16 Young Americans Shaping the 2016 Election - Rolling Stone
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16 Young Americans Shaping the 2016 Election

Millennials are working to overhaul America’s rotten political structure

16 Young Americans16 Young Americans

New technologies have created space for the emergence of a younger generation of tech-literate political activists and campaign workers.

Illustration by Ryan Casey

This election cycle has aroused the usual grumbling and finger-wagging at young Americans. Will they vote? Will they vote correctly? When Debbie Wasserman Shultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, surveyed the political landscape in January, she said she saw “complacency” among young women. “Young voters, all they know is Benghazi,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, when asked why they weren’t flocking to Hillary Clinton. Their liberal views “ought to frighten every business and political leader,” Republican pollster Frank Lutz warned in February, after he surveyed a group of 18- to 26-year-olds via Snapchat. More people between 18 and 21 told Lutz they’d prefer to have dinner with Bernie Sanders than with Beyoncé or Taylor Swift — liberal, yes, but it’s hard to argue they aren’t interested in politics.

What’s really remarkable about the 2016 election isn’t how disengaged young people are, but how profoundly they’re shaping it: from the outside, as activists; from the inside, as essential parts of the campaign machinery; and as voters. Millennials are more diverse than any other generation, and they occupy a slice of the electorate now as large as the Boomers’. Youth turnout in the primaries so far is on par with 2008, and in New York it was even higher, with people under 29 casting 14 percent of the ballots. Young voters could have a significant impact in at least 10 states this November, including the crucial battlegrounds of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado.

In the Democratic presidential primary, young people set many of the terms of debate. Early in her campaign, for instance, Hillary Clinton sat down with a group of DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants who, though they can’t vote themselves, have made protection from deportation an essential part of the Democratsimmigration agenda. Young Black Lives Matter activists forced Sanders to confront racial justice issues with more nuance, and called out Clinton for previously referring to black youths as “superpredators.” Thanks to young climate activists, both candidates have promised to ban fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Under pressure from students, both put forward plans they say will end college debt. Young organizers are influencing local races, too: Anita Alvarez, the Chicago prosecutor who was slow to charge police officers involved in the deaths of young black civilians, was booted from office in April after a months-long campaign led by the Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters.

The Democratic presidential campaigns, along with outside political groups, also rely on the skills of young organizers, digital experts and pollsters. When Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, the iPhone wasn’t even available for purchase. Now, smartphones and other digital media are revolutionizing the way campaigns communicate with donors and voters, and the shift has created space for a younger generation of tech-literate political activists and campaign workers to fill.

The Olds aren’t entirely wrong to worry about youth participation, but to say the kids are the problem misses the point. Discouragement is baked into the system: Voting is much more difficult than it should be, and, under the guise of fighting voter fraud, Republicans in some states are making it even harder for students and others to do so. Voters in 16 states face new restrictions in this election, the first since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Many millennials are too busy working a handful of shit-paying jobs to pay off debt or support their kids to get involved in campaigns. Citizens United and other gut punches to campaign finance laws send a message to young people that their voices don’t matter — why bother speaking when big money has the bull horn? And the candidates the most diverse generation in American history is asked to rally behind are still predominantly rich, white and male — pick any two out of three — though there are finally some exceptions. Young people are out there trying to patch up, or tear down, this rotten political structure, too.

In search of an apathy antidote, Rolling Stone talked to 16 of the millennials making a mark on the left side of the election.

Kelley Robinson, 30
Deputy National Organizing Director, Planned Parenthood Action Fund

A former cage fighter from the south side of Chicago, Kelley Robinson knows that a woman’s power depends on being in control of her own body. “My mom used to always say, ‘Take care of your spirit, take care of your hair, and take care of your body, ’cause those are the only things that we got.’ I think that’s real,” says Robinson. That’s what led her to the reproductive rights movement and to Planned Parenthood, which is fending off both the smear campaign launched last summer by a series of now-discredited undercover videos, and an onslaught of anti-choice legislation at the state level. As one of Planned Parenthood’s top political organizers, Robinson works to train and mobilize the group’s supporters not just to defend reproductive rights, but to expand them through proactive legislation.

