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Youth United for Change seeks to increase voter engagement with VOTA! project

Last summer, Elinetzy Pagan, a 2019 graduate from Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA), was inspired after an encounter she had with an older woman in Kensington. Pagan, 18, met her while going door to door with Youth United for Change (YUC) to encourage the local community to get politically active with the organization’s VOTA! project.

“She was just so eager to talk about change with young folks,” said Pagan, a member of the leadership committee for YUC who will be attending La Salle University in the fall to study political science. “She told us she never registered to vote but had been a member of the community for many years trying to get people involved.” 

Pagan said that the encounter left an impact on her when the woman said she was happy to see youth talking about real issues. 

“That left a mark that keeps me going,” Pagan said. 

YUC is an organization comprised mostly of Philadelphia high school students of color from Philadelphia that aims to secure and protect rights owed to their community through activism and campaigning. Its mission is to produce young community leaders that not only seek to enhance their own lives but also their communities. 

The VOTA! project, which launched last July, seeks to increase voter turnout for people of color so they can have their voices accounted for in political decisions directly impacting their communities. 

With the VOTA! project, youth members of YUC take to their neighborhoods on foot to hand out fliers on the streets and go door to door to stress to their communities the importance of getting involved politically. They encourage community members to get registered to vote and do their best to see that those who are already registered actually get out to vote during the elections.

“A lot of what we do is to raise the awareness of why the community should vote,” Pagan said. “The system is never going to change if you aren’t making your voice heard.”

All three chapters of YUC work on VOTA!, which includes a Kensington chapter, citywide chapter, and alumni chapter. During the school year, the Kensington and citywide chapters primarily focus on education and schooling activism, but in the summer, all the organization’s resources are focused on the voter engagement project.  

In the Kensington chapter’s case this means engaging with and advocating with as many people as possible within the 7th Council District to be active politically. 

“It is not so much about who people are going to vote for,” said Andres Celin, a lead organizer and Kensington chapter organizer for YUC. “But it is more about the democratic engagement and making sure there is a higher engagement than there is because the 7th Council District is the district with the lowest voter turnout and also with the lowest incomes. And obviously those things are correlated.”    

YUC, which was founded in 1991, has succeeded in many of its efforts to improve the educational environment in the city, such as forming the Kensington Multiplex, which split the local high schools into different specializations to give the students more of a choice to focus on with their education, while also serving as a hub for sports and other extracurricular activities. The three high schools that form the Kensington Multiplex are KHSA, Kensington High School (KHS), and Kensington Academy of Creative and Performing Arts (KCAPA).

In addition to the VOTA! project, the organization also is working on improving the mental health environment for students within the School District of Philadelphia, including KHS, KHSA, and KCAPA.

“There are systematic things [in Kensington] that are holding people back, and in other parts of the city, those things are not there,” Celin said. “And there’s a bigger picture where we can start to see ourselves in relation to that, and now we can make an effort to get things that were promised to us, that people deserve, and are not getting.”

YUC is run by its youth members split into varying leadership tears, with assistance from older senior members such as Celin, Kat Engleman, the civic engagement and communications coordinator, and Nick Ospa, the citywide organizer. 

New Kensington youth members join the organization through various recruitment paths such as teacher recommendations, class seminars about the organization held by members of YUC, or simply word-of-mouth, said Celin.

“I think it is one of the most important things,” said Engleman, in reference to having young people involved in local politics. “Young people are at a position in their lives where they haven’t been beaten down by the system, and they oftentimes have visionary ideas about what is possible — especially in politics — and what kind of lives people can have. So they are actually in a good position to talk to older folks about the importance of engaging in voting.”

Though VOTA! is still in its beginning stages, YUC believes it is on the right trajectory to achieving the goals set out when created.

“In terms of building a model that works…I think our hypothesis about increasing voter engagement was correct,” Celin said of the project’s success thus far.  At the same time, we know that increasing democratic participation in the community is a long-term project that will take years to get to where we hope to be.”

Celin said that the model they currently use helps young people, some of which speak multiple languages, engage with residents to encourage them to vote.

“We now have a model for how to do it. The next process is about refining that model and expanding the reach quantitatively,” Celin said.

Although it may take years to complete YUC’s objective of dramatically increasing voter engagement in communities of color with VOTA! and things may seem out of reach to its young members at times, the organization has ways to keep its members focused, Ospa said.

“It’s really important to have a vision,” said Ospa. “Being able to show examples of points in history where people were involved in grassroots organizations where they were able to see the fruits of their labor come to life is a big part of making sure our members stick to the vision and stay motivated.”

Ospa said that the importance of showing young people where their visions can lead, particularly for black and brown people, is very effective. 

“[It’s more important] to actually stake a claim with the decisions that impact us,” Ospa said.

According to Celin, the response within the neighborhoods has been great, and older members of the communities are inspired by YUC members’ eagerness to create a positive change politically. 

“We have had folks say to us, ‘Look I haven’t voted in a long time, but this is a different moment that we are in, and having young folks who might not even be old enough to vote themselves that actually come out and talk about the issues they care about has sparked my interest again,” Celin said.

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Editor: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte