Engagement and community building in Miami is a “struggle cuddle,” says reproductive and immigrant rights activist Gabriel Garcia-Vera. You want the warmth of the cuddle but the when you go in, it’s a bit prickly, like a wool sweater, he explains. It’s a warm Miami winter evening, and we are sitting on the back deck at Wynwood Cafe, discussing the civic engagement of Miami millennials. This topic can easily go in a negative direction — for every even-handed article on the millennial generation there seem to be a half a dozen more castigating millennials for being entitled and lazy, loving video games, and for living with our parents forever.
While there is no evidence that the adult generation under 40 is lazier or more entitled than any other generation, it is a fact that we are less engaged on a civic level than other generations currently are, and in a city where civic apathy runs rampant, that leads to some serious levels of disengagement. Miami had the dubious distinction of being named the least civically engaged city in the country in 2011 by The National Conference on Citizenship, which compared data on “volunteering, voting, membership in voluntary groups and associations, exchanging favors with neighbors, use of the news media, discussion of current events, and everyday forms of sociability, such as entertaining friends.” The report paints a dismal picture of Miami engagement, showing low levels of group involvement, low voter registration, and infrequent contact with public officials.
Despite the rather dismal data, there are many engaged, passionate young people who are invested in seeing Miami become a more vibrant, equitable city with a transparent political process. Garcia-Vera is one of these people, currently the Florida field coordinator for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. He has been involved in supporting immigrant, queer, and reproductive rights since his days as a college student at Miami-Dade College. When asked what civic engagement means to him, he quickly moved to talking about community engagement, because civic engagement isn’t expansive enough for the ends he seeks. For Garcia-Vera and many other young Miamians, participating in civic institutions without aiming to change them isn’t enough. The involvement of Engage Miami in the recent District 2 election, where newcomer Ken Russell achieved a surprising victory, is an example of this phenomenon. Engage Miami, which launched last year, is aimed at galvanizing young people to become involved in the political process and their community. For the District 2 race, they hosted debates and brought a lot of attention to the election on social media, with the goal of increasing voter turnout and highlighting local candidates outside of the established political scene.
Recent commission meetings also show young Miamians speaking up about the issues that concern them. For example, the ordinance introduced on Dec. 1 by Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava to make fundraising transparent in local campaigns was met with support from a number of Miami millennials, including local lawyers Leah Weston and Justin Wales, who made public comments of support at the first reading of the ordinance. And the September budget hearing to approve the 2016 county budget brought out a mass of young people, all deeply concerned about Miami’s future and the ever growing threat of sea level rise from climate change.
TY to residents who supported campaign finance transparency at the chambers & online. Item will go to committee next pic.twitter.com/2Vf0czHZUr
— Daniella Levine Cava (@DLCAVA) December 1, 2015
In a creative display of activism, Elizabeth Taveras, communications fellow with Dream Defenders, showed up to that commission meeting wearing a life vest, a poignant reminder of the dangers facing Miami. When she sat down to talk with me, she stressed the importance of both civic engagement and community engagement. When I asked Taveras what civic engagement meant to her she said, “It makes me think about our political duty to participate in local politics and how a citizen can recognize their own rights in the political process and feel like they can make an impact. … That their voice counts.”
However, as she and others discussed with me, traditional civic engagement (i.e., commissioner meetings and voting) is only one facet of a broader understanding of engagement. That broader understanding seems to be highlighted in the millennial generation as Garcia-Vera noted in my interview with him, saying he thinks millennials are expected to “engage differently.” Although interviewees all put it to me in their own way, every millennial I spoke with indicated that they thought their generation was involved in new ways, in addition to more traditional forms of engagement. The rise of technology and its mediating influence was a common point of reference. Taveras discussed her belief with me that “technology [itself] won’t pull us forward, [but] we can use it.” She says technology has changed “how we communicate and share ideas…[it] democratizes [us] and gives people an even playing field,” opening up who we can reach and who can be reached.
