When We All Vote Executive Director Stephanie L. Young Discusses Michelle Obama’s Culture of Democracy Summit

Image: courtesy of Stephanie L. Young

Time is of the essence when it comes to talking about voting rights. In this past year, we’ve seen elected officials seek to strip the American people, especially Black Americans, of protections that would ensure the proper freedoms to live.

Because of this, the national nonpartisan initiative When We All Vote—founded in 2018 by former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama as a means for linking entities and individuals in efforts registering new voters while encouraging civic education for all—has launched their inaugural Culture of Democracy Summit. Taking place June 10-13th in Los Angeles, the Summit will tackle the power of voting and empower younger voters to take ownership of their rights. Through dialogue, activations and connected programming, the event will outline productive methods to combat voter suppression and ensure a positive outcome in the 2022 midterm elections.

EBONY chatted with When We All Vote’s Executive Director Stephanie L. Young about mobilizing efforts toward securing voting rights for all citizens within our country.

EBONY: Can you reflect on when you first discovered that you wanted to become involved with civic engagement?

Stephanie L. Young: I grew up understanding that I needed to be a part of positive things that are moving our country, our people and our communities forward. I recognized that I could be a catalyst for change in some way, shape or form early on. I got it pretty honest, and this desire was handed down to me due to my parents being very civically engaged. Later on, I got the political bug and worked in the Obama Administration at the White House, worked on Capitol Hill and did all those amazing things. However, what I really love about the work that I’m doing right now is that I’m able to marry my two loves—which is pop culture and politics. I get to find ways to make politics relevant, fun and interesting. How are we reaching people that aren’t always reached when it comes to politics and political communications? How are we talking to communities that feel left out and how are we bringing them into the process and empowering them?

I’ve worked in the private sector for a little bit at media companies as well and I found my way back here, because there was so much happening. I wanted to be able to use the gifts and talents that I had to reach people in new, exciting and innovative ways. We want to make sure that we’re not saying the same thing and telling the same stories over and over again, but rather, encouraging a totally new generation to get involved.

Many still feel like their votes don’t matter or that there is no importance in voting. How have you seen the power of young voters mobilize and why is it important to tap into this demographic?

Voter suppression manifests in two different ways. It manifests in the physical with laws and the barriers that states have either introduced or passed in places like Florida, Texas and Georgia; and, it also manifests in the belief that my vote doesn’t matter. Over 90% of our elections take place at the state and local level with only about 10% at the federal level. Literally each election has consequences— from the President picking who’s on the Supreme Court to the head of your local school board who determines what your children are able to read and what type of history they’re going to be getting within their academic institutions to the police chiefs in your communities, depending on what city and state that you live in. Every single election matters.

I believe that there is not a better time to recognize and see that. When we were in the midst of a global pandemic, it was very easy to recognize that the governor, the mayor and the President can make these decisions. Over 65% of Americans voted in 2020—the highest turnout in modern history. At the end of the day, if our votes didn’t matter or weren’t powerful, nobody would be trying as hard as they are right now to stop you from voting. I think that we have to step back logically and look at that. If it didn’t matter, why are people going to these great lengths to stop people—especially young people and especially Black people—from voting. That’s because as voters, we are extremely powerful. So just because things don’t go away initially, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make the investment in voting.

Can you share a snapshot of what has gone into the planning of the Culture of Democracy Summit?

We’re very excited about this summit. This is the very first time that we have ever taken on anything like this since When We All Vote was started in 2018. Our whole mission is to change the culture around voting and to increase participation in each and every election by helping to close the race and age voting gaps. Therefore, we are consistently trying to push the needle on how we are reaching people where they are. We are evaluating how we are talking about these issues in ways folks can understand it, and how we’re providing true ways for their involvement and encouraging them to take action with us by registering their communities and being a more informed voter.

The Culture of Democracy Summit gives us an opportunity to bring together a cross-section of industry leaders— from tech to entertainment, to music, to culture, to corporate, to civic spaces and nonprofits—to talk about our individual and collective roles and responsibilities for expanding and protecting our democracy. It’s so incredibly important that we’re all at the table and we did that in a major way in 2020. It shouldn’t happen just because of a big election, though. It should happen consistently.

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