Photo of a female-presenting youth at a voting session raising their hands in triumph.

Don’t Exploit Youth in Politics, #CompensateYouth on Campaigns

by Andrew Hong and Nura Ahmed

In July 2020, during Kirsten Harris-Talley’s 2020 State House Campaign in the 37th Legislative District, we found an opportunity to create space for youth to engage in campaign work that was safe, comfortable, empowering, and educational. 

Andrew proposed, founded, and led the campaign youth team “Youth for KHT” that served as an anchor for youth campaign organizing on Harris-Talley’s campaign and for progressive youth in the greater Seattle region. Within days the youth team attracted dozens of young people, creating a safe space for youth on the campaign where they helped lead the way on policy development, coalition-building, small business outreach, field organizing, social media, campaign art, and several other youth-led projects. We even paid 10 youth members a $15/hr wage for their organizing.

Nura worked to build an East African youth coalition to get the East African community to come out to vote. Everyone in the coalition were youth between the ages of 15 and 18 years old. They spearheaded the efforts in raising awareness of how the East African community has been massively disenfranchised and not centered, especially in policy decisions. 

Before this campaign, however, both of us had experiences as youth in political campaigns that felt negative and exploitative. 

When Andrew was 15, he got involved in politics because of the injustices and gentrification in his home of South Seattle and his experiences as a queer Person of Color. He joined his first campaign in 2018 where he was the only person his age. He later realized this reality was used to exploit him: He was expected to lead weekly events, provide his unique district knowledge, and knock on thousands of doors without any form of compensation. He had no idea that he should have been paid for this work because no adult cared to tell him, so he never asked. By the end of that campaign, Andrew worked what would’ve earned him roughly $8,000 on other campaigns he’s since worked on.

On subsequent campaigns, Andrew remembers his ideas and insights being dismissed as uneducated by older colleagues only for them to be later proven correct. He also remembers an adult volunteer publicly proclaiming that he was “untrained and unprepared” as he led a campaign event — despite the fact that he couldn’t give Andrew an answer when asked what he was doing wrong. These are just a few of many examples of hostile incidents he recounted in his career. It was no wonder to him why there weren’t more youth, especially queer BIPOC youth, in politics at the time: Electoral politics was built to exploit Young People of Color for a predominately white male industry. 

Nura was only 20 years old when she joined her first electoral campaign as a field organizer. She’d been inspired to join a campaign the year prior when a racist man was elected to the highest seat in the country. The 2016 presidential election was traumatizing because she felt it validated violent and white supermacist attacks on Black, Muslim, and BIPOC communities. She was the only young person, and only Woman of Color, on that first campaign. 

As such, she never felt the campaign was a safe space to be. She has had her skills questioned by her teammates calling her “unskilled and unable to lead” all because of how young she is and how she is a woman. It went as far as someone mansplaining the whole electoral process to her.  She had also never had an opportunity for skill improvement because no one ever invested in her growth, her education, and her future. She regularly heard misogynistic comments said about herself and her candidate while canvassing, which caused her to feel unsafe out in the streets. She also wasn’t compensated for her work. No adult made an effort to help create a  space for her as a Black Muslim woman. Seattle politics felt inaccessible, and she never saw herself in a system that was led largely by white men. She never felt like she had time to breathe. She was tired. As a result of all of this, she felt burnt out. She considered giving up on politics altogether. It was no wonder to her why there weren’t more people like her represented in politics. 

But instead of dissuading us from continuing in politics, our bad experiences as youth organizers motivated us to create accessible channels for youth to impact our political systems. 

On the Harris-Talley campaign, we created a youth infrastructure never seen before in Washington State by tapping into our lived experiences and imaginations: Youth are often only used to be tokenized, exploited, or else ignored, so we ensured the youth team had self-autonomy and power to lead. Youth often are left to do the boring work which kills their passion for organizing, so we ensured the whole campaign staff mentored youth to lead their own exciting projects. Youth’s boundaries and safety are often disrespected by campaigns, so we encouraged the youth team to (successfully) unionize to advocate for their collective safety. Youth rarely get compensated for their labor, so the campaign compensated youth with education seminars, professional connections, and paid fellowships.

By last November’s Election Day, Andrew had built the youth team to 63 members running multiple projects, and Nura had spearheaded a series of youth-led events centering the East African community. These efforts were integral to #TeamKHT Campaign’s massive 30-point victory. And we won by respecting youth, educating youth, empowering youth, and paying youth.

There were many oppressive, exploitative moments  down the line that came with being young BIPOC people in politics that could’ve been our final straw. But we didn’t quit because we wanted young people to have so much better in politics. We deserve safe spaces where we can be authentically ourselves. We deserve to be compensated for our labor. We deserve to feel worthy and be given the opportunity to grow on campaigns.

Because of our work on Harris-Talley’s campaign, several 2021 campaigns are now using the successful “Youth for KHT” team model on their own campaigns, including Andrew Grant Houston’s campaign for Seattle Mayor, Shukri Olow’s campaign for King County Council, Stephanie Gallardo’s run for Congress, and more. Additionally, multiple Youth for KHT members are now campaign managers and field organizers on different campaigns building these youth teams themselves.

Our message to campaigns, candidates, and consultants during this and future election cycles is: Hire youth, respect youth, train youth, be a resource for youth, empower youth, and compensate youth for our labor. Simply having youth present doing work on a campaign isn’t enough. In fact, without respect and compensation, it is exploitation. Do not co-opt our work or the KHT Youth Team model without the key components of youth autonomy, respect, and compensation. We’ve gone through the physical and intellectual labor to create models and change in our political systems. Both of us, and youth organizers across America, delivered countless progressive victories in 2020. Now we call on folks in the system to meet us with action: #CompensateYouth.

Andrew Hong is a 19-year-old Cleveland High School graduate, incoming Stanford University freshman, and lifelong South Seattleite. He is the founder of Emerald Youth Organizing Collective, a South Seattle-based youth activist group formed out of Youth for KHT, and leads statewide redistricting advocacy for BIPOC communities at the Washington Community Alliance.

Nura Ahmed is a 23-year-old organizer and writer based in Seattle and South King County. She has organized with King County Equity Now, Youth Voices for Justice, UW BLM, and is the founder of Muslims For Abolition, a Muslim-led, BIPOC-led, organizing collective that is rooted in community care and education. She is currently working with South King County BIPOC communities on making organizing and political spaces more accessible and safe for youth and helping push the narrative as to what Puget Sound politics SHOULD look like.

📸 Featured image is attributed to World Scouting (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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