Youth Advocates Look to Boost Civic Engagement in Communities of Color

March 30, 2017 /

By Hannah Esqueda

Photo via The California Endowment 


Civic engagement in communities of color across California has long lagged behind levels traditionally found in white communities. Now, a new study looks at how and why those disparities could continue in future generations.

According to the study, “Unequal Voices, Part II,” released by the statewide advocacy group Advancement Project, California’s Asian-American and Latino adult populations are vastly underrepresented in most political activities, while whites are overrepresented. From donations to petitions, voters of color are less likely than white counterparts to engage with politicians and campaigns.  

This pattern is reflected in both the older adult population and millennials aged 18-34, suggesting it won’t simply erode over time, said John Dobard, manager of Political Voice at the Advancement Project.

Such pervasive racial disparities are particularly problematic considering 70 percent of the 8 million young adults entering the California electorate between now and 2030 will be people of color. Advocates warn of the need to restructure the traditional engagement model to be more reflective of the state’s majority-minority makeup.

“If you’re not contacted by campaigns or political parties, you’re less likely to participate or be activated,” Dobard said. “So there’s a choice that campaigns and parties can make.”

Despite lower participation rates for many civic engagement activities investigated in the study, Dobard said researchers were encouraged by the overall lack of political apathy reported by key groups, including Latinos.

“It may not be that people don’t want to participate but because they don’t know how to,” he said.

Indeed, people of color reported higher levels of participation compared to whites on a few civic activities including protesting and attending public meetings.

According to the report, Pacific Islander and black respondents were the most likely to attend political meetings, at 36 percent and 30 percent respectively, compared to 26 percent of whites. Latinos were also found to attend public meetings at rates similar to whites, marking this particular activity as one of the few where racial disparities were lowest.

More evidence is needed to determine the specific reason for this trend, but Dobard said he suspects the recent changes surrounding school funding laws have helped. California schools receive money from the state under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which also requires higher levels of parent engagement and participation in the planning and accountability process.

The study also found that younger voters of color are more likely than whites to attend political protests, with black millennials reporting the highest levels of participation.

But if the political voices of all California’s communities are to be heard, the report suggests more work needs be done to help address structural barriers preventing voters of color from participating across the board. That work begins with youth, and advocates throughout the state suggest engaging young people within the civic process as key to developing long term participation patterns.

To engage youth in the civic process, however, many groups must first demonstrate how local or state politics impact the lives of young people, said Victor Gonzalez, project manager and former civic and youth engagement coordinator for Building Healthy Communities (BHC) in Eastern Coachella Valley.

The Coachella site, located about three hours east of Los Angeles, is one of 14 BHC hubs throughout the state focusing on a 10-year initiative aimed at transforming communities through hyper-local civic work.

“What we found is that our youth sometimes struggled understanding the root causes of issues they were experiencing within their community,” Gonzalez said.

In 2015, the BHC site in Coachella began working with Mikva Challenge, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to engaging high school students in the political process through hands-on and project-based learning.

Using curriculum crafted by the Mikva Challenge, Gonzalez said he helped establish a core group of youth interested in identifying and addressing key political issues at the local level.

“Students a lot of times hear that they are not capable of doing things beyond what their parents are doing here, and that’s disappointing,” he said. “We focused specifically on getting them to have fun and take a sense of ownership in their community.”

While funding for the Mikva partnership ended last year, Gonzalez said the essence of the work has continued through the Youth Organizing Council, which in December hosted a soapbox challenge for students to speak out on issues in front of community leaders.

“We’re really enhancing that sense of power that students seemed to be missing,” he said.

Students spoke on issues ranging from LCFF funding and housing to transportation issues afflicting the rural Eastern Coachella Valley.

Members of the Youth Organizing Council will monitor these issues throughout the year, holding local politicians and school board members accountable while also working to make their friends and family more aware, Gonzalez said.

According to the Advancement Project report, those private conversations between family and friends are among the strongest indicators of whether or not an individual is likely to get involved in the civic process. Few voters of color report engaging in such discussions regularly however, and advocates say that’s a key hurdle.

“What we’re seeing is that our community members, depending on how long they’ve been engaged in our organization, have varying levels of comfort to discuss politics or trends,” said Jonathan Paik, director of the Korean Resource Center (KRC) in Orange County.

The center works with many first-generation and low-income Korean-Americans, offering resources and mobilizing the community around many local issues. Established 34 years ago, KRC has locations in Los Angeles and Orange County and works with three different age groups, including high-school and college-aged youth.

The youth work is mainly focused on establishing awareness of the political process and encouraging young people to get involved in a way they can appreciate, Paik said.

“We really meet the needs of our youth members in a way, environment and atmosphere that is most catered to the needs of young folks,” he said.

“We try to ensure that it’s not a traditional community town hall forum. It can be as informal as a cafe-takeover where members will meet up for a few hours and talk,” he continued.

These discussions are meant to help assuage fears of being judged for publicly sharing an opinion on divisive political issues and can be key to identifying local matters youth members find important.

KRC also is careful to ground its civic engagement work within the cultural identity of its members, and Paik said the youth programs work hard to bring cultural competence to each campaign.

“It’s really about being able to carve out a space for members and help them find complete agency,” he said.

Most of the youth programming is youth-led, allowing participants the opportunity to grow within the organization. Such roles also help to ensure that members remain active in their community and develop stronger patterns of civic engagement within the next generation of voters.

“It’s really up to organizers to change these trends [of low civic engagement],” Paik said. “We’re building the conversation to be normalized within the community and show people that it’s OK to express a want for change.”


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