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Vote Your Voice Florida: Student organization trains tomorrow’s leaders

Cynthia Frage’s entire childhood in West Palm Beach, Florida, was defined by the fact that her father, a Haitian immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of 19, was unable to obtain citizenship.

He could not get a green card that would allow him to work legally, even after steadily trying for more than two decades. Not even his 1997 marriage to Frage’s mother, a permanent U.S. resident who came from Haiti at 14, made a difference.

Forced to live in the shadows under fear of being arrested and deported, her father could not find steady, safe work in South Florida. When Frage was in third through fifth grades, her father lived and worked in Jacksonville – separated from the family.

Cynthia Frage
Cynthia Frage is the Tallahassee civic engagement organizer for Florida Student Power. (Credit: Nathalie Aburto)

“We went to see him every spring break,” said Frage, one of six children. “We knew a lot about why he was away – that it was about work and his green card status. My parents are open about things, but it really affected my family. My mom was always stressed. She’s a nurse and had two jobs then. We would go to school, then aftercare, then a cousin would pick us up and take us to his home until my mother got home at 8 p.m. I don’t know how she did it.”

Now 20 and a broadcast journalism major at Florida A&M University (FAMU), Frage is working for change from the ground up as the Tallahassee civic engagement organizer for Florida Student Power (FSP).

The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is among 68 voter outreach groups across the Deep South that are receiving a total of more than $20 million in funding from the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of the new round of Vote Your Voice grants announced in October.

FSP is devoted to the civic engagement, leadership training and increased voter participation of young Black and Latinx people in South Florida.

“The greatest challenge to the youth vote is connecting with them through the right message,” said FSP Executive Director Ana Guevara. “A lot of young people feel disenchanted with politicians, parties and the system. Gen Z voters feel their voice isn’t heard. It can be the biggest challenge to motivate them to feel empowered, so we build civic engagement through three main advocacy issues that impact them: climate, migrant and education justice.”

Vote Your Voice is an SPLC initiative, conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South.

The SPLC has pledged to award $100 million in Vote Your Voice grants through 2032.

Bumping up voter turnout

Young people of color comprise 53% of Florida’s Generation Z registered voters, according to Guevara of FSP. But in 2022, young, Latinx voters ages 18-24 turned out only at a rate of about 23%, and Black youth voter turnout was just 13%, according to FSP and NALEO Educational Fund, a national nonprofit that advances Latinx participation in the American political process.

FSP will use its three-year, $450,000 grant to target 18- to 25-year-olds in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Leon counties – expanding to additional counties by 2026.

The organization will invest heavily during electoral cycles to increase voter turnout for municipal and state elections and the presidential election of 2024. Almost a third of the Vote Your Voice funding will support its youth training and civic education Power University summer program and for targeted training for field organizers drawn from summer program attendees. Last summer, FSP trained more than 400 people on the legislative process. That number is slated to grow to 600 by 2026.

Funding will also be appropriated to its “Youth Power at the Capitol” in March, when FSP will bring 75 young people from across Florida to brief elected officials about how they are personally affected by policy proposals under consideration.

Group holds banner and signs for Florida Student Power as speaker at podium addresses open room
Grace Castelin, a student at the University of Central Florida, speaks during Florida Student Power’s Youth Power at the Capitol event in Tallahassee on March 29, 2023. (Credit: Nathalie Aburto)

Frage is assigned to organize on her own campus at FAMU, as well as at nearby Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College.

She is confident she can move young people to vote by educating them about their voting rights, the impact of their vote on the issues that affect their lives, and other ways that they can get civically involved.

“My childhood community was made up of mostly Haitian, Cuban, Jamaican and Guatemalan immigrants and their children,” Frage said. “Everyone had the same issues – finding a job; being out of work and forced to live with family; working illegally and having no money; and the hardest part, getting the documentation to become a citizen. This is something I am passionate about and want to bring change and awareness to. Joining the FSP pushed me to take a big step, because before I joined, I didn’t know where to start.”

The power of community

Laura Muñoz, FSP director of civic engagement, works one-on-one each year with youth organizers who are evenly divided between focusing on increasing voter participation and boosting civic engagement among young people. The organization plans to increase the number of organizers from the current 10 to 15 by 2026.

Muñoz said that 70% of the organizers are young women, and the majority are immigrants like herself or children of immigrants like Frage and Courtney Stephenson, another Tallahassee youth justice organizer who is from Miramar, Florida, and whose parents emigrated from Jamaica.

