How Phone Banking Teens Are Reshaping U.S. Congress

Illustration: Benjamin Currie, G/O Media
Illustration: Benjamin Currie, G/O Media

This week’s U.S. election primaries were full of huge progressive victories, including races that prominently featured climate champions. What helped fuel a win for Jamaal Bowman and lead for Charles Booker wasn’t just your usual get-out-the-vote operation, though. It was one run by teens who, despite not being able to vote in this election, have a huge stake in what happens.

Yara Changyit-Levin, a 16-year-old teen from St. Louis, was one of the people running the phone bank game for the youth-led Sunrise Movement. The group endorsed Bowman and Booker among other candidates who support the Green New Deal. Teens — and even pre-teens as young as 12 — affiliated with the group then went to work to help them win their primaries. The group made a staggering 1.6 million phone calls to get out the vote for the two campaigns, more than the group said it made for Bernie Sanders (though they were able to do more canvassing for the presidential hopeful before the pandemic).

For Changyit-Levin, it’s been a chance to be a voice for her generation about the risks the climate crisis poses for voters who have a direct say in who leads the U.S. into the next decade. About a month ago, she remembers chatting up an older gentleman on the phone about Booker’s campaign. He had plenty of questions around climate change and immigration, but by the end of the conversation, he was excited. He pledged his commitment to voting for Booker. Though definitely a win, that wasn’t necessarily the end goal, Changyit-Levin said.

“That’s not the most important thing about that call. It was the connection with the voter,” she told Gizmodo. “We both felt heard and came out of that conversation more inspired and grounded than we were before.”

Kids are stuck in a weird paradox where their future is at stake, but the U.S. government currently doesn’t take it seriously or reflect their values. Without a chance to vote for change, they’re doing what they can to change the status quo.

“[Young people of colour are] not seeing themselves represented in our current political system that’s run primarily by old white men who are not standing up to fight for their interests,” Sophia Zaia, 25, the coordinated electoral campaigns manager at Sunrise, told Gizmodo. “I think they’re really wanting to turn that around.”

Both Bowman and Booker are Black men. The former ousted 32-year member of Congress Eliot Engel and is all but certainly headed to Congress while the latter is on track to beat establishment-back Amy McGrath in a primary to decide who takes on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Like the candidates they’re supporting, these phone-banking teens come from all backgrounds and ethnicities. And they care deeply about having a fair and safe future.

“Young people are facing an uncertain world right now,” Changyit-Levin said. “There’s the health and economic crises caused by covid and climate change at the same time. There’s uprisings against police brutality and racism. Everyone wants to plug in in some way, which is great, and we are actually taking action based on this.”

Sunrise has organised a group of about 30 active volunteers to coordinate phone banking efforts, which involves calling voters to provide them with key information, such as their polling place, who’s running locally, and why certain platforms matter. For the teens rolling with Sunrise, putting the Green New Deal on voters’ radar is key.

The Green New Deal aims to transform local and national U.S. economies into ones that thrive off clean energy, livable wages, and equity for all. These days, canvassing door-to-door isn’t an option for organisers because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, anybody can get on the phone without risking their or another person’s health. It’s something most volunteers are doing from their own homes. With school happening at home or out for summer, the youth, in particular, have plenty of time on their hands. Instead of spending that free time binging Netflix or playing video games — like, um, me — they’re playing a key role in the election of progressive candidates who are working to build a better, more just world.

“These elections and our involvement in them really show the power of social movements,” Zaia said. “So often, we get written off, and people really didn’t believe that a candidate like Bowman or Booker stood a chance. People just laugh off that a couple of teenagers making calls from their homes could have the power to combat that, but I think that’s really what we’re seeing: the power of social movements to create change.”