Getting pro-choice candidates elected — including Hillary Clinton, whom Planned Parenthood endorsed early this year — is a major focus of her work this year. “We’re facing one of the most extreme slates of Republican candidates in my lifetime,” says Robinson, who also serves on the board of the reproductive justice collective SisterSong. Right now she’s putting together a massive event, scheduled for May, to train volunteer leaders for electoral work. It would be hard to fault Planned Parenthood’s supporters for feeling a bit beleaguered after so many attacks, but Robinson says they aren’t tired — they’re angry, and ready. Her job is to give them an “opportunity to feel our power, and develop the muscle memory around what it feels like to win.”

Charlene Carruthers

Charlene Carruthers, 30
National Director, Black Youth Project 100

“Unapologetic” is the word Charlene Carruthers often uses to describe herself and BYP 100, one of the most ambitious racial justice groups to assemble amid the rage and sadness over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and others. The Chicago-based collective is most well-known for direct actions — like shutting down the annual convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, taking control of police board meetings and getting Confederate monuments torn down — but the group is also working to build electoral muscle through its “I’m Young, I’m Black, and I Vote” campaign, which arose as a critique of the Democratic Party for failing to engage youth of color. BYP 100 was instrumental in getting Chicago prosecutor Anita Alvarez thrown out of office in March; the group’s Durham chapter is currently organizing against a new $81 million police facility while doing more traditional civic engagement work like voter registration.

Carruthers’ leadership is almost accidental: It evolved after an academic she was hoping to study political science under convinced her to lead a meeting of 100 black millennials from across the country, a meeting that happened to take place the weekend George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Martin. She was hardly a novice organizer, though, having led campaigns for the Center for Community Change, the Women’s Media Center, ColorOfChange.org and National People’s Action. Under Carruthers, BYP 100 operates through a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist lens — not everyone in the collective identifies as queer, or even feminist, she says, but their goal is to untangle interlocking types of oppression.

“Generally what we hear is that young black people don’t care about elections, or we don’t know how to do real political organizing,” says Carruthers. “We do street canvassing, we do phone banking and tabling, but we also know that times have evolved. When the people who are the messengers look like you, or come from where you come from, it’s a different experience than having people who wouldn’t step foot in your neighborhood otherwise drop in to try to get you to vote for their campaign.”

Christopher Torres, 33
Campaign Manager, Center for Community Change Action

A prevailing assumption about American politics is that demographics will eventually kill the GOP. As the electorate grows more diverse, the story goes, Republicans will have to come down from their fortress of whiteness, or be overrun. Chris Torres puts a big asterisk on that story: Demographics won’t matter unless immigrants and people of color register to vote, and then do so.

Torres is in charge of the field program for the largest immigrant-voter effort in the country this year, a $20 million campaign to mobilize 400,000 new voters in key swing states. Early in his career, Torres worked for individual campaigns — for Barack Obama and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse — but came to the conclusion that electing good candidates was only a piece of the puzzle. “The other part was that we needed to build a strong progressive movement that engaged constituencies that are really important if we want to see our politics change. To me, that constituency was immediately the Latino and immigrant community,” he says. So he moved to the Southwest and worked with a group called Promise Arizona that registered more than 60,000 voters in the state during its first three years, and led campaigns to recall an anti-immigrant state senator and the notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Torres’ focus now — with the backing of a super PAC called Immigrant Voters Win — is on Colorado, Nevada and Florida, three states where Latinos could determine the outcome of the presidential election. “I can’t think of any Republican winning the election without winning Florida,” Torres says. “You want to be president? Great. You have to go through immigrant voters.”

Jessica Byrd, 29
Founder, Three Point Strategies

Ninety percent of elected officials in the U.S. are white. White men, specifically, have four times as much political power as women of color. “Our legislative bodies don’t actually match our lives,” says Jessica Byrd, so “the things that we need in our communities aren’t being represented in legislation.” Byrd’s mission: to change what power looks like.

Byrd grew up in a working-poor neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where her mom worked at the polls for extra cash. As a kid, Byrd would sit and watch the voters go in and out of the voting booths while her mom did her hair. She joined her first campaign at 17, became addicted to winning, and went on to work for the Obama campaign in 2008. She moved to Washington at the height of the Tea Party movement and joined EMILY’s List, where she built the first national program that intentionally recruited women of color to run for office. Last year, Byrd founded her own firm, Three Point Strategies, and with a grant from the Women Donors Network began trying to pinpoint why, exactly, the face of power is uniform.