“I’ve always looked up to my mom – her energy and how she carried herself, and I modeled myself after her,” Stephenson said. “She was a woman of color. I saw that she was always treated differently, but she didn’t let it affect her.”

Stephenson became politically aware as a child and knew from the age of 5, when Barack Obama was running for president, that she wanted to be a lawyer. However, it was the Parkland high school massacre in 2018 that sparked her rage and desire for activism.

“I was in middle school in Miramar, and one of the high school students who was killed was in my dance school,” Stephenson said. “Watching those kids get killed and knowing that school was no longer a safe haven made me want to get involved.

“Then when I was in high school – though I had a GPA of 4.8, was in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, worked jobs and had many scholarship offers from colleges – my non-POC guidance counselor told me I should stick to community college, implying that I shouldn’t go above my means,” Stephenson said. “I was livid, thinking that if I follow her advice, she’s gonna tank my life. That experience made me think about education justice. Who knows how many other kids in communities of color listen to her? There has to be a way to stop this.”

For youth organizers, civic engagement and outspoken advocacy may be “trauma-informed,” Muñoz said.

“Sometimes young people and their parents have political trauma from their native country. They want to be involved, yet speaking depends on their experience. It can be very scary for them. They are courageous young people. It’s difficult for them to do this work, but we have each other, and so many folks who see them acknowledge their experiences. In this space, they learn they can build power.”

‘Attack on our education’

At a recent “Sip and Paint” event Stephenson held at FAMU, 30 students came out to discuss the current political landscape in Florida. All of them were new to FSP. In the education justice sphere, FSP focuses on the decriminalization of students of color, stopping the school-to-prison pipeline and opposing legislative attacks against LGBTQ+ students – including the so-called “Stop Woke Act” and HB 999, an anti-diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) bill that became law during the last legislative session and took effect on July 1, 2023.

Stephenson and Frage are planning a “Pancakes and Politics” event for next month.

“My goal in Tallahassee is to mobilize students on my campus. HB 999 was an attack on our education,” Stephenson said. “I went to protests on campus while the bill was being discussed on the House floor. We had workshops with students. The bill as initially proposed would have removed any major or minor that included gender studies, ‘critical race theory’ or intersectionality, but the language in the final version is very vague and broad. This semester, I’m telling students what happened last session, teaching them how to track a bill, talking about how to strategize and plan for the session starting in January, know who their legislators are and speak with them so they amend the law.”

When Frage and Stephenson were asked to contemplate what they have learned most through their organizing work with FSP, both spoke of their bigger goals for change: Frage plans to become a political journalist and Stephenson an attorney.

Both spoke of the frustration they sometimes feel that change doesn’t come fast enough.

“Once I graduate, there is so much more I can do on immigrant justice by using my journalism skills to write stories to educate immigrants on their rights,” Frage said.

Stephenson spoke of a recent conversation with her boss “that changed my perspective, because I hadn’t been feeling that I’ve been making a big enough change. I felt like I was passive.”

“On campus, marginalized kids don’t want to hear what they already know about how laws are impacting them,” Stephenson said. “My boss said, ‘You are thinking about this short term. Long term, the kids will come out and vote. They will go meet their senators and sit down with their legislators. Then they will go educate others because they learn that that’s available to them to make change in Florida.’”

After the conversation, Stephenson decided that she had been thinking about the situation the wrong way.

“It upped the ante for me,” she said. “Now I feel really good about it. I’m excited. Change really starts with the students. Every major movement started with them. I don’t think students really know the power they have.”

Here is a look at the other Vote Your Voice grant recipients in Florida this year and how they plan to use their funding:

904WARD – Grant Amount: $100,000

Jacksonville-based 904WARD is using its one-year, Vote Your Voice grant to capitalize on a federal court settlement last spring that added a second Black voting district to a new, fairer city district map. 904WARD is mobilizing Black and Latinx residents, including young voters, to exercise their newfound political strength to ensure that their government better represents Jacksonville’s diverse population.

