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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Abel Guillen: the Rise of the Millennials

I talked politics at Lanesplitters pizzeria on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland the other night with two young progressive Democrats who, in my view, epitomize the future of politics in America.

My two compatriots were Abel Guillen, recently elected member of Peralta Community College Board, and Matt Lockshin, his '06 campaign manager (whom you might know as the founder of the local blog SayNotoPombo.)

If you care about the direction this country is taking and how the millennial generation is going to shape the American political landscape for the next twenty-five years, I'd like to invite you to read a bit about our conversation and what it means for American politics below.

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a commitment to public service

Abel Guillen is a young, forward-looking, progressive Democrat, but the overwhelming sense you get in talking to him...the "take away"...is his zeal for good government and reform.

Listening to Abel discuss the Peralta Community College System on issues from Latino underrepresentation to bricks and mortar issues like facility maintenance, you get the impression that Abel is like a mountaineer at the base of some massive Everest-like climb. Netroots/grassroots energy, technological savvy and a rock-solid commitment to good government and reform are his tools...and the slog of overcoming entrenched mindsets and the political morass of the status quo are the glaciers and crevasses he navigates. Above all, what you get from Abel Guillen is a sense that he is committed to being a responsive and responsible civic servant. Like many in his generation, Abel takes a sincere pride in public service.

Viewing his career in terms of public service means Abel takes the long view. He addresses his Oakland district's problems both in terms of short and long term solutions. Now, in this regard, Abel thinks in terms of years because he has to, the challenges he faces are steep, but Abel also takes the long view because he can afford to: Abel is on the cusp of the Millennial generation...Abel is 32 years old.

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the millennials: a force to be reckoned with

Whether it's the welcome fundraising efforts of Skyline PublicWorks, the grassroots political organizing of the Young Democrats or the nascent political voice of organizations like the New Organizing Institute or Voto Latino, the millenial generation is an emerging force to be reckoned with in American politics.

As Lisa Seitz Gruwell noted in the excellent the Skyline Public Works presentation (pdf, but well worth it.) at last year's Yearlykos:

Democrats have been given a gift. Despite years of neglect by our Party, this new generation of young voters actually likes us. In fact, they are more progressive than any other age group. Yet, most Democratic campaigns spend next to nothing reaching out to young people. They pass over this receptive voting block because outdated conventional wisdom says that young people don't vote and it's a waste of time and money to try to target them.

In 2004, several outside groups bucked conventional wisdom and made young voters a priority. The results: 18 to 30-year-olds were the only age group to vote for John Kerry and turned out in the largest numbers since 1992. It seems conventional wisdom needs a revision...

More than 20.1 million voters under 30 participated in the 2004 Presidential election, 4.3 million more than in 2000. According to the U.S. Census, voter tunout for 18-to-24 year olds was 11% higher in 2004 than in 2000. That is the largest increase in voter participation of any age group. And voter turnout for 25-29 year olds was 8% higher in 2004 than 2000. Young voters turned out in even higher numbers in the ten most contested battleground states, at a rate of 13% higher than in 2000. Not only did young people vote in record numbers, they also voted for Democrats. In fact, 54% of 18-29 year olds voted for John Kerry, while the majority of every other age group voted for Bush.

Millennials, those Americans born between 1977 and 1998, are, indeed, a demographic gold mine for the Democratic party. I would caution, however, viewing millennials simply as a source of votes. In fact, the reality is that in many ways this young generation is the embodiment of what I wrote about in the Spirit of '06: these young Democratic activists understand the task at hand and the tools needed to master the challenge of winning lasting majorities. Millennials are idealistic and engaged, and critically, they are networked like no generation before them. When millenials get organized, they stay organized.

The future of the Democratic party, in many ways, belongs to them.

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a new generation of leaders, new ways of organizing

Although it will take a decade to ramp up, mobile communications and pervasive computing technologies, together with social contracts that were never possible before, are already beginning to change the way people meet, mate, work, fight, buy, sell, govern and create. Some of these changes are beneficial and empowering, and some amplify the capabilities of people whose intentions are malignant. Large numbers of small groups, using the new media to their individual benefit, will create emergent effects that will nourish some existing institutions and ways of life and dissolve others.

-Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs: the next social revolution


I can hear some with reservations already; talking about the power of millennials is fine when you're sitting in some youth-oriented pizzeria on Telegraph Avenue in technology-obsessed Oakland California, but what does this mean when the rubber hits the road in "red" parts of America? How is this news?

I can tell you this, when I do organizing for Blogs United and Yearlykos, I talk to folks all over the country, and in state after state including places like Utah, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi, some of the most energized, forward-looking and invested activists are the folks under 30. It's not just that these young Americans are skilled at using powerful networking tools like Facebook and Myspace or internet communication software like Soapblox, AIM and Youtube to organize and link up, it's also that they are, like Matt Lockshin and Abel Guillen, deeply invested in taking on the issues that face America over the long haul.

The millennial generation understands implicitly that the solutions to the political crises this country faces are not simple or immediate. What's more they are the most likely to innovate outside of the box solutions to entrenched dilemmas. The problems millennials face...from the health care crisis to global warming...weren't created in one day; they won't be solved in one day either. Having grown up with this reality, millennials understand implicitly that the sooner we dig in and get practical, the sooner we make an impact. The reality is that millenials are pragmatic because they have to be; we've left them little choice.

In my recent and direct experience, millennials are engaged, groundedly idealistic and willing to make careers that will change their nation and world over the long haul. I see this every day. Even among the youngest of this consort, the strains of progressive politics run deep and wide. That counts for something. These young Americans may have grown up with Madison Avenue and Hollywood cliches of political activism, but their own actions are no less idealistic even if they go on under the cover of less flamboyant and more conventional attire. Coordinating with likeminded allies through Facebook may have replaced "levitating the Pentagon", but it's a trend-of-the-times that should by no means be underestimated.

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millennials: the medium is the message

If there's one overarching impression I'd like to leave you with it would be the experience I had working on Abel Guillen's campaign. As the weeks leading up to election day wore on and I met more and more of the activist, engaged young people who poured out to power Abel to victory, I began to see, firsthand, what the power of millennials could do.

It wasn't just that a diverse team of folks, young and old, came out of the woodwork to help Abel run an insurgent campaign...a true 'smart mob.' It wasn't just that his fundraisers brought home locally the powerful national reality that over 50,000 Latino citizens turn 18 every month in this country. It was more what I saw on election day, when Matt Lockshin's strategy of tabling and leafleting as many critical polling places as possible came to fruition.

Young people don't just make good arguments for change when we are debating our nation's future; young people are our best argument for change. Young Americans embody, in their activism and ideals, the fact that this nation faces challenges that decades of work on public policy and civil service will be required to address. When millennials get active, their activism is itself is a powerful argument for change and reform. You could say about Democratic politics in 2008 and not be far off the mark: the millennials are the message.

Don't underestimate this trend. It is no small matter. I run into fellow volunteers from Abel's campaign routinely in my daily life here in Oakland. I just ran into one young activist walking pushing a stroller with his wife. We talked about the campaign, we talked about the neighborhood we share and his young family, we pledged to stay in touch.

And we will do just that...if Abel Guillen and Matt Lockshin have anything to say about it...for decades of political activism to come.

The Millennials...their IMs, text messages, email blasts and networking sites...are here to stay; in so many ways, all puns intended, they are the message.

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