Biko Baker talks Youth Voting and Organizing | MIT Center for Civic Media

Biko Baker talks Youth Voting and Organizing

We sat down for a Thursday Civic lunch with Biko Baker, Executive Director of the League of Young Voters.

Like any good organizer, Biko begins with his Story of Self. He grew up in Milwaukee, WI, with a father who was a machinist and construction worker, and a mother who worked at the grocery store. He was a jock, and didn't grow into being an academic until his sophomore year at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He did his graduate work at UCLA in History, and labor. He became a researcher for the SEIU, but was also into hip hop, and got started as a party promoter on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, working with many of hip hop's biggest West Coast names, like Snoop Dogg and Xzibit. He and his fellow promoters were essentially organizing online, developing massive email and text lists and relationships without realizing this practice had a name. Biko also wrote for The Source, one of hip hop's top magazines.

In 2006, Biko received a mysterious invitation to a "bootcamp" training from the New Organizing Institute. He wasn't keen on hanging out in a hotel in Washington, DC, as they're not the coolest people, but the 5-day training proved to be a transformative experience. Biko now serves on NOI's Board [Disclaimer: I worked there previous to joining the Center. We were the coolest people.].

Biko started as a volunteer for the League of Young Voters, a multi-racial, multicultural organization. They were previously the League of Pissed Off Voters. Biko says he's "Done the Occupy thing, and slept in uncomfortable places."

The League of Young Voters represents a rising electorate: people of color. They're one of the few political youth groups that's growing, and doubled their budget from 2010 to 2012.

Biko walks us through some important trends in electoral politics. The face of the voter is changing. At least half of voters the League works with are outside of the traditional workforce. And 28% of young African Americans turned out to vote in the 2010 midterm, the highest amongst youth demographics. The statistics defeat the stereotype of black youth's voting habits, and prove that their turnout in 2008 wasn't just a fluke to elect a black president. And this trend started in 2004.

Biko admits to being the nerd in his family, because his mother got him a computer when he was 8. He's forced himself to stop using Twitter all of the time because of it's addictivity, but he points to urban youth's dominance of Twitter's trending topics as proof of their proficiency using technology:

  • 67% of African Americans are online
  • 85% of Americans 18 and over own a cellphone
  • 25% of the African Americans online are on Twitter
  • Half of all African American adults have accessed the internet. This last number is a higher rate than
    Hispanics (40% have accessed the internet) and whites (31%). African Americans are the most socially active ethnic group online.

But there are real obstacles to converting this digital prowess to meaningful change. Music and sports sites are the most frequented web properties in this demographic, and the top site aggregates all manner of questionable video clips. The lack of narrative on these sites bothers Biko, who worked at The Source to "flip the switch" and change readers.

Another major obstacle to organizing young people is that they're highly transitory. At least 22% of African American families in Milwaulke move each year. This becomes a critical barrier when you take into account new laws that require an ID card at the polling place. They're less connected to churches, fraternal institutions. Can you engage, register and pledge, educate, and mobilize young people of color to participate in the civic process via the internet? Rock the Vote registered 400,000 African Americans online in 2008, but Biko sees much more potential here.

Rahul asks if there's a difference between Get Out The Vote mobilization in general and outreach focused on specific issues.
Biko responds that civic engagement, culture, and advocacy are each tied together. The League took on a campaign that others wouldn't, to ban illegal guns. Others laughed at them, told them the NRA would destroy their campaign's chances. And the NRA did, with far higher turnout, but it demonstrated that the League was serious with taking on challenging but important campaigns. Biko paraphrases his mentor: "Pick smart campaigns which cause you to fall forward if you lose rather than falling back."

They wanted to go on the offensive, and work on felon re-enfranchisement, but the recent voter suppression rollbacks have forced them to focus on those battles.

Sasha asks about Pareto distributions in social media, and Lupe Fiasco tweeting down at Occupy Wall Street. How do we take advantage of cultural figures, creatives in service of the movement?

