Guest post via Josh Hughes, school board member and Drake University student.
For years, Democrats did little to build the bench of their party by engaging with young people. When we did, the focus was always on college-aged voters. The investments were only made in those who might actually be able to vote for Democrats—not a bad strategy for an organization dedicated to winning votes.
However, in doing so, Democrats failed to engage a large portion of the population—those too young yet to vote. Almost no resources at the national or local levels were allocated to engage those under age 18, and there were almost no support systems for the young folks who got involved on their own accord.
This lack of infrastructure is something that I experienced personally. Right after I turned 17 in the summer of 2014, I decided that I wanted to get involved with electing Democrats here in Iowa. I supported the progressive mission and had some experience in other quasi-political youth organizations, but there was no formal high school wing of the Democratic Party in Iowa, let alone my small rural school.
Only through pure happenstance did I manage to hear about an internship program that the Iowa Democratic Party was offering for the summer leading up to the 2014 midterms. I was accepted, and while I certainly learned much about field organizing and what it means to do the “leg work” of a campaign, my job duties were essentially limited to door-knocking and phone banking. I’m thankful for the opportunity, but the truth is, I learned nothing about the finance, communication, political, or event building side of a campaign—all vital aspects of any good campaign operation.
In the three years since, I’ve been able to build my experience in those areas with many different organizations. And yet, it still took me nearly three years to cover and learn about each of these areas in a real world setting. Even after I had turned 18 and became an eligible voter, the resources available through the College Democrats in Iowa didn’t exactly train me for jobs in any of those fields. There simply wasn’t any kind of institutional training for me, both as a future and young voter, to learn more about the political process. I got involved mostly though happenstance, luck, and a desire to continue, even if the next step on the path wasn’t clear.
Fortunately, there is now more support for future voters and young voters in the Democratic Party than ever before. The High School Democrats of America (HSDA), founded in 2013, now has active chapters in all 50 states plus DC and Puerto Rico. The organization, which offers students a vessel to connect with state and national leaders in the party, has made incredible strides in expanding to be a professional national organization ran entirely by High School students. They have over 500 chapters nationwide, have knocked 42,000 doors and registered more than 5,500 voters in the 2016 election cycle alone. HSDA has ensured that anyone who disregards the voices of high school students in Democratic politics moving forward does so at their own peril.
Understanding the importance of building the support for high school students in our party, I am excited to share an opportunity for progressive future voters right here in Iowa: Democracy Summer. Founded by Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, Democracy Summer is a one-of-a-kind, six-week training program that will be that opportunity for high schoolers that simply wasn’t around when folks my age and older were getting involved.
Over the course of six weeks, Democracy Summer Fellows will be given an in-depth training on the things that took me nearly three years to get experience in: the nuts & bolts of organizing, finance and communication strategies, and the art of electoral mobilization for progressive change—all right here in Des Moines, and all at no-cost.
Students in high school and early in college are the target age group for Democracy Summer—folks who have a passion for progressive issues, but haven’t had the opportunity to get real world experience in the area of their choice. Our program will help connect these young people with the stakeholders and power players in the issues they care most about, while also helping students to build a political network in Central Iowa. I’m excited to be helping run this program, but a part of me is also jealous I won’t be participating as a fellow!
While the program will take place primarily in Des Moines, students from the areas around the metro are encouraged to apply as well. The program will run approximately 35 hours per week for both of the two six-week session, allowing for an in-depth immersion into the mission of the program and plenty of time for direct electoral work. The first session will run from June 11 to July 12, and the second from July 17 to August 16. Anyone interested should apply here, or otherwise contact me with any questions about the program.
Democrats have always talked about being the party that leaves the ladder down and helps the next person up. It’s good to see that we’re finally living up to our words, and I couldn’t be more excited about being apart of that mission.
by Josh Hughes