A year ago, the likelihood that a significant number of young people from around the country would travel to Florida for a week-long Institute on electoral reform was somewhere between zero and “you’ve got to be kidding.” And yet, last week, this is exactly what happened.
From Sunday June 17 to Saturday June 23, over 100 young people, a unique, multi-racial mix from 25 states and the District of Columbia, convened at Florida A & M University in Tallahassee. Over the course of these seven days, they attended sessions on such topics as The Voting Rights Act, Redistricting 2001, Mechanics of Voting Reform, Instant Runoff Voting, Voting Rights for Ex-Prisoners, D.C. Statehood, Campaign Finance Reform, Proportional Representation, the Electoral College and Hurdles to Third Parties. They learned organizing skills in the areas of Campus Organizing, Coalition Building, Lobby Training, Facilitation and Consensus, Youth Organizing, Direct Action and Community Organizing.
They also heard from speakers such as Maxine Waters, Ron Daniels, Hollis Watkins, “Granny D” Haddock, Rev. Jim Wallis, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Gwen Patton, Matt Jones, David Cobb, Stephanie Wilson and Ben Manski.
Many of the young people who were there came from local, state or national organizations; over 50 organizations co-sponsored or endorsed the week.
Plans began to be made at Democracy Institute 2001 for a bigger and better one next year, in the summer of 2002. A statement of purpose for this emerging youth democracy movement was put together. Many of those present will be involved in on-going, pro-democracy activities upon their return home.
The Institute was warmly-received by the Florida A & M University community, one of this country’s historic black colleges. For many of the young white people who attended, it was their first time being in a predominantly black community for any length of time. The positive, supportive atmosphere they experienced, combined with the conscious discussions about coalition-building, including the need for multi-racial unity, clearly had an impact.
This was not just an Institute attended by young people; young people were predominantly the organizers and leaders of it. Of the six staff people/coordinators on-site, only one was over 30.
The Institute was focused on pro-democracy electoral reform, but those issues were put in a broader context and related to other issues. One night we watched the movie, “Outriders,” about the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. Another evening we had a group discussion late into the night about the movement against corporate globalization. Racial and gender justice, environmental issues, poverty—these and other issues came up in different ways throughout the week.
Democracy Institute, to sum up, was awesome.
It is also another example of the fact that young people are on the move, getting active, getting connected. Up until now, the issue of electoral reform could not have been listed as such an example. Global justice, environmental issues, opposition to police brutality, defense of affirmative action, anti-sweatshops, campus democracy, workers’
rights—these are the kinds of issues around which young people have been active.
It is significant that many of those present at Florida A & M are involved with groups working on one or the other of these issues. It is significant because, as stated in Democracy Summer’s basic outreach brochure, “everybody knows: until Washington ceases to be an old boys’
network of power lunches and backroom deals, progressive change will be nearly impossible.”
Because of the success of the Democracy Institute, there is now an organized national network of young people, many already working in other areas of the struggle, who are knowledgeable about the types of electoral reforms needed if we are to have a fighting chance to get those “old boys” out of power, an essential if we are to bring about a genuine democracy in this country. As the word spreads, this network, this movement will grow.
The Democracy Institute lived up to its advance billing: it was “the coming-out party of a diverse, multi-ethnic young people’s movement to take back the reins of power over our own lives.”