Biko responds that the online presence of Occupy is larger than physical footprint, and we need to keep that in mind.

Ethan asks, given the League's funding, how closely aligned they are with the progressive left.
Biko responds that their goal is to turn young people of color into stakeholders in their communities. If you're likely to vote, you're more likely to do things like pick up trash in your community, advocate for a park in your community. He sees increasingly, among young people of color, the ability to go deep locally.

Biko briefly touches on the importance, as an organization, of maintaining their street credibility and keeping that swag if they are to be taken seriously by their constituency.

The League's working with a civic startup called TurboVote, which aims to make registering to vote as easy as ordering DVDs from Netflix. They have pilots in California, and kids going out with tablets to register people. The easier we can get people signed up and registered, the better. Biko doesn't think, despite the hype, that the 2008 Obama campaign took full advantage of technology's capabilities.

Leo tells Biko about VoIP Drupal, a platform the Center for Civic Media is working on, that integrates web, SMS, regular touchtone phones, and Twitter together, and asks if we're missing anything.
Biko tell us about his friend, a 43-year old poet. This one person has a 10,000 person text list stored entirely in his phone. He sends out a text with a positive quote every day, and can easily drum up turnout to a rally or a party. He just goes *boop* and sends a text out. We need to connect people like him to the organizers.

There's also the question of using text blasts as more marketing, versus having true two-way dialogue.

Sasha mentions the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California built a system to collect stories with feature phones that have just a camera and audio recording.
Ethan reminds us of our recent lunch with DoSomething, and their ongoing work to conduct really effective 2-way communication.
Biko concurs, pointing out that people respond so much more to texts from his actual phone number than the same text coming from his 5-digit shortcode.
Sasha brings up work done by the Citizen Engagement Lab for a YouTube polling place monitoring system, Video the Vote, "a national network of citizen journalists, independent filmmakers, and media professionals working together to document voter suppression and disenfranchisement."

I ask Biko to talk about the recent trend of voter suppression laws sweeping a number of states.
Biko notes that 78% of the young African American men in his community don't have a driver's license, and many have never joined a formal economy. The places with the harshest ID laws have the highest concentrations of African Americans. It's the new terrain of the civil rights movement.

He says that the League's one of the few groups doing work to specificaly get IDs into the disenfranchised's hands, including a Got ID? campaign and flooding theirr community with texts. They've taken 300 people to the Department of Moter Vehicles, and have convinced the DMV to put up signage announcing that there are actually free IDs you can get to use when you vote. They're tying to get data from the DMV so they can help register people, but have had no luck so far.

Ethan agrees that voter suppression tactics are raising barriers on everything, but notes that it gets political when the money behind your organization comes from far left sources. On the right, you have pressure to say, "We should worry about people voting illegally," which never actually happens any more, so it's a proxy for "Let's make sure the people who vote are rich, white."

Biko points to a recent University of Wisconsin study that found that 78% of African Americans ages 18-24 don't have drivers licenses (download the report). There are all kinds of reasons for this, like not having access to your birth certificate. The US Census data for young people of color doesn't begin to touch the true numbers. Most people who don't have ID also don't even have what they need to get an ID; there are many layers of the onion.

Leo: We're all about adopting tools people already have. Are there other interesting tools you've seen?
Biko responds that the Occupy stuff is extremely interesting, by demographic. Occupy The Hood has used the SMS app to organize conferences. Biko's all about the culture, so he finds it powerful when he sees kids into rap connecting that culture with technology.

Ethan: The Indian government requires certificates for social services, so bureaucrats withhold the certificates for bribes. E-government is helping eliminate this rent-seeking because a kiosk gives you the actual price.

Biko: We've developed this big list. Locally there are huge opportunities if we could implement stuff like that. [African-Americans] are very afraid of their private data and what happens to it.

Charlie tells us about Between the Bars, a blogging platform for incarcerated people, to ensure that society still hears their voices.

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