“I’ve always worked on campaigns, but I’ve never had time to pause and say, What the hell is happening that so many awesome people I work with either arent excited to run or cant get elected?” says Byrd. What she found is a discouraging mess: party gatekeepers blocking the path of nontraditional candidates they don’t consider viable, candidates from poor communities having trouble fundraising, voter confusion and disenfranchisement, and districts so gerrymandered that all the candidates of color are stuck competing with each other for a single seat. This year Byrd is using her research to help organizations led by people of color recruit activists to run, and help them over those hurdles. “There is going to be a very real movement all across this country in the next decade,” she believes, “where folks are going to take these systems into their own hands and make them work for them.”

Tara Houska

Tara Houska, 31
Native American Advisor, Bernie Sanders for President

“It’s very easy to feel disenfranchised” as a Native American, says Tara Houska. The Minnesota native and tribal rights attorney has spent her career fighting to get Native Americans a seat at the political table, and in March she won herself a position with the Bernie Sanders campaign. She meets with tribal members in primary states, and helped shape Sanders’ Native American policy platform. “You don’t see a lot of politicians that will reach out to tribes and let them have a very strong say,” Houska says of Sanders. “He realized we were incredibly oppressed people that needed a voice, and he gave us that voice. More than that, he gave us the opportunity to speak for ourselves.”

When she’s not on the primary trail, Houska works on environmental justice issues in Indian country for a group called Honor the Earth. Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation in Ontario, got to know Sanders through the campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “Tribes are really on the front lines of a lot of these issues — with water issues, with climate change,” she says. Houska is also the co-founder of Not Your Mascots, a nonprofit challenging the use of Native American stereotypes by sports teams, particularly the Washington football team.

“We’re still struggling with, ‘Yes, we’re still here,'” she says. She believes education has a lot to do with it: The vast majority of references to Native Americans in school textbooks refer to pre-1900s tribes. “It’s one of America’s great shames, that they still leave us out of the conversation.”

Michael Whitney, 31
Digital Fundraising Director, Bernie Sanders for President

When Correct the Record, a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton, launched its first public attack on Bernie Sanders last year, his campaign turned the hit into a fundraising win. “Yesterday, one of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent Super PACs attacked our campaign pretty viciously,” read a fundraising email blasted out to Sanders’ supporters, which asked for a $3 contribution. “It was the kind of onslaught I expected to see from the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson.” In less than 48 hours the campaign received more than $1.2 million, from as many as 180 individual donors per minute. “We’ve never seen an immediate donor response like what the Sanders’ campaign received,” the director of a nonprofit that processes donations for Democratic candidates said at the time.

“That’s the kind of thing Michael does really well — seeing those opportunities in the news,” Kenneth Pennington, Sanders’ digital director, says of Michael Whitney, the man behind the email. Whitney cut his teeth as a co-founder of Generation Dean, the youth outreach arm of Howard Dean’s campaign, in 2003. Now he’s helping Sanders explode the old campaign-finance model. Instead of working through a rolodex of wealthy donors, Whitney is reaching out to people who may not have ever contributed to a campaign in their lives, and only have a few dollars to give. As a result, Sanders outraised Clinton in the first two months of 2016, and as of late March, his campaign had brought in $77 million from people giving less than $200 each.

The key, Whitney says, is “letting Bernie be Bernie,” which sometimes means his emails run upwards of 2,000 words. “When Bernie talks about a corrupt campaign-finance system, when he talks about the influence of super PACs, that’s real. People feel it,” says Whitney, who also works for the digital strategy firm Revolution Messaging. “Then when you present an opportunity for them to be a part of something, they’re going to take that opportunity.” Whitney’s approach stands out from the deceptive tactics an increasing number of mainstream political groups are adopting, such as disguising fundraising pitches as debt-collection notices. “We strive to be as direct and honest as possible. When a poll shows we’re down, we say, ‘We’re down. Help us close the gap,'” Whitney says. “I think that is increasingly rare in digital political fundraising.”

Lorella Praeli, 27
Latino Outreach Director, Hillary for America

When Praeli started going to meetings and rallies organized by the young undocumented activists who call themselves DREAMers, she went undercover. Though Praeli was undocumented herself, she didn’t want anyone to know; she went under the guise of a research project. “It was ridiculous: I was surrounded by other people who were undocumented but I was so afraid of being discovered,” she remembers. But there was something about seeing so many proud, excited people gathered together that changed her. She says, “I recognized that things don’t just change, but that you have to be a part of making that happen.” Praeli, who was born in Peru and came to the U.S. for medical reasons at age 10, went on to become the advocacy and policy director for United We Dream, one of the country’s most visible immigrant youth groups.

