How 18by Vote Uplifts Youth Voters: Grantee Spotlight with Ava Mateo
About Us: Progressive Turnout Project is the largest voter contact organization in the country, specifically dedicated to mobilizing the Democratic Party and defending democracy. Our mission: rally Democrats to vote.
Progressive Turnout Project (PTP) launched Turnout Grants earlier this year to connect with voters our programming doesn’t cover and to build relationships with key voter contact organizations across the country. “We selected groups that represented the entire experience of being a voter,” said Emily Kowey, our Turnout Grants Manager. “[Groups] doing pre-registration in high schools and colleges, working to get important community voices talking to voters about the importance of voting, translating voter education resources, anywhere in the voting process that a voter could face a roadblock.”
One such grantee, 18by Vote, tackles many of the roadblocks that young people face through paid civic leadership development and voter engagement opportunities. Completely youth-led, 18by Vote is working across Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to ensure that the youth voice is heard this midterm cycle and for the years to come.
We caught up with 18by Vote’s Executive Director Ava Mateo at the end of August to learn more about her journey to 18by Vote and the changing youth organizing landscape.
“Young people have been historically disenfranchised in social and civic spaces,” Ava said. “We live in an age-hierarchical society where youth voices have not been respected. But this year, someone who’s Gen Z just won a Florida primary, which was super exciting. Gen Z is the future and the present of this country, and young people need to stand up, and say ‘This is not what we believe as a population, regardless of political party, this is not what we support. This is not the future that we envision and want to exist.’”
That’s why 18by Vote focuses their programs around 16, 17, and 18 year olds, encouraging them to not only register but also learn how, when, and why they should vote. Turnout Grants is supporting the expansion of their Civic Engagement Fellowship and Organizer programs, equipping youth with the training, tools, and support to spearhead civic engagement efforts within their own communities, while building a nationwide peer network.
“We are seeking youth civic sustainability, working to find ways for young people to be involved actively and continually and during elections, but also beyond,” Ava said of their work.
Read the rest of our conversation with Ava below.
Why is youth voter contact work so important?
Ava: It’s so important to activate young people around elections. Your vote is your voice. Beyond voting you have to hold your representatives accountable to what they say that they’re going to do. We are working to help young people understand the importance of their vote. I think they already understand the importance of accountability. But giving them the tools to actually hold their representatives and their elected officials accountable is another piece of why youth voter contact work is so important.
How do you feel youth organizing has changed in recent years?
Ava: I think the pandemic has actually empowered youth organizing in a really amazing way! Young people from across the country are getting together in ways that they never have before, through country-wide organizing. Young people are being included in spaces more — not as much as they should be, but more than they have been in the past. So I think the value of youth organizing is really being recognized in a new way, but not to the point where it needs to be.
What excites you the most about 18by Vote’s work this year, specifically?
Ava: I’m really excited about testing new leadership programming models and the impact on the young people that are working with us across the country. We are creating youth civic networks in every state we are working in so I’m excited to see how that changes our work year after year, and to understand the impact on voter registration and engagement. Our youth fellows and organizers are developing youth summits, local registration drives at schools and skate parks, online communities, and more. I can’t wait to see what these youth leaders do this year and what they pursue after the program.
What got you interested in voter contact work?
Ava: I went to Sarah Lawrence College, which is a very small liberal arts college in Westchester, New York, where we actually don’t have majors. They did emphasize democratic participation, and really focused on how young people can be active participants in their communities. There I discovered that my ultimate life goal is to help young people be active participants in our society and in our democracy, and understand how education is part of that. After Sarah Lawrence, I got a Masters degree in sociology and education, researching how we can make public schools stimulants for democracy. We know that when young people are civically engaged, they’re more likely to be fulfilled in life, and also do better academically.
How did you join 18by Vote? What drew you to the organization?
Ava: I joined the summer of 2020 as a volunteer. I was super excited that 18by Vote has a distributed youth leadership model. I had just graduated from college, the pandemic had begun to ravage the country, and the election was coming up. I was really looking for a way to get involved in a meaningful way. 18by Vote was launching our first educational programming then and I was able to design a curriculum and then execute it throughout the fall of 2020. After that I was the Community Engagement Director, finally becoming the Executive Director in the Fall of 2021.
What has been the most challenging part of this work? What has surprised you?
Ava: I think the biggest thing is getting people to take young people seriously. We live in an age hierarchical society, where people don’t necessarily think that young people can rise to the occasion of leadership. It’s been a challenge to prove that to myself, and in taking this leadership position, to create an empowered space for young people in this work. That’s one of the things that I’m really grateful to PTP about, is that you did take us seriously with your support.
What has surprised me is the number of young people that need to be convinced to be engaged and who have an intense resistance to conformity and being a part of the establishment. I understand that to an extent, I was not a politically active teenager and didn’t become engaged until I was a freshman in college. But I’ve been very surprised and fulfilled by the in-depth conversations I’ve been able to have with so many young people, helping them understand their own power and how voting is a part of that.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Ava: It’s actually facilitating a positive work environment. As part of Gen Z, I know there’s all sorts of news about our generation rejecting traditional work expectations. I am an older peer, in comparison to all of the people who are on my team, but really encourage them to be empowered in setting their work boundaries. I love thinking about how we can change a workplace to be a positive, but accountable, environment where everyone feels heard and seen and has the space to take time for their overall health if needed.