Civic groups reach out to blue-collar millennials

July 17, 2013

Campus Progress, the youth outreach arm of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, has rebranded itself as “Generation Progress” in a new drive to reach beyond college campuses and enlist older, working-class and non-college-bound millennials in liberal activism.

The organization’s new mission was announced at the group’s annual summit Wednesday, where more than 600 young Americans convened to discuss their generation’s vision of 2020.

“One shortcoming of the conversation on millennials is that there’s too often a focus on the college campus,” said Brian Stewart, Generation Progress’ communications manager. “But there are issues that impact the entire age bracket. When we sat down to plan the conference, we wanted to be intentional in including others.”

The group identified economic justice, human and civil rights and democracy as their top three interests and invited more than 30 youth-oriented organizations to co-sponsor the event. Among these were Young Invincibles, the League of Young Voters and Rock the Vote, all of which are working to including more non-college and working-class youths in their programs.

According to researchers, it’s about time.


“At the turn of the 20th century, there were many ways in which people with lower levels of education and people in the working class got inducted into American civic life,” said Meira Levinson, an associate professor of education at Harvard University. “We’ve lost many of the mechanisms for empowering those who are not in privileged positions in society.”

“When groups like CAP define youth as college students, they’re leaving out three-fourths of young people who either go to community college, don’t finish college or never go at all,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “The working class used to be more engaged, but the bottom is falling out.”

With schools, churches and unions providing less civic education, Levinson says, the disparities in civic opportunity might be greater than they were 50 or 100 years ago. Just last year, 18- to 24-year-olds who didn’t have a college diploma were three times less likely to vote in the presidential election than those who did.

At the conference Wednesday — between Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s address on college affordability and a panel on gun violence prevention — attendee and Brown University student Harpo Jaeger, 22, pondered one announcer’s claim that the conference reflected the diversity of millennials

“Who’s in and out of that classification?” Jaeger asked. “There are a lot of people my age who aren’t at this conference. It’s not like no one knows they exist, but it’s so easy for us to not remember because I don’t come across them at Brown. There’s a whole world of people for whom student debt is never going to be an issue because they’re not going to be able to go to college anyway.”

Thomas Nixon, 23, and Umar Muhammad, 26, are just the kind of people Generation Progress hopes to engage more in the future.

After 20 years in a religious commune, Nixon ran away and spent three months homeless before joining Americorps in Meridian, Miss. Last year, Muhammad finished a six-year sentence on an armed robbery charge and survived five stabbings in the back to become a motivational speaker in Dern, N.C. They are both millennials interested in civic engagement but have found themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to getting involved.

“I would’ve liked to go,” Nixon said of the Make Progress conference. “I know I’m not the only person going through this, but I would feel more comfortable with people with the same background. If they didn’t come from that background, they might not appreciate my story and I’d like to uplift people.”

Last week, he and Muhammad attended a meeting at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio. The event was similar to the Make Progress summit in that young people convened to discuss the future of civic engagement, and the organizers specifically targeted non-college-bound youths and put them on the mic.

“I didn’t plan on saying much because I was extremely intimidated by the people with degrees,” Muhammad said. “But they were all trying to figure out the solution to problems they had never been in. I was the only one who could actually relate to what they were trying to figure out.”

“They may want to be civically engaged,” said Muhammad’s mentor, Candace Rashada-Mujahid, of millennials like Muhammad. “But they’ve been erroneously told they’ve lost that right.”

“Honest to God, I don’t know what being a citizen feels like,” Muhammad said. “We’re just residents out here and I speak from a place I’m in. I just want my community to do better.”

In Washington, Jaeger said he has a similar desire.

“I get concerned when I see student groups opting for shorter-term issues that are really flashy and get attention but don’t advance the conversation of action,” he said. “How can we link up with people around the country doing similar work? It’s about getting people to take a broader perspective on what it means to organize politically.”

Ruth Tam is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthetam.
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