democracy and equality.

The city of Austin passed a $7 billion transportation plan. It will serve citizens of all ages, skin colors and socioeconomic backgrounds by adding light rail that will connect the city and greatly expand our bus service. While a progressive wave didn’t happen here in Texas, in the rest of the country, representation of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ increased all the way down the ballot.

Youth organizers in Texas created a zine to get out the vote and engage young people in the election. (WNV/Cindy Elizabeth Photography)

Of course, some of the results are still out. Here in Central Texas, we’re closely watching the Austin Independent School District runoffs in District 5 and for the At-Large Place 8 seat, which represents the entire district. As a young person in Travis County, I want to ensure that our schools are places of sanctuary for Black and Brown kids. Our school board should reflect those values, and its seats should be filled with folks who will help remove police influence from our classrooms.

Over the last six months, grassroots organizations helped convince young voters that — despite a seemingly broken system — their votes still count and could shape the future.

From what we know of the election results, we’re in a good position to see such changes.

Already, it has been a landmark year for the youth vote. By the end of October, Texans under 30 had cast one million votes, a 600 percent increase over the 2016 election. Four years ago, the majority of non-voters in Austin were under 30, with seniors outpacing them at a rate of three to one. But over the last six months, grassroots organizations helped convince young voters that — despite a seemingly broken system — their votes still count and could shape the future.

Youth Rise and our partners at the Texas Youth Power Alliance were only a few of the many groups doing similar grassroots organizing throughout the country. The work that we did as a community helped create a record-breaking turnout by Generation Z. We don’t know the number of voters with restored voting rights in 2020, but efforts continue in Texas and across the country to end the practice of disenfranchising people with felony convictions on parole or probation. Local organizing works, and we must continue!

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While the election may be over (depending on who you ask, unfortunately) our organizing efforts are just gearing up. We’re going to be working nonstop to fortify the wave of progressive voters who established themselves this year. We’ll continue to engage the voters we registered during election season, expand our reach in local schools, and help our young activists organize for school districts that educate rather than criminalize their students.

Texas and the country are still gerrymandered to the point that most races are all but inevitable for one party or the other. We still have systems in place that criminalize Black and Brown people and persecute immigrants. We still have schools that excessively discipline and police children of color. So, we’ll continue the organizing work — for Joyce, her daughter and all the first-time voters we engaged during our GOTV efforts. As one of my fellow youth organizers said a few days before the final results came in, “No matter who wins, we have to continue to organize and keep our people safe.”

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