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Young Voters' Victories Don't End at Ballot Box

New America Media, Commentary, Video, By Raj Jayadev // Videos: Angel Luna and Moses Aviles // Photos: G. Melesaine // Art: Adrian Avila and Tiburon Posted: Nov 06, 2008

Editor's Note: An Obama presidency has changed the calculus of whether or not it is worth the risk to fight for change, writes NAM contributor Raj Jayadev, a self-identified community organizer who directs San Jose's Silicon Valley De-Bug.

The generation of young people I work with, 18 to 25-year-olds, have only known historic moments through the experience of disaster. To be in a defining political American moment meant that there were elections being stolen, suicide planes diving into American buildings, wars beginning, cities drowning, or economies collapsing. Historic American moments were to be avoided.

This presidential election changed all that, and as celestial as Obama appears, he is a star that feels not so far away from the communities here on the ground. That is why these same young people, for the first time, are embracing this moment of history as theirs to claim. Rightfully so. Voter turnout in this election was the highest in 100 years, at 64.1 percent, with an estimated 136.6 million voters, and young people were at the forefront of the rush to the polls.

Pollsters say that among in the 18 to 29-year-old age group, the voter turn out was over two million more than in 2004, and 66 percent of those voters preferred Obama.

Some say the number of youth voters wasnt as high as anticipated. But its not just about voting -- young people were involved in the political conversation for the first time, which is what the raw numbers of exit polls wont show.

Young people generated an excitement that people of all ages wanted to be part of, and that helped drive record numbers of voters to the polls.

And it was the new America that Obama comes from, the minority communities that are soon to be the majority in this country, those who have felt excluded from the conventional political conversation who turned out in droves. The highest voter turnout in a century was achieved not through an older, white vote, but in spite of it -- the percentage of white voters dropped 7 percent from the 2000 elections.

This newly electrified body politic youth and communities of color has done the impossible, hoisted up one of their own, not just a black man, but a community organizer.

While my politics had aligned me with Obama since he began his career, it was his writing describing his experiences as a community organizer in Dreams of My Father that made me believe the rhetoric.

A community organizer is a weird job to have. There is no major in college for it, no real job description, no union or ladder to climb. But it is an experience -- whether it is working with youth in under-served schools, fighting against police brutality, or working with families for health rights at housing projects like Obama did in Chicago that shapes ones values and decisions. It commits you to the democratic process, because you see the chaos and calamity that can occur in its absence.

Obama's description of being an organizer, recounting conversations he had with grandmothers protesting in the cold Chicago air, was the first time I read about anyone, president or not, who captured that unique learning process.

The reason community organizers seem starry-eyed and unrealistically idealistic at times the same accusations still being leveled at Obama is because it is in those moments that an organizer becomes a witness to the potential of everyday people changing the seemingly unchangeable.

In these small, everyday, off the radar struggles -- workplaces where employees are being treated unfairly, on street corners where youth are being harassed by the police, neighborhoods where families are being neglected by their local elected officials -- an Obama presidency has changed the calculus of whether or not it is worth the risk to fight for change. And it is these localized changes, not the one in the White House, that I am most looking forward to where young Americans who voted for the first time realize that their victories need not end at the ballot box.

Young people from Silicon Valley De-Bug celebrate Obama victory

Photographs: G. Melesaine / Video: Angel Luna and Moses Aviles / Art: Adrian Avila and Tiburon

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