When Clinton tapped Praeli to lead her Latino outreach efforts last year, it illustrated the growing insider clout of the DREAMers, whose initial strategy relied on pushing politicians from the outside. (Sanders’ campaign team includes former undocumented activists as well.) “It’s a big transition,” says Praeli, who has never been able to vote in an election. “You’re going from being an external advocate to being inside of a campaign and a political structure, when you’ve spent years not even identifying yourself as a Democrat.”

Praeli has spent the last three months on the road, talking with voters and local officials and making sure their perspectives are incorporated into Clinton’s platform. “People talk about Latinos in this broad sense,” she says, “but there are things that need to be customized depending on what subgroup of the Latino community you’re engaging.” One big myth she’s constantly fighting is that Latinos only care about immigration. “While immigration is a central focus for the community and a very important issue, you know, Latinos care about everything else: national security and education and quality health care.”

Lorella Praeli

Adam Smith, 33
Communications Director, EveryVoice

Over the decade that Adam Smith has been working to explain that America’s campaign finance system is broken, America has started to wake up to just how broken it is. “There’s always been the horserace story: who’s raising the most money. But the conversation about influence is different — the fact that Hillary Clinton is having to defend Wall Street speeches and Wall Street money in almost every debate,” he says. “The American people feel in their bones that money influences politics and their voice isn’t heard.”

But that awareness has also made voters deeply cynical, so much so that it can be hard to convince them solutions are possible, says Smith. That’s what he’s trying to do at EveryVoice, a nonprofit campaign-finance-reform group with an affiliated super PAC. (They’re aware of the irony.) The group pushes ballot initiatives to empower small donors and hamstring special interests at the state and local level, and targets politicians, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who oppose reform. (Asked whether Trump’s self-funded campaign counts as an antidote to special interests, Smith says, “Being a billionaire is not a policy plan for reforming our political system.”) Last November the group scored in Maine, where voters approved a small-donor public financing system, and in Seattle, where they approved a novel voucher program that gives voters $25 to donate to the candidate of their choice.

Smith grew up in West Virginia; his first formative political experience was coming out as gay in a conservative area. His dad was a construction worker for most of his life, and later lost his job at a plant when his company shipped jobs overseas. “He doesn’t have that big of a voice in the political process,” Smith says. “I do this kind of work not just because I care about contribution limits. … I do it because I’m concerned about political equality and how we raise the voice of people like my dad back home.”

Tom Jensen, 32
Director, Public Policy Polling

Sixty percent of Republicans in South Carolina want Muslims to be banned from entering the United States, John McCain may be the most disliked Senator in the country, and Americans consider Donald Trump to be about as qualified to appoint a Supreme Court justice as Taylor Swift.

Those are some recent findings of Tom Jensen and PPP, a small Raleigh-based firm that Jensen has propelled from a local shop to a respected voice in the national polling sphere. Founded in 2001, PPP initially focused on local and state-level races in North Carolina. But after pollsters failed to detect Barack Obama’s huge margin over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, the firm turned its attention to South Carolina. While most other polls predicted Obama would win by no more than 15 points, PPP put him up by 20 points two days before voters went to the polls. “People were like, ‘This is crazy!'” Jensen remembers. Obama won by nearly 30 points.

Jensen, who started at PPP in 2006 after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, still works with county commissioners and state legislators, but he’s also in demand with major national players like Correct the Record, the Clinton-aligned super PAC, and Senate Majority PAC. His primary responsibilities are working with those private clients, and doing the math to make sure PPP’s polls are weighted correctly. But Jensen’s most visible impact is on social media, where he tries to inject some humor into a traditionally somber field.

This cycle, Jensen is pushing the envelope by asking questions that illuminate the racism fueling the GOP primary. In a February PPP poll in South Carolina, 70 percent of Trump supporters said they thought the Confederate flag should still be flying above the state capitol. “There’s not a lot of traditional polling companies that are going to ask people if they’re glad the North won the Civil War, or if they wish the South did, but I think that has been very useful for helping to understand the mentality of the Trump voter,” says Jensen. “We’ve been measuring a lot of this stuff among the Republican base throughout the Tea Party era, but Trump is the first major candidate who says, ‘Yeah, it’s fine for you to think that stuff. I think that, too.'”