Alianza Center Inc. – Grant Amount: $300,000

Alianza Center is prioritizing civic education and getting out the vote in 20 precincts in over a dozen Puerto Rican and other Latinx communities of Central Florida. The funding supports the hiring of eight to 12 new canvassers by June 2024 who will encourage voter registration among young adults at churches, concerts, fairs and events at colleges and universities. They aim to reach 50,000 voters and increase voter participation, vote-by-mail sign-ups, cured ballots (those that need minor corrections in order to be counted) and membership by 10%. Education efforts will focus on Florida’s new vote-by-mail law and on voting disinformation targeting the Latinx community through door-to-door canvassing and phone and text banking. Alianza will also host six “listening sessions” on key policy issues through 2025 as part of a new grassroots think tank.

Dream Defenders – Grant Amount: $250,000

Founded in 2012 in the wake of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s shooting death, Dream Defenders trains and mobilizes Black and Latinx young adults ages 18-35 who live in Florida metro areas to register and vote. The organization’s overarching goal is to empower young people to advocate for community issues that affect their lives, such as affordable housing, student debt cancellation, marijuana decriminalization and gun safety. Dream Defenders intends to use its one-year grant to hold voter education workshops on 10 college campuses and register 5,000 young voters who will vote in local, state and federal elections.

Emgage Foundation – Grant Amount: $150,000

Emgage’s mission is to increase voting among the country’s diverse Muslim American population, specifically in African American and African Muslim communities in non-metro areas. The national, chapter-based organization’s goal is to increase voter outreach by 4% in counties where voters have had low voter participation rates. In Florida, Emgage will add full-time and seasonal organizers and canvassers to reach more than 80,000 Black Muslim voters through door knocks, phone calls and text messages, candidate forums, town halls with elected officials and voter education events in rural mosque communities, focusing on southern Miami-Dade County and the Panhandle. The organization will improve its self-reported Muslim voter data collection and expand its collaborative Muslim Civic Table from 20 current members to 50 by 2026.

Engage Miami Civic Foundation – Grant Amount: $500,000

Engage Miami Civic Foundation’s year-round, local and state approach to civic engagement is inclusive and issue oriented. The organization engages people ages 16-35 with a focus on those who are Black and Latinx, in the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants in South and Central Florida. Engage works with young people to address barriers to voting, housing affordability, reproductive rights and gun control. It currently reaches more than 250,000 students at 20 colleges and universities, and with its three-year grant will expand its membership and campus presence. It also will expand the training of youth leaders, delivering civic education to its target audience and registering 30,000 new voters in 2024 through 600,000 phone calls, 200,000 door canvasses, digital and print ads, and mailing voter guides and get-out-the-vote postcards.

Equal Ground Education Fund – Grant Amount: $200,000

This Orlando-based Black voting rights organization was founded in 2019 to empower the Black community after the Florida Legislature began passing voter suppression laws that disproportionately impact Black voters, including returning citizens. Equal Ground works in 17 Florida counties, where it recruits and trains civic leaders from the community, including Black church leaders, elected officials and Black women. The organization conducts advocacy at the state and local levels, files litigation and educates and registers Black youth at high schools and historically Black colleges and universities. In response to the 2021 law SB 90, which requires voters to re-enroll every election cycle to vote by mail, Equal Ground will use part of its grant to re-enroll 17,000 former mail-in voters and will aim to mobilize 63,000 voters to cast their ballots.

Faith in Florida – Grant Amount: $400,000

Over the course of Faith in Florida’s two-year grant period, it will expand its current work in 42 counties to educate and register voters in all 67 counties. Faith in Florida partners with clergy and lay leaders in its civic education efforts and plans to train 75 such leaders by 2025. The organization also engages youth as young as 14 to build future civic leaders and voters. Once trained, the youth phone bank with voters to explain how Florida’s laws have affected them. They also discuss the importance of voting. The organization’s goal is to increase its voter registration annually, reaching a goal of 12,000 newly registered voters in 2025.

Florida for All – Grant Amount: $500,000

The Florida for All Education Fund (FFAEF) is a statewide coalition that leverages political power-building in Black, Latinx and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and among young people. FFAEF develops multi-language programs for expanding civic education, data collection and get-out-the-vote efforts, which can be used by coalition partners. FFAEF’s two-year grant will fund an expansion of paid and organic media advertising, volunteer door canvassing, phone and text banking, voter registration and election protection activities.

