Engaging young people focus of digital tools

Elizabeth Floyd

RALEIGH, N.C. – Young people who are disengaged from politics don’t lack the interest, they lack access, says Generation Engage founder Adrian Talbot.

Aiming to create a social infrastructure to reach that elusive demographic group, ages 16 to 30, Talbot presided over a surprising marriage between the global reach of new technologies and local, traditional grassroots organizing.

Generation Engage, established in 2004, uses videoconferencing and the Internet to bring younger generations together with candidates of various stripes in five U.S. communities – Raleigh and Charlotte, both in North Carolina, and San Jose, Miami and New York City.

In the cyberworld and the real world, the idea is to go to places where young people already hang out.

Stringing together what “GenGagers” call “HotSpots” – social venues like pool halls and community centers where local youth already congregate – the nonprofit voter-recruitment group gathers local forums into nationwide events, using Megameeting videoconference technology.

Generation Engage seeks to invest in young leaders at the local level, especially those from traditionally-marginalized populations.

Though outside the loop of many traditional civic-engagement opportunities available on four-year college campuses, these non-college or community-college youth are not beyond the reach of new technology.

The aim, says John White, outreach coordinator for Raleigh, is to bring national politics to this local audience, but also to engage young people in the affairs of their own city and state.

“National politics are great, but what goes on on Jones Street effects everyone in the state of North Carolina,” he says.

The Raleigh branch has hosted a videoconference with then-presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and John Cox. But White is more eager to talk about the group’s upcoming local-ballot initiative, which will offer 30-minute, taped videos from most candidates for statewide office, everyone from appeals court judges to the state insurance commissioner.

But the key to getting young people to care about local politics, says White, is connecting their passions with a better understanding of the government’s reach.

For some youth, that’s as simple as pointing to their favorite neighborhood basketball court, he says.

“Now what if I come in next week and buy out that property,” he asks. “It’s all about helping them to see that if they shut down what you enjoy, you’re going to have to hold somebody accountable.”

The message is simple, but spreading it takes an extensive network of partnerships that range from civic groups like 100 Black Men and Durham Young Professionals to libraries and community colleges and the local 4H club.

Convenience is key, says White, given that “everybody’s time being kind of here and there and all over the place.”

With that in mind, Generation Engage posts their videos online, so that those who couldn’t participate can watch them later.

And engaging youth is also about letting them talk, not making them listen. The videoconference format, White says, makes this easy.

“This is about as close as you and I will get to talking to these folks,” he says. “You say something, and they come right back to you [with an answer].”

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