Last month the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) hosted a webinar featuring Dr. Cathy Cohen–a political science professor at the University of Chicago–who addressed “Young Black Voters 2008 to 2012: The Future of American Politics.”

The 2008 presidential election saw an increase of 3.4 million young voters, when youth turnout rose to 53% (an 11% increase over 2000). Black and Latino youth fueled the gains, and in fact, 53% of black youth voted in 2008, 4% more than white youth.

One of Dr. Cohen’s major arguments was that there is no homogeneous “youth vote” and lumping younger voters together under that heading does a major disservice to all young people.

Why is it important to distinguish between different youth factions? Youth have different views on various issues. For example, 69% of black youth think that racism is still a major problem, compared to 51% of Latino youth and 31% of white youth. And when asked if they feel like a full and equal citizen, 66% of white youth and 63% of Asian youth said yes, while only 43% of black youth and 43% of Latino youth said yes.

Moreover, only 55% of black students graduate from high school–compared to 78% of white students–and 35% of black children live in poverty. Currently, black men have the highest unemployment rate among youth. The various individuals who make up the “youth” voting bloc vote for different reasons and are motivated by different issues. That is why it is important not to categorize them all together as simply “youth.”

Reaching out to all young voters is critical because individuals 18-35 are the group least likely to be contacted by a political party. College is traditionally an institution that mobilizes young people, which means that we must have other methods of targeting youth that are not enrolled in college.

In 2008, we saw many innovative mobilization strategies, such as the use of community organizations and new media. Dr. Cohen said that the key to organizing young black voters in 2012 will be to reach first time voters and non-college young people through innovative and non-traditional strategies, with messaging on issues that are important to them. Through this work, we can counter the conventional wisdom that black youth are not interested in politics.

By heightening the involvement of young people, we are building sustained civic communities. Cultivating a sense of civic duty and encouraging lifelong voting habits among all youth are critical for national civic health and the future of our democracy. At Nonprofit VOTE, we think that nonprofit organizations and social service agencies have a role to play in this movement. Such organizations are well-positioned to begin to address these participation gaps and reach out to potential voters.

Learn more about Dr. Cohen and her work.

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