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Still a few years before she turns 40, Sarah Audelo says she has aged outside of her job.
She has spent the last few years leading one of the largest networks of youth organizations in the country, and now Audelo is stepping down to make room for new, younger leaders.
“It’s like totally bittersweet to walk away, but absolutely at the right time,” Audelo said of his departure, which had been in the works for some time. “I am 37 years old. This is a youth organization. It is time for the people who are currently on TikTok to take the lead in the Alliance.”
This idea, that a person still under the age of 40 is too old leading a political group, would be unthinkable in other parts of Washington where the ranks of leaders can often stagnate.
But like many other young organizers, Audelo sees his departure as a natural evolution to keep the groups that are part of the Alliance – a progressive network of local organizations focused on youth mobilization – relevant. During her years of experience in Democratic politics, she has seen young people become disenchanted with her party and the political system in general.
Audelo joined the Alliance for Youth Action in 2017 and was the first Latina to hold the position. But she had already been working in the youth organizing space for years.
She had previously worked at Rock The Vote and Generation Progress. She was also the Millennium Voting Director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Campaign.
Originally from Bakersfield, Calif., Audelo said she got her start in politics organizing around reproductive rights issues after moving to Washington, DC, for her college education.
“The sad thing about all of this is that I had to leave my hometown to learn these skills, I had to leave my hometown to learn that organizing was possible,” she said. . “What the Alliance is doing is trying to support young people and the political homes they create for their peers across the country. So you don’t have to leave your hometown because so many of our hometowns need love. No one should have left their hometown to make a difference. “
Audelo spoke with NPR about the challenges of being a leading woman of color in the progressive nonprofit space, the challenges Democrats face in engaging young people and why so many young people have turned up to vote in November, challenging so many stereotypes about their political behavior.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
JUANA SUMMERS: You are coming to the end of your time at the Alliance. What are you most proud of?
SARAH AUDELO: A lot of what we do at the Alliance, we try to be the hype of the youth organization. There is so much negative energy and information or stereotypes about young people. I love going through it all and saying, “Let me tell you what the kids did. So I like to think that we played a small role in changing part of the narrative around the youth vote that has always been terrible.
In recent years, we have also adopted our identity as a financial intermediary, as we saw a gap: young people needed resources to continue the work. And so I’ve been able to, you know, with the support of my amazing team of young women of color on the development staff, move $ 17 million into the field since I’ve been in the Alliance. So really proud of that.
How is the experience of being an Executive Director as a woman of color different?
I was very lucky to have a great transition that I learned a lot from and tried to implement as part of my own. But when I look at some of the stories from my peers, or the executive directors that we support in our network, the expectations people place on women of color, it’s kind of surreal. The expectation that we will be able to resolve any of the issues of race and racism in organizations because we are the head of said organization.
I’ve had peers who had to keep going or felt the pressure to go around apologizing for the bad deeds of their predecessors because they feel like they need to reestablish their relationship with people. I’ve had peers whose money was taken out because their white predecessors are no longer there, and donors are cranky about it. For some reason, they don’t trust the new leadership that has arrived.
And then there’s like the stuff inside where impostor syndrome is so real. And I think that’s part of the reason that having my peer group is important, because we see ourselves in all the “badassness” that we are. Peers can help overcome all of this. As an executive director you stand up for your organization, you try to tell the story of the job. Being invited to speak on panels is kind of the norm. But sometimes you think to yourself, “Am I here because, you know, I know what I’m talking about?” Or because there is like a diversity quota that you are trying to achieve? “
Working in a youth organization as a woman, as a Latina, I tick a lot of boxes and it’s really easy to ask yourself, “Why am I being asked to do this? I don’t remember at what point in my career I said to myself, ‘F it’. I take this space. I will try to bring others with me, and I will fight. I will represent my people as … tough. ‘
When you wonder why you were invited to speak on a panel or sit at a table, people might be surprised to learn that this is still happening in progressive the spaces.
It shouldn’t happen, but it still is. We still have a lot of white leaders who are focused and uplifted in this work. This, in some ways, is timeless. Now don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of young people who oppose it. There are a lot of changes, where even when we have white dudes in power, there is a better sharing of that power that I think we’ve seen in other places.
Turnout increased in all parts of the electorate, including young people in 2020. You had a front row seat for that. Why do you think youth participation increased last year?
It had been a while since we saw signs that this was going to happen. Increasing attendance during mid-sessions. In these odd-year races, there were increases in participation. Young people were getting involved, not only by voting to make change and to push back the Trump administration, but they were taking it to the streets. They appeared at the municipal council hearings. And we also saw it during the pandemic. When the going got going, the young people were still engaged.
And so we were hoping it would continue, even if we couldn’t be on the pitch, which is terrifying for young people organizing. You really have to reach out to young people where they are at, which is on an equal footing. Online totally exists. But when you have too many states that don’t have online voter registration, you have to register them in person, you have to go with them in person, you have to navigate the misinformation in person. And so we were absolutely nervous.
But it was really great to see young people just innovating and building online communities to keep organizing to bring people in. And yes, when we saw those numbers come out it was amazing because we always knew it was possible, right? We had 50% of young people who voted in 2020. That’s an 11 point increase over 2016. And now we’re like, “Okay, let’s show them what this vote is for you.” Let us remind these elected officials that they owe their seats to these young voters. And you know, the [Democratic] The party has been so-so since.
Democrats have struggled to push through some key elements of the platform they campaigned on and issues that motivated young people to vote for them. Without these victories, do you think Democrats will be able to replicate their success with young voters again in 2022 and 2024?
You know, there’s a reason about a third of young people don’t identify with a political party. When we register people in the field, you see a third Republican, a third independent, a third Democrat, and that’s something that’s quite unique to young voters. It is not because this independent voter is in the middle, and they are like super moderate on the issues that these independent voters, they are not the [Joe] Manchins of the world, or the [Kyrsten] Sinemes of the world.
A lot of young people are so fed up with the Democratic Party that they say to themselves, “I’m not going to identify myself like that. I don’t want to be a part of this. And these are the numbers the party should pay attention to, young people who are so fed up with this two-party system, because Democrats continue to lower the bar on what is even possible at a time when we need to raise the bar. It’s surreal that too many people who have a D next to their name are just willing to negotiate what looks, honestly, like the humanity of our people in our communities.
How did the White House do with youth outreach?
There is definitely a desire to connect and communicate, at least what we have experienced, I think, however, where things could be better is that we need the president and vice president to sit with these young people. We know that there have been a lot of round tables that have taken place, but often young people do not participate. And as we know, [young people] in many cases, they have the most to lose in these fights.
So some of the staff at the Public Participation Office were great and responsive. But this is where we really need the time of the chair and the vice chair. We need their speaking time. We need them to sit down and relate and hear directly from the young organizers, who got all these young people to vote.