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She's been on the front lines of the Democratic Party's struggles with representation

Sarah Audelo, seen during a 2016 event when she held a top role at Rock The Vote, has spent years in Democratic politics. She is stepping down from her current role as the executive director at Alliance for Youth Action to make way for younger leaders.
Michael Kovac
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Sarah Audelo, seen during a 2016 event when she held a top role at Rock The Vote, has spent years in Democratic politics. She is stepping down from her current role as the executive director at Alliance for Youth Action to make way for younger leaders.

Still a few years shy of turning 40, Sarah Audelo says she has aged out of her job.

She's spent the last few years in charge of one of the country's largest youth organizing networks, and now Audelo is stepping down to make room for new, younger leadership.

"It's like totally bittersweet to step away, but absolutely the right time," Audelo said of her departure, which had been in the works for a while. "I'm 37. This is a youth organization. It is time to make a way for folks who are actually on TikTok take the helm of the Alliance."

That idea, that someone still under the age of 40 is too old to lead a political group, would be unthinkable in other parts of Washington where the ranks of leadership can often be stagnant.

But like many other younger organizers, Audelo sees her departure as a natural evolution to keep groups that are in the Alliance — a progressive network of local grassroots organizations focused on mobilizing young people — relevant. During years of experience in Democratic politics, she has seen young people get disillusioned with her party and the political system in general.

Audelo joined the Alliance for Youth Action back in 2017 and was the first Latina to hold the job. But she'd already been working in the youth organizing space for years.

She had already worked at Rock The Vote and Generation Progress. She also served as millennial vote director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

A Bakersfield, Calif., native, Audelo said she got her start in politics organizing around issues of reproductive rights after moving to Washington, D.C., for college.

"The sad part of all that is I had to leave my hometown to gain those skills, I had to leave my hometown to learn that organizing was possible," she said. "What the Alliance does is try to support young people and the political homes they're creating for their peers across the country. So you don't have to leave your hometown because a lot of our hometowns need some love. No one should have to leave their hometowns to make change."

Audelo spoke with NPR about the challenges of being a woman of color leading in the progressive nonprofit space, the challenges Democrats face in engaging young people and why so many young people showed up at the polls in November, defying so many stereotypes about their political behavior.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

JUANA SUMMERS: You're coming up to the end of your time at the Alliance. What are you most proud of?

SARAH AUDELO: A lot of what we do at the Alliance, we try to be the hype people of youth organizing. There's so much negative energy and information or stereotypes out there about young people. I love busting through all of that and saying, 'Let me tell you what young people have been doing.' So I like to think that we've played a small part in shifting some of the narrative around the youth vote that has historically been terrible.

We also over the last few years embraced our identity as a funding intermediary, because we saw a gap — young people needed the resources to continue the work. And so I've been able to, you know, with the support of my incredible all young women of color team of development staff, move $17 million to the field in the time that I've been at the Alliance. So really proud of that.

What is different about the experience of being an executive director as a woman of color?

I was very lucky to have a great transition that I actually learned a lot from, and I've been trying to implement as part of mine. But when I look at some of the stories of my peers, or the executive directors that we support in our network, the expectations that folks put on women of color, it's a little surreal. The expectations that we'll just be able to solve any of the issues of race and racism in organizations because we happen to be at the head of said organization.

I've had peers who have had to go on, or felt pressure to go on apology tours for the bad actions of their predecessors, as they feel like they need to reset relationships with folks. I've had peers whose money has gotten pulled because their white predecessors are no longer there, and donors are cranky about that. For whatever reason, they don't trust the new leadership that has come in.

And then there's like the stuff inside where imposter syndrome is so real. And I think this is part of why having my peer group is important, because we see each other in all the 'badassness' that we are. Peers can help cut through all of that. Part of being an executive director is you're hustling for your organization, you're trying to tell the story of the work. Getting asked to speak on panels is kind of the norm. But sometimes you're like, 'Am I here because like, you know, I know what I'm talking about? Or because there's like a diversity quota that you're trying to reach?'

Working at a youth organization as a woman, as a Latina, I check a lot of boxes and it's really easy to question, 'Why am I being asked to do this thing?' I don't remember at what point in my career I just kind of was like, 'F it. I'm taking up this space. I'm gonna try to bring some others with me, and I'm gonna fight. I'm gonna rep my people like...hard.'

When you talk about questioning why you've been invited to speak on a panel, or have a seat at a table — people might be surprised to hear that still happens in progressive spaces.

It shouldn't happen, but it totally still does. We still have a lot of white dude leadership that is centered and uplifted in this work. That, in some ways is timeless. Now, don't get me wrong. There are a lot of young people who are pushing back against that. There's a lot of shifts, where even when we do have white dudes that are in power, there's a better sharing of that power than I think we've seen in other places.

Turnout was up in every part of the electorate — including among young people in 2020. You had a front-row seat to that. Why do you think youth turnout surged last year?

We had been seeing signs that it was coming for a while. The increases in turnout during the midterms. In these odd year races, there were increases in turnout. Young people were engaging, not just in voting to make change and to push back against the Trump administration, but they were taking it to the streets. They were showing up in city council hearings. And we saw this during the pandemic, too. When stuff went remote, young people were still staying engaged.

And so we were hopeful that this would continue, even though we couldn't be in the field, which is terrifying for youth organizing. You've really got to reach young people where they're at and that is peer to peer. Online totally exists. But when you have too many states that don't have online voter registration, you've got to register them in person, you've got to walk them in, in person, you've got to navigate through misinformation in person. And so we were absolutely nervous.

But it was really great to see young people just innovating and creating online communities to continue the organizing to bring folks in. And so yeah, when we saw those numbers come out, it was amazing because we always knew that it was possible, right? We had 50% of young people who voted in 2020. That's an 11 point increase from 2016. And now we're like, 'Alright, let's show them what that voting gets you.' Let's remind these elected officials that they owe these young voters for their seats. And you know, the [Democratic] Party's been so-so, ever since.

Democrats have struggled to pass some key parts of the agenda that they campaigned on, and issues that motivated young people to vote for them. Without those victories, do you believe that Democrats will be able to replicate their success with young voters again in 2022 and 2024?

You know, there's a reason why about a third of young people don't identify with a political party. When we are out registering people in the field, you're looking at a third Republican, a third independent, a third Democratic, and this is something that's pretty unique to young voters. It's not because that independent voter is in the middle, and they're like super moderate on the issues that those independent voters, they are not the [Joe] Manchins of the world, or the [Kyrsten] Sinemas of the world.

A lot of young people are so fed up with the Democratic Party, that they're like, 'I'm not going to identify as that. I don't want to be part of that.' And those are the numbers the party should be paying attention to, of young people who are just so fed up over this two-party system, because Democrats keep lowering the bar about what is even possible at a time where we have to be raising the bar. It's surreal that too many who happen to have a D next to their name, are just willing to negotiate away what feels like, honestly, like the humanity of our people in our communities.

How has the White House done when it comes to youth outreach?

There is definitely an eagerness to connect and to communicate, at least that we've experienced, I think, though, where things could be better is we need the president and vice president to sit down themselves with these young people. There's been a lot of roundtables we know that have happened, but young people frequently are not at them. And as we know, [young people] in many cases have the most to lose on these fights.

So some of the Office of Public Engagement staff, they've been great and responsive. But this is where we actually need the president and vice president's time. We need their face time. We need them to sit and be in relationship and hear directly from the young organizers, who got all those young people to turn out to vote.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.