Online engagement is certainly the most striking example of this change. Although online advocacy is not always well regarded — see the many derisive articles and comments on “slacktivism” and “clicktivism” — the fact remains that 74 percent of adults online are on a social network of some kind. And, as Taveras intimated, online social interactions are changing the shape of who we communicate with. These social networks are also how many of the under 40 set get at least a portion of their news. The American Press Institute reports that 88% of millennials surveyed get some of their news from Facebook. Additionally, reports indicate that social media users have stronger social ties and are more engaged politically. This can both broaden and narrow the scope of a person’s perspective depending on how their social network is organized.
Not confined by borders
Leah Weston, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps fellow who works with veterans at the University of Miami School of Law’s Health Rights Clinic, talked about this when I sat down with her, saying that she believes millennials are less confined by “national identity and borders.” This makes sense, considering that the millennial generation is one of the most diverse — 38% are people of color. And in Miami, that diversity spans across generations, since 58% of Miamians are foreign born, and Miami is a majority Hispanic city. Simple demographics, coupled with social media use, help explain why Miamians, especially millennials, tend to take a more global perspective.
There are real pitfalls when it comes to engagement through social media, though. Weston pointed out that in many ways she exists in a self-created “bubble” on social media that likely skews her perspective. Garcia-Vera shared other concerns regarding advocacy through social media, alluding to the clicktivism phenomenon mentioned above, saying that people sometimes feel that they have done their part “at the click of a button” by sharing an article — but that isn’t effective engagement, he says. Dialogue is important, and that occurs by taking action beyond sharing an article on immigration justice. It means engaging others in sometimes uncomfortable conversation.
Despite the potential drawbacks of social media, it has changed how we interact and opened people up to more and different perspectives. When we engage in these conversations, though they are sometimes fraught and difficult, it helps us to find our own voice, and that is where “engagement sprouts from,” according to Garcia-Vera. Like face-to-face conversations, constructive online dialogue can be a form of engagement, and it is one that millennials excel at. One has only to turn to Twitter or Facebook for numerous examples — the Black Lives Matter, feminist, and immigrant justice movements have both used social media to great effect. Organizing IRL demonstrations, galvanizing protesters, and sharing crucial information that has influenced mainstream reporting are all ways in which online engagement has intersected with boots on the ground. It seems that “engaging differently” may mean combining and criss-crossing modes of engagement, as well as blurring the line between civic and community work.
Weston agreed that engagement is changing and that millennials are engaging differently, she told me that she thinks her generation is more conscious and that it “is slightly more direct-action oriented.” Weston explained that if we see something we don’t like, we’re likely to go, “I don’t like what so and so is doing so I’m gonna start a Twitter campaign or a hashtag.”
She added, “Increasingly, we’re seeing that happen, and it is prompting things like murders by the police [being investigated], prosecuting police officers, forcing people out of office — that is a way of engaging that is not necessarily like voting.”
— Nadege C. Green (@NadegeGreen) December 3, 2015
This was evident locally when a protest shut down traffic on I-195 in 2014 in the middle of Art Basel. Local activists and community groups (including the Dream Defenders) used social media to organize online and bring people out. Protesters linked the recent police shooting of Israel Hernandez to Mike Brown’s death and the larger pattern of police brutality toward black men and other people of color. A look at the pictures of activists flooding the freeway in solidarity with Ferguson protesters across the country is an apt example of how Miamians are engaging on multiple levels, though that engagement is not always recognized as civic or community orientated action. Those who couldn’t participate in person were able to support the protest by flooding Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites with posts about the shutdown, exerting influence on traditional reporting outlets and likely driving more coverage.
Social media can both drive and enhance more traditional forms of activism, making them relevant and accessible to a rising generation — increasing engagement in both the civic and community realm. As this generation comes into its own, they will continue to expand the meaning of engagement and how it takes place. From a hashtag that goes viral, to attending a commission meeting in a life vest, Miami’s activists are using the tools at hand to redefine how they relate to their community and government in the process.