Youth get out the vote

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The upcoming presidential election probably isn’t the first thing you would think about as being on a teenager’s mind, but that is exactly what one group of Twin Cities teens is buzzing about.

Minnesota Strengthening Our Lives (or Minnesota SOL) is a non-profit group of about 10 teens, ranging in age from 14-19, who target Latinos to register as voters. They do this mainly by knocking door-to-door, but have also branched out by riding the light rail to convince fellow commuters to register and are currently making a You Tube video in hopes of reaching younger voters.

Minnesota SOL, which is made up of both paid and unpaid workers, got original start-up funding from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) but is funded mostly through donations to the program. Since they began in August, canvassers have registered more than 300 Latinos, according to Rosemary Rivera, the lead organizer at Minnesota SOL.

“We don’t have a culture where we sit around and talk politics,” Rivera said. This makes it especially challenging to get young Latinos interested in voting.

Minnesota SOL recruited some of its first members through family connections and then they started bringing friends along to get involved. Monica Illescas, 19, was one of the first people to start because her brother is one of the organizers.

“When I first started working for Minnesota SOL I thought that politicians were all mean people who wanted our money,” Illescas said.

Her opinion has changed since she learned the stances candidates have on the issues. Now she is a strong supporter of Barack Obama and is trying to get other people, particularly Hispanic youth, interested in politics as well.

The group visited La Escuelita, a Minneapolis after-school program designed for Latino immigrants, and they spoke to about 50 young Latinos there. As the older adults spoke, the kids were checking their phones and generally not paying attention, Illescas said. But when her turn came to talk, she “used words they could relate to” and talked about issues that were important to people her own age, such as not being able to get a drivers license without a social security card. When she was finished she received applause from the crowd, she said.

“If you vote, you have power,” she said.

In the past, many politicians have overlooked both youth and Latino voters, Rivera said, because both groups traditionally have not turned out in high numbers to the polls.

“We are trying to create a type of thing where a youth voice cannot be ignored, especially immigrants,” Rivera said.

Minnesota SOL began canvassing Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods to register voters, but found that many of the Latinos that live in the cities are not citizens. If someone has legal resident status, but is not a citizen, that person cannot vote. The group had better luck traveling further, to Blaine and Faribault, where they found more Latino communities of eligible voters, Rivera said.

They are based in a St. Paul office that they share with another voter registration group aimed at Somali immigrant voters. According to Rivera, the efforts directed at Latinos have resulted in far fewer people registered than the Somali get out the vote program because Latinos are much more widely dispersed around the state.

Rivera said that they plan on spending election day at the polls to make it as easy as possible for somebody who may need an interpreter.

Even though Illescas herself is not an eligible voter because she is not a citizen, she has already registered at least three of her friends who will act as her voice this November 4.

Kristin Anderson is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and an intern with the Twin Cities Daily Planet.