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Youth Activists Are Heard In Biden's White House, But They Want To See More Action

Signs sit near the White House following a 2018 March for Our Lives rally. Three years later, the activist group, founded by survivors of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, is consulting with the Biden administration on violence prevention policies.
Zach Gibson
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Signs sit near the White House following a 2018 March for Our Lives rally. Three years later, the activist group, founded by survivors of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, is consulting with the Biden administration on violence prevention policies.

The day before President Biden's allies on Capitol Hill were set to roll out his sweeping immigration overhaul, a group of activists rallied outside of the headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, projecting a message onto the building's façade.

"ICE is deporting and torturing people," the all-caps message read. "Abolish ICE and CBP," a reference to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The protesters were organized by United We Dream, the immigrant youth organization. United We Dream is one of a number of youth-led groups in regular contact with the Biden administration on key policy issues. While these activists are encouraged by what some described as open lines of communication to the White House, they say they're waiting to see whether that translates into policy victories.

"What we know and what I learned as an organizer is that access does not equal power, " said Greisa Martinez, the executive director of United We Dream. "So we continue to organize."

After a Democratic primary that was rife with generational tensions, Biden has so far managed to hold together the Democratic coalition that elected him, including the young people who turned out for Biden in droves. Now, younger Americans are confronting the intersecting crises of the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis, a national reckoning on race and justice and the urgent climate crisis.

"Democrats control the levers of power in Washington with Joe Biden as the party leader," said Jesse Barba, a spokesman for Young Invincibles. "And with it, they are having to own the outcome of how young people will weather the economic and health storms of the last four years."

During the campaign, candidate Biden pulled out all the stops to make sure that young people knew the issues that mattered to them were deeply felt, in an effort to ensure that they would show up at the ballot box. Now, the Biden White House is acutely focused on making sure that those same young people feel heard.

Leaders of youth-led movements have been invited to participate in regular meetings with administration officials, including Cedric Richmond, a Biden senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

"I think there's a listening ear that's coming from the administration and Democrats on the Hill, for that matter," said Ben Wessel, the executive director of NextGen America, a progressive group dedicated to mobilizing young people. "I think time will tell whether that listening ear becomes an action oriented or a legislative strategy."

Richmond and Susan Rice, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, held a virtual meeting last week with more than a dozen youth activists focused on community violence prevention. The White House released an official readout of the meeting, saying that Rice and Richmond "underscored President Biden's commitment to taking action to make our communities safer and to ensure that equity drives our policymaking across the federal government."

One of the activists involved in that discussion was Max Markham, the policy director for March For Our Lives, the group was founded by survivors of the deadly 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. He says he and his colleagues have been "heartened" by some of the conversations with the administration.

"We have been vocal in our expectations that the Biden Administration has to have a plan and has to address gun violence as a public health emergency and that starts with staffing, that starts with who they're hiring and who they're empowering and the voices that they're amplifying," Markham said in an interview.

While some activists say they appreciate having open lines of communication with the administration, including at its highest levels, they do not plan to stop asserting public pressure on the administration from the outside.

March For Our Lives this week called on Biden to release a plan to curb gun violence in the first 100 days of his administration, that includes appointing a senior staffer as director of gun violence prevention to focus on the issue. March For Our Lives is also calling on Biden to leverage the Stafford Act, the federal disaster relief statute, to unlock $1 billion in funding "to be used for community intervention programming and data collection with a public health lens."

"We got the president into office and we expect results," Markham said. "And we will make our voices known if that is not the case."

The early days of the Biden administration have been focused on meeting the immediate needs of the nation as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, including a $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan currently before Congress.

Many young activists pointed to that package as a meaningful example of why it's so important that they be involved in policy conversations. The package now includes adult dependents among those eligible for stimulus payments.

In the two previous rounds of stimulus payments, adults who could be claimed as a dependent on someone else's tax return were not eligible for money, a move that excluded more than 13.5 million adult dependents, according to the People's Policy Project.

"People think that adult dependents aren't having to pay their rent, aren't contributing to their own household income and well-being," said Sarah Audelo, the executive director of the Alliance for Youth Action. "So there are some pieces that are very distinct to, 'Wow, this is an experience that someone who's 20 years old will only have.' So we need people who have that experience to be able to bring that perspective forward."

Policy tensions lie ahead

Many organizers also say they're keenly aware that the administration is currently having its honeymoon period.

"At some point, we're gonna run out of easy things to do," said Wessel. "The to do list is going to get more challenging — things that are going to take a little more political courage and bravery, or a little more muscle in persuading the rest of America, not just young progressives."

One early point of tension came when Biden, speaking at a CNN town hall, outwardly rejected calls to eliminate up to $50,000 of student loan debt, a priority of many young organizers and liberal Democrats.

"I think there's just a lot of education clearly that needs to be done about who holds student debt, about the impact of student debt," said Audelo. "I was hoping we were in a more positive place but then the town hall response was like, 'OK cool, we're like 15 years behind.'"

Another potential point of conflict is the issue of immigration, with Democrats in need of at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate to pass Biden's sweeping immigration bill.

The proposal offers a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. There have been steep political challenges to moving immigration legislation through Congress, and Republicans have already signaled resistance to Biden's legislation.

Greisa Martinez of United We Dream said that part of the work that her organization and others are doing is engaging on policy with administration officials, but also "being clear about what's at stake for folks outside of the administration."

Still, Martinez is undeterred.

"It's not just undocumented people that are clamoring for a different direction on immigration. It's millions of people that went out to vote and people are super clear that deportations and enforcement and detention is not the pathway that the majority of American voters want to go, and that's why they chose Joe Biden," Martinez said. "What we know for sure is that we can't leave 2021 without any protection for people."

Seeking more seats at the table

The demands of young organizers are sweeping in terms of policy, but they are also calling on the administration to bring more young people into the administration in meaningful ways.

Many groups are calling on Biden to establish an Office of Young Americans within the White House and to appoint a director of youth engagement who will sit on the Domestic Policy Council.

"Biden does owe a lot to young people. But it's not just repaying us for helping him to get elected, it's making sure that he actually is working with us," said Charlotte Kerpen, the chair of the High School Democrats of America. "For Biden to have a group of young people that he can really consult to, would make sure that the policies are not only reflecting the beliefs of young people, but are helping to make sure that in the future, the policies are representing what we have always believed. "

Earlier this month, the White House announced that Vincent Toranzo, a high school senior from Pembroke Pines, Fla., would serve on the administration's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, aimed at addressing COVID-19 related health and social inequities.

Activists pointed to other staffers with backgrounds in youth-led movements like Maggie Thomas, now the chief of staff in the Office of Domestic Climate Policy. She previously worked on the presidential campaigns of Democrats Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren, before helping to launch the climate group Evergreen.

"In the past we've seen too often where there will be a public engagement arm and it's just separate from the actual policy work that's happening in an administration," said Audelo. "And that's just unacceptable and that is not what young people are trying to do. They want to make sure that their concerns, that the unique perspective that young people have into the fight on climate, into the fights on the economy... that those perspectives, their ideas are reflected in actual policy discussions."

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.