Audrey Ruiz didn’t talk about politics with her family much, but having just left her parents’ Yuma home, she has knocked on thousands of doors spreading the word of NextGen in Arizona.
She said the issues that affected her community that “seemed fine” before didn’t seem fine anymore. She realized that she had to stop sitting on the bench and help her community address these issues.
NextGen, a youth vote program funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, seemed like the right fit for her when she was looking for something to get involved in and backers of the program came to recruit her.
“I feel like my community, the different communities that I belong to, whether it be the immigrant community or people struggling under our health care system, being a female
. . . I feel like all of these communities are under attack under our current administration,” said Ruiz.
“I am the granddaughter of immigrants, the daughter of a mother who is struggling under our health care system. I’m a student and I’m afraid to be shot in a classroom.”
Ruiz, 19, is among a growing number of minorities, college students, environmental activists, children of first-generation Americans, gun regulation supporters and first-time voters who feel that their coalition of 76 million voters under the age of 35 have the voting power to reshape America.
Their personal experiences have left them disenchanted with America under the Trump administration, and they want to nurture their progressive beliefs for the future of America with their drive to register voters.
At the NextGen hub in central Phoenix they work with laptops on folding tables in a room smaller than a convenience store, and use U.S. Census data to target areas dense with young people.
“They care about DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] and ensuring that there’s a path to citizenship for Dreamers,” said Jalakoi Solomon, director of Arizona’s NextGen branch. “They care about everyone having access to affordable health care; about the cost of college and the minimum wage; about gun safety and being safe in your home, and your church and your schools.”
Steyer has said he will pour $2 million into Arizona elections this year and he is investing $30 million in 10 states in an effort to push Democrats to victory in the midterms. NextGen volunteers have knocked on more than 30,000 doors and are directly responsible for registering more than 9,000 voters. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, 89,000 people 18-40 have registered to vote since March 1, a near 10-point increase in that demographic.
In the coming weeks when college students go back to school, NextGen plans to sign up an additional 12,000 people to vote in the 2018 general election.
Despite earlier reluctance to talk about political issues, Ruiz remembers significant conversations with her family when controversial SB1070, which enabled local police to crack down on illegal immigration, became law. She was about 11 and she recalls the anger that flared up in her community over its passage.
Immigrants’ rights groups at the time said that parts of the law would lead to legalized racial profiling and create heavier policing of Hispanic and migrant communities.
“I remember the protest and rallies against the act,” Ruiz said. “It was the first time my entire family talked about politics, so while I didn’t completely understand what was going on, I knew what the words ‘racial profiling’ meant, which, looking back, is completely disgusting for a child to know.”
Ruiz said her experience with SB1070 and President Trump’s recently reversed zero-tolerance policy that separated children from their parents continue to live on in the heart of the canvassing work she and others are doing.
“If one of these policies were enacted years ago, I don’t know if my family would be here today,” Ruiz said.
Turning out young voters is critical to any progressive movement because they are typically more supportive of issues that affect people like Ruiz, an American from a Hispanic community, or Alex Ross, a gay NextGen worker who is the regional organizer for the West Valley.
Ross’ mother is a permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. for 57 years. She traveled to the U.S. when she was 6 from Costa Rica and married an American man when she grew up.
Headlines announcing the deportation of women who had lived in the U.S. for decades has Ross fearful that his mother does not have guaranteed protection from deportation despite her legal immigration status.
Ross, 22, who attended Catholic school in New York, said his mother was the force behind him entering political organizing. She pointed out the inequality of the poor and homeless people on the street and the minorities who were disproportionately affected.
As a high school senior, he worked with Teen Council, an affiliate of Planned Parenthood, to teach young adults about safe and consensual sex, but he found himself leaning more toward policy when he went to college.
“No one is a single-issue voter,” Ross said. “We all live lives that are complicated, and touch in different areas and different ways, and so the way I see it, fighting for immigration justice is also fighting for reproductive justice. They all kinda’ tie together.”
Upset with the family separation policy and other actions against the rights of LGBTQ people, like himself, Ross sought an opportunity to step up and be a leader for the youth. He joined NextGen in 2018.
Guadalupe Espitia, 23, said the issues she hears most about while canvassing for NextGen in Glendale are immigration and education, and her job is to make voting as easy as possible for people and to teach them about the value of their vote.
Espitia, an Arizona State University student who grew up in Tolleson, said her plan is to return to her former high school to teach there, and she stabs the table with a finger to emphasize each word that she utters.
“There is still a lot of conversations that need to be had where we know that we can vote, and that voting is our right. However, to actually vote is another story,” she said.
Ruiz has knocked on 5,000 doors since March, starting in Yuma and continuing through the Phoenix summer.
In Yuma, the Trump ticket won by 1-percentage point in 2016, and with a typically decreased voting turnout during midterms, the 2018 election could flip Ruiz’s hometown to the Democrats – if they decide to show up. Democrats say they have almost everything going in their favor this election– a nationally unpopular president sitting at 40 percent in most polls and the first midterms of his presidency.
“We’ve been knocking on thousands and thousands of doors … and we’re mobilizing the youth,” Ruiz said. “We’re running the largest youth voting campaign in the history of America and we’re going to register as many young people as we can, because we know when young people come together and vote they tend to vote for progressives.”
This story has been updated to report that NextGen plans to register 12,000, not 5,000, people to vote, when colleges and universities begin classes in for the fall 2018 semester.