The Young and the Registered

Apathetic no more, youth groups organize a new political force

| November-December 2003

You did what?

“After going to city council meeting after city council meeting with a hundred supporters and losing 2-7 each time, we decided that to stop this road from being built, we had to get involved in the electoral scene. We developed a political action committee and a political consulting firm. In four years we’ve gone from a 2-7 vote to a 5-4 vote. We replaced three of our strongest opponents with three champions. We filed a successful ethics charge against one of our strongest opponents, since she was in bed with the developers. The road fight is still going on right now, and we’re hard at work preparing for this November's council races. Long-term, we've built a new political force led by young people of color that has reshaped Albuquerque politics.”

Meet Eli Lee. Formerly the head of an organization called Youth Action, Eli realized early that while organizing young people is great, you have to build electoral power too. His current company,, runs some of the nation's most sophisticated grassroots political campaigns.

Until I met Eli a couple years ago, I wasn’t really into electoral politics. I think I only voted once in my adult life from age 18 to 28. Even when I was a youth activism consultant for Rock the Vote in the 1990s, I didn't bother to vote. In my eyes, the job was about connecting folks with "real" political activism—the grassroots kind.

It's not that I was totally against voting, it’s just that I moved around so much I didn't know who the local candidates were and I had no reason to believe my one measly vote mattered. To this day, no one in my adult life has ever asked me whether I vote or not. Not once. Not my parents. Not my “political” friends. And until last year I never asked anyone either.

Voting seemed the lowest form of political activity until I met Eli. I've spent the past two years as part of a team that created the Future 500 (—the first serious attempt at a directory of youth organizations and activists in the United States. A group of 12 of us talent-scouted 500 of the most kick-ass youth groups in the 50 states. When people asked me what the groups achieved, I found I usually got the biggest reaction when I told them stories of electoral victories, like the one in Albuquerque described by Eli Lee. The only problem was, there weren't many of these stories. The vast majority of Future 500 groups—among the most vital youth organizations in the United States—were not doing much with electoral politics.