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Keep on Rocking Us: An Interview With Jehmu Green

The director and spokesperson for Rock the Vote talks about celebrity involvement, what she's learned from the election, and the issues that will keep the momentum going.
 
 
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WT: What was the single biggest thing you learned from the election?

JG: This [election] cycle reinforced why it’s so important for groups to not just talk about collaboration but to pinpoint specific ways that efforts can be amplified – by sharing lists, by carving out different roles that organizations, individuals, and leaders can play and allowing those entities to play those roles. I think that happened from a collaboration standpoint at a much higher level than we’ve ever seen. Ideally that’s one of the main things that will continue. And that people don’t point too many fingers in trying to make assessments of what happened with the campaign but really build off of, in the sense of building blocks, collaboration.

WT: What can youth and youth advocates do to continue the momentum that built up around this election?

JG: Given the initial reports of turnout for young people not being as significant as had been expected … there was this immediate need that we set the record straight. I think that still has to happen. With the record-high turnout, with the impact – I don’t even know if it’s quantifiable – young people actually helped drive the buzz and excitement and energy that made this record turn-out across the board. I just feel like they really should be given the credit for that. So I think immediately there’s still a need for all the activists and first-time voters and individuals who got engaged in this process in a way that we could have only wished, to realize how impressive this year was.

But just as important is to make sure that the media and the political operatives and the parties and consultants realize it. So I think from an activist standpoint, we have to keep clarifying. Building off of that, because you can look at key states and see where young people increased their share of the electorate and what it meant in a number of different ways.

So you have those numbers from a community that we can count on to hold elected officials accountable on a set of issues that spurred the turnout. A case has to be made from a local, state and national standpoint for advocating an issue-based agenda. And if we wait too long as a community to really get into these battles and put our policy positions forward, it’s going to be harder to pick back up the momentum. We definitely need to ride the wave and jump back in the higher education fight, and even into the Social Security fight. The messages that are going be used from the administration around some of the changes that they're proposing for Social Security, for example, are going to be based on what people report young people want or need or would like to see. So we should make sure that the values of this generation are on the table as one of the most significant social programs this country has ever seen is being adjusted and re-worked.

WT: If you had to generalize about the values of this upcoming generation, what would you say they are?

JG: When you look at the values of young people you see that they are more tolerant of different cultures and lifestyles. The reality of their demographic is that they’re more diverse – and they’ve grown up with a different understanding about diversity. I think it’s very promising that this is the most tolerant and diverse generation this country has ever seen. And that, through the years – whether it’s the impact they had on this election, or in 2008 or 20 years from now – is going to have a very significant impact on public policy.

WT: Do you think the culture wars that everyone people are talking about – do you think those apply to this younger generation?

JG: I think that you’re not going to see the same level of intense division coming from this generation and that should be seen as a positive thing.

We are in a time where there are so many issues that are presented as if they are polarized to the extreme. But you’ll see a different political reality with this generation – where it’s not so polarized, from a partisan standpoint and not so polarized from a community, constituency standpoint. Even when you look at the new social conservatives, not a lot of these young people have a desire to go after gay people. That’s not a part of what it means to them to be socially conservative and that’s what’s so promising. Both sides need to really appreciate and understand what that means: How they’re going to engage this generation. For Democrats it's about how they should really find ways of nurturing, including and reaching out to young people as their base. The Republican Party needs to recognize how the numbers of this generation are going to have an impact again, from here on out.

WT: What direction do you think the progressives should go in the next four years and beyond?

JG: Progressives should definitely embrace young people as a part of their base. I think the collaboration that happened this year needs to be expanded on.

We have to think bigger. Every organization I know that had a voter registration goal, or whatever their goals were for turnout, every one of them met or exceeded their expectations. That says that the bar was set too low. It’s about thinking much bigger than we set out to.

When Bush first ran in 2000 for the nomination, he had significant issues within the party. When he became the nominee, his community got behind him, his party got behind him 150 percent and I don’t think that happened this year with Senator Kerry. A lot of times progressives tend to stay fractured longer than is necessary and longer than can help us be effective.

WT: Back to the issues. You mentioned higher education and Social Security. What other issues should young progressives stay focused on in the coming years?

JG: The fight that’s going to continue to happen about media consolidation and the continuing work of the FCC to take away voices is really something to get involved with. I think the steps that are being put in place right now in this media fight are going against what this generation would like to see. These are a set of issues that – when young people organized last year – they were able to see their actions actually have an impact. And for the first time in a long time, they forced the powers that be to change course.

With the Higher Education Act, young people will be looking at how to increase Pell grants and issues involving student loan funding and financing and just some real basic and easy things that haven’t been prioritized from an education standpoint.

And health care. Increasingly it’s an issue that young people are engaged with. This group is twice as likely not to have health insurance and they get kicked off their parents’ plans without the ability to find jobs that will provide benefits. So that’s another issue that they can get engaged in.

Election reform is another big one. Especially looking at the turnout that we saw with early voting this year. How do we really make sure that there are early voting opportunities in all states? And looking at same-day voter registration. The states that have same-day voter registration were the states with the highest turnout. Bottom line: it doesn’t get any clearer than that. I think it’s just like the Motor Voter law – we need to address and find ways of implementing same-day registration and implementing it across the country.

WT: What about celebrity involvement? It seemed to reach an all-time high with this year’s election and you guys kind of have more of a direct pipeline to Hollywood than most organizations. Do you think the celebrities will stay involved for the next four years? Or will it take another election for them to start showing up again?

JG: It’s on some of the organizations and efforts to keep them engaged and looking at the next step and longer-term planning. And I think there really should be conversations and strategic thinking on how to do that. I think this year was just incredible as far as engaging Hollywood, introducing new political voices and taking it deeper.

The job of the progressive movement is to turn these first-time celebrity spokespersons into life-long activists. They need to create the Jane Fondas and the Susan Sarandons.

WT: Do you have tips on how to do that?

It has to be consistent engagement. From an experienced standpoint, I think we approach this community at the last minute, right when the event is happening. This happened in the election cycle we just saw. So many people jumped on board at the last minute. So the next thing you need to do is keep them in the conversation and not to point fingers. There already has been a significant amount of finger-pointing and people saying that some of the issues that could have progressed in the election didn’t end up doing that because there was too much attention on the celebrity component. But I think that’s a mistake. If people point fingers in a way that turns off the entertainment community, it’s going to be harder to re-engage them.

Read more from Rock the Vote on their Blog.