Jenna Lowenstein, 28
Digital Director, Hillary for America

Jenna Lowenstein was in Maine, working to defeat an anti-gay marriage ballot measure, when she realized how powerful digital tools could be in a political campaign. At first she was surprised she could get people to take action on the Internet; then she fell in love with it. Lowenstein spent several years at the online organizing startup Change.org, then went on to work for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign, the Democratic National Committee and EMILY’s List, where she helped break the group’s online fundraising records during the 2014 midterm elections.

Clinton drafted Lowenstein early in 2015 to help launch her campaign. Lowenstein, along with digital director Katie Dowd, oversees one of the biggest departments of the campaign, and her portfolio is stacked: She runs a blog with native content, produces video from Clinton’s time on the trail, and strategizes on the best tools to recruit volunteers, mobilize voters and raise money. In the primaries, one of the team’s priorities has been simply to remind people to go vote, using everything from email to Facebook and, increasingly, text messages.

The thing Lowenstein finds most satisfying about her work now is being on a deep bench of women. “In other places I’ve been, digital and technology has been male-heavy. But in this campaign it’s really been extraordinary to watch such talented women have an opportunity to take leadership roles. And I don’t think that’s an accident,” she says.

Symone Sanders

Symone Sanders, 26
National Press Secretary, Bernie Sanders for President

Despite how she’s often been perceived, Symone Sanders is more than Bernie’s ambassador to black voters. “All everybody wants to talk to me about is Black Lives Matter, even if I’m there to talk about trade or single-payer [health care],” says Sanders. (“No relation” is a constant refrain for her.)

Sanders previously worked on trade issues for the advocacy group Public Citizen, and served as the chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s youth committee, and her early experience as an organizer working to bridge the gap between the black community in her hometown of Omaha and the rest of the city is undeniably reflected in her work for the campaign. She’s helped Bernie recover from what many saw as a flat-footed response to interruptions from BLM activists during early campaign events, and to craft his racial justice platform. Introducing her boss to communities that don’t know him well is one of things she’s proudest of — getting him to sit down for an extended interview with Ebony’s Jamilah Lemieux, for instance, or with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike.

A regular day for Sanders might include appearing on several television and radio shows, writing press releases, talking to reporters, or introducing Bernie before thousands of supporters packed into a sports stadium. (“I’ve learned that I don’t need sleep,” she responds, wryly, when asked what she’s learned on the campaign trail.) She’s always been drawn to the spotlight: At 16, Sanders lobbied hard to introduce Bill Clinton at a fundraising event for a Girls, Inc., a nonprofit she was involved with. “I kind of hate to follow you,” Clinton is reported to have said after she’d finished.

“I’m fortunate to be at the table where decisions are made,” says Sanders. “But we need a wave of new diverse voices who are willing to stand up and get involved — and also to put their name on the ballot.” Asked if she’s considered running for office herself, Sanders says, “Maybe one day. Right now I’m working on getting Sen. Sanders elected.”

Michelle Stephenson, 32
Chief Revenue Officer, NGP VAN

In 2008, when she was working with women running for state and local offices through EMILY’s List, Michelle Stephenson kept seeing the same problem: Candidates didn’t have access to affordable technology for managing fundraising and canvassing data. So she found her way to NGP VAN, a political technology company that provides an array of digital tools to help Democratic candidates collect and manage data — so they know which doors to knock on, what voters care about, and how best to motivate donors and volunteers. When Stephenson started at NGP VAN as the director of state and local campaigns, the firm only worked with a handful of those candidates. This year, hundreds of down-ballot candidates will use NGP VAN’s voter database, as will almost every single federal candidate running for office. (You might have heard of the company in December, when a glitch in the system allowed the Sanders team to access some of Clinton’s voter data.)

“Our goal is to help our clients win,” Stephenson says, though as chief revenue officer she’s also responsible for making sure the company is profitable. “That means we can reinvest in new and innovative tools that then in turn allow campaigns have a tactical edge against their opponents. … We’re already thinking about what we’re going to do in 2017 and 2018.” Stephenson is from Michigan; she points to the water crisis in Flint, which was ignored for more than a year by the state’s Republican leadership, to explain what motivates her: “Elections have consequences.”

