As the leaves turn and the 2020 election season looms, progressive groups in Rhode Island are focused on mobilizing a massive voting bloc with notoriously low turnout: young people.
On Oct. 21, Sunrise Providence and the Rhode Island Working Families Party aimed to harness the demographic’s power through an event titled “Getting Involved in 2020: Young People in RI Politics.” Dozens of students and young professionals gathered at AS 220 in downtown Providence to discuss the path toward progressive victory with young government officials and campaign staffers.
“There’s tremendous opportunity in the electoral space for leadership, either as a candidate or a campaign manager or other kind of campaign leader,” said WFP RI State Director Georgia Hollister Isman in an interview with The Herald following the event. “I hope people felt inspired to step into that space.”
While young voters are known for low turnout rates, they have challenged that norm in recent years. Voters ages 18 to 29 increased nationally from 16 percent of those eligible in that age group in the 2014 midterm election to 36 percent in the 2018 midterm election. Among Brown students, voter turnout tripled between the elections — increasing from 13.4 to 45.1 percent.
The event began with presentations by Hollister Isman and Sunrise Providence Organizer Emma Bouton ’20 on the theory behind achieving change through elections, and then shifted to a panel of five young, progressive candidates and campaign staff in Rhode Island.
“When people tune out, people do not run for public office,” Hollister Isman told the attendees. “And when they don’t run for public office, people who share our values don’t win public office, and we’re right back with more politicians who don’t share our values.”
Bouton echoed this message, talking about the importance of grassroots efforts. “We see elections as key to winning that political power and getting those enthusiastically supported public officials in office,” she said. “But also using it as an opportunity to build that people power, getting people out and canvassing, and coming together as a movement around elections.”
The panelists discussed the importance of youth, women and people of color getting involved in politics. They also shared their own campaign experiences and talked about the challenges of running for office as young people.
“Young people for a long time and for a whole host of reasons have felt disempowered and excluded from the political process,” said Sunrise Organizer Mara Dolan ’19.5 , who moderated the panel. “And this event was just one way to highlight the young people who are saying ‘no’ to that and are stepping up to the plate anyway.”
Providence City Councilor of Ward 12 Kat Kerwin, who first ran for office two years ago at the age of 20, said that “everyone in the establishment” discouraged her from running.
Tiara Mack, a candidate for Rhode Island’s Sixth District Senate seat, said that seeing a wave of strong women of color as leaders in their districts helped her realize that “people could show up as their authentic selves in a movement and actually make change.”
Aaron Regunberg ’12, former member of the RI House of Representatives (District 4) who launched an unsuccessful bid for RI lieutenant governor last year , added that “we need to focus on winnable races, but we also need to stretch, we need to push for things that are right at the edge of what’s winnable, because that’s how we’re going to move the conversation forward.” He noted that the political system is not made for large-scale change, but progressives can “make significant change if enough people get involved.”
Hollister Isman echoed Regunberg’s sentiment, emphasizing the possibilities to make impact in the small Ocean State. “Races are relatively small, people with a few good organized friends and volunteers can run for office,” she said. “It’s possible for community activists, for young people, for people from all kinds of backgrounds to run and actually win.”
Jonathan Acosta, Central Falls city councilor of Ward 1 and candidate for RI Senate (District 16), and Keith Jillette, campaign manager for Woonsocket City Councilor Alex Kithes, also spoke on the panel and emphasized the importance of identifying issues that unite communities.
The event ended with a breakout session during which attendees could participate in small group discussions with any of the panelists.