Florida Justice Center – Grant Amount: $150,000

The Florida Justice Center is using its three-year grant to open a satellite office in rural North Florida and to increase its legal aid services statewide to young adults and third-party voting rights groups hurt by this year’s voter suppression law, SB 7050. It will provide rights restoration assistance to 12,000 additional clients by 2026 and reach 8,000 more returning citizens by providing guidance to state agencies such as the departments of corrections and motor vehicles. A major goal is to effect systemic change in the state’s broken returning citizen voter eligibility process so that every incarcerated Floridian knows their voting status before leaving prison and can exercise their voting rights.

Florida Rising Together – Grant Amount: $750,000

Florida Rising Together’s statewide, year-round, get-out-the-vote programs build nonpartisan political power among Black and Brown communities primarily in Florida’s North, South, Central and Tampa Bay areas. The nonprofit is using its three-year grant to turn out 500,000 first-time voters of color, young adults and women in election year 2024 and another 300,000 in 2026. These goals will be achieved through mass voter registration and vote-by-mail efforts, civic engagement and education programs, leadership and voter protection training, and direct door-to-door canvassing, digital outreach, text and phone banking. By 2026, Florida Rising will train a total of 180 new staff, volunteers and canvassers on election protection and poll monitoring for primary and general elections.

Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters – Grant Amount: $150,000

Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters (HTFF) is dedicated to criminal legal reform on behalf of Jacksonville’s economically vulnerable Black and Brown residents and returning citizens. Founded by two formerly incarcerated Black women, HTFF – in partnership with Rock the Vote – will add online voting software in 2024 to simplify voter registration, particularly for young voters. Its goal is to reach 40,000 households before the 2024 presidential election through education on candidates and issues that affect them and their community, civic engagement, online voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities. In year three, HTFF will develop and train new community leaders and organizers as part of its democracy building mission.

Hope CommUnity Center – Grant Amount: $300,000

Hope CommUnity Center’s three-year grant will support voter outreach, registration and mobilization among Latinx and Black communities, including new citizens. The organization plans to register 5,000 new voters before the 2024 election. By 2026, Hope CommUnity Center aims to train 350 youth leaders and 50 neighborhood committee leaders, expand to East Orange County, increase reach in Haitian and Brazilian communities, and increase the naturalization of eligible new citizens.

NALEO Educational Fund – Grant Amount: $300,000

NALEO Educational Fund facilitates the full Latinx participation in the U.S. political process, from citizenship to public service. The nonprofit plans to reach 325,000 Central Florida residents during its two-year grant period – a target demographic that includes some 30,000 unregistered young voters, or 10% of the state’s Latinx young adult population. NALEO points to research showing that its audiences – especially newly naturalized citizens – are often subject to misinformation campaigns. NALEO will monitor social media for misinformation in upcoming elections and will provide accurate information through its 888-VE-Y-VOTA hotline. NALEO also will use phone and text banking, mailers, paid digital, TV and radio ads and organic social media posts, as well as community leader and election protection training to provide accurate information and encourage voter participation.

Real Women Radio Foundation – Grant Amount: $150,000

Real Women Radio Foundation (RWRF) is active in rural Northwest Florida, where the organization advocates for and engages in get-out-the-vote activities among Black and Brown young people and disenfranchised returning citizens. Its two-year goal is to register 12,000 mostly young voters by the end of 2024. Through its #BeTheChangeVOTE nonpartisan education campaign, RWRF uses door-to-door canvassing, phone and text banking, social media and in-person events to encourage civic engagement and voter registration. RWRF also reaches young adults at local churches, colleges, fraternities and sororities.

State Voices Florida – Grant Amount: $450,000

State Voices Florida (SVFL), along with more than 115 partner organizations, aims to end systemic disenfranchisement in the Black, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities, including women, young adults and economically vulnerable people. SVFL’s Voter Registration and Advocacy Program targets metro communities where a large portion of eligible voters are unregistered. SVFL provides infrastructure to partner organizations such as strategic planning for collaborative efforts, organizer training, data support and communications tools, including social media toolkits. It also operates a poll monitor program, which it plans to expand in the coming years.

Photo at top: Participants in Florida Student Power's Power University summer program held June 8, 2023, in Orlando, Florida. Back row, from left: Cynthia Frage, Aashutosh Pyakuryal, Gharlah Fils-Aime, Darline Dorsainvil, Claudia Garcia and Trenece Robertson. Front row, from left: Isabella Rodriguez, Muahbohn Dahn, Mayumi Kanashiro Ramos, Maria Tinoco, Briley Nestor and Sheila Petit. (Credit: Nathalie Aburto)