Eli Kaplan, 32
Founder, Rising Tide Interactive
Co-founder, DSPolitical

Reaching voters personally costs campaigns a lot of time and money. Traditionally, they’ve had to send volunteers to knock on doors or make phone calls, and mail out flyers to people’s homes. Eli Kaplan started to see how the Internet would change all that when he worked his first senatorial campaign in 2006, even while he was still trying to convince his boss that it would be a good idea to set up a Facebook page. In 2010 he founded Rising Tide Interactive, a digital advertising firm that uses big data to help Democratic candidates and groups pushing liberal ballot initiatives get personalized messages to specific groups of people online. It’s a similar idea to the custom ads for shoes or plane tickets or dog food that pop up in your Facebook feed. Mining troves of personal information does raise critical privacy questions, but it’s incredibly useful for campaigns, which can use their money talking to people who will listen.

“There haven’t been really enormous disruptions in the way that political campaigns have been waged all that often. We’re in one of those moments,” says Kaplan, whose clients include Senate and gubernatorial candidates, as well as super PACs like Ready for Hillary. “The media environment is getting more and more fragmented. People still consume an enormous amount of television and they still read their mail, but they’re also looking at their phones and spending a lot of time on their laptops.”

Ben Wessel

Ben Wessel, 27
Deputy Political Director, NextGen Climate Action

In early January, the Bernie Sanders campaign sent out a press release asking, “Where is Secretary Clinton’s climate plan?” Clinton’s campaign manager fired back with a snarky post on Medium titled “The Sanders campaign asked where our climate plan was. I Googled it for them.” It’s not an accident that the Democratic primary candidates are fighting to paint themselves as the most aggressive climate hawk: It’s because young climate activists, including 350.org alum Ben Wessel, have pushed them there.

“Young people, when fully engaged in the political process, can make or break the political future of either a climate denier or of a pro-clean energy candidate,” says Wessel, who oversaw teams of students organizers who were on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and Ohio during the caucuses, where they got tens of thousands of people to commit to vote on climate in November. By early February, all of the Democratic candidates had endorsed NextGen’s benchmark of relying on clean energy for at least 50 percent of the country’s power supply by 2030. NextGen, which is backed by billionaire Tom Steyer, will be in seven states in the coming months, organizing the youth vote to elect climate-minded Senate candidates.

“As young people, we’re screwed by this problem,” says Wessel. “We can build on that moral outrage and make it politically strategic, in order to speed up the pace in which we solve this problem.”

Catalina Velasquez, 28
Director, Young People For

“I didn’t fall into politics,” says Catalina Velasquez, who is undocumented and transgender. “I am politics.” Fleeing violence in Colombia, she moved to the U.S. at 14 with her family. Their asylum request was denied, and during Velasquez’s first semester at Georgetown University, the rest of her family was deported.

At Young People For (a project of the People for the American Way Foundation), Velasquez directs a yearlong leadership training program for progressive activists, as well as a voter engagement program. She’s also pushing political candidates to more explicitly address the “T” in their LGBTQ platforms, and in other areas. In December, during a roundtable discussion with Bernie Sanders, Velasquez pointed out that there are about 75 transgender immigrants locked up in American detention centers every night, most of them women held in men’s facilities. Sanders apologized for not having addressed the issue directly and, in March, he became the first presidential candidate in history to be introduced at a rally by a transgender activist.

In April, Sanders asked Velasquez to serve on his policy committee for LGBT issues. “You don’t often hear an undocumented trans Latina woman on the mic, and I think that in itself is a revolution,” she says.

Lizzy Stephan, 26
Executive Director, New Era Colorado

Nowhere is the power of the youth vote more apparent than in the purplish battleground of Colorado, where turnout among young people has increased by tens of thousands over the past several election cycles. The nonpartisan civic engagement group New Era Colorado and Lizzy Stephan, who has been with the organization for four years, deserve some props for that: Over the past three years, they’ve registered more than 100,000 young voters. This year, Stephan wants to add 50,000 more to the rolls. To do it, she and her staff will go to bars late at night, to schools early in the morning, to concerts and festivals. “We’re willing to find people where they are,” she says.

As the election nears, her organizers will follow up with each potential new voter. “We find it’s not apathy but access that keeps young people from participating,” says Stephan. Colorado, which implemented online and same-day voter registration in 2013, is more friendly to new voters than the many states that have restricted their electoral processes in recent years — by cutting polling places, instituting stricter ID requirements, and gutting early voting periods — but the process can still be mystifying, Stephan says. “Especially when they’re first-time voters, the tangle of requirements and rules, and dates and times that you cast your ballot, how many stamps you need — all those types of questions can keep them from participating.”


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