Listening to Gen Z’s Call for Political Innovation

 In grantmaking, guest post, non-profit, philanthropy, PVF News

Guest Post by Sara Guillermo, CEO of IGNITE, a PVF grantee partner

IGNITE, a grantee of one of PVF’s Donor Advised Funds, has trained 30,000+ young women and non-binary individuals to discover and flex their political power since their inception in 2010, becoming the nation’s leading organization harnessing political ambition, community building and leadership skills among young women and girls.

IGNITE recently conducted a series of focus groups with college students across the country, offering invaluable insights into Gen Z’s views on political parties, voting, political discourse, the kind of leadership they are looking for, and so much more:


Whenever I’m registering young voters at events around the country, the most common question I get is, “do I have to pick a party?” 

This question is illustrative of both the growing skepticism Gen Z is feeling about establishment politics, but also, of their desire to make a difference. Gen Z knows that voting really matters, but they also feel unheard and dismissed by many of the candidates before them. They want younger candidates who speak to their priority issues, and they’re less concerned about which party they represent. They also want to see more diverse candidates–something my organization has been seeking to improve since we were founded in 2010. 

2024 is an election year, and it’s a time when youth voting organizations tend to focus on registering and mobilizing voters. But increasing disillusionment amongst Gen Z means we can’t take their vote for granted. A recent Harvard Kennedy School poll shows young people are less likely to vote in 2024 than in 2020. My organization wanted to really listen to young people, and not just before the upcoming election, but to set our direction for engaging them over the next four years and beyond. 

What will it take to drive young people towards political and civic engagement? Well, we decided to ask them. We ran focus groups with college students in four-year universities in Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, and Philadelphia—cities in swing states across the country. We also talked to a national sample of two-year community college students. It was the first phase of focus groups, aiming to talk to more than 100 college-age young people, with our second phase due to take place in the upcoming months. As expected, we found that Gen Z feels frustrated with the current political climate. 

“I don’t think either party produces beneficial change and I feel like both are just very performative and we’re not actually getting any work done,” said a young person in Atlanta. 

Everything feels too extreme and absolutist with no room for discourse. Young people see no way in. Every conversation becomes a minefield of political tension or potential reprisal. There is also pressure to ‘pick a side’, and the impact trickles into Gen Z’s friendships and lives. 

As another young person put it: “A lot of things are so polarized that it’s like, can I make a difference? Can I share my opinion…without them immediately rejecting any sort of idea or outlook?” 

If that sounds familiar to many of us who’ve been around politics for a while, it’s disappointing to Gen Z. They say it’s hard to relate to such a divisive and polarized field, and while they do want to engage, they also feel marginalized and overlooked by political leaders. They don’t see themselves reflected in the leadership or direction of this country. 

There’s no quick fix, but Gen Z does want to see younger candidates who are sympathetic to their needs. They’re looking for new political heroes, and feel it’s been a while. They don’t want lectures. They want listening and engaged ears. They’re looking for candidates who are transparent and open, and less partisan. It would be particularly helpful for gen Z if they saw more candidates who looked like them. 

Building a more diverse pool of would-be political candidates takes intentional work. I have seen through my work at IGNITE working largely with young women of color, that there’s so much work still to be done to provide more of them with mentoring, access networks, skills, and  confidence building to beat imposter syndrome. I also know that young people of color represent a huge opportunity for a more dynamic and creative future in American politics. We need to keep listening to them, and consider how to create spaces for them to engage, given their collective concerns. 

Gen Z is set to join millennials to become the largest voting bloc in America soon, and their power will be decisive for our future. Anyone who is serious about courting their vote or engaging them civically will need to go the extra mile to engage them authentically, and respond to their concerns with action, not just words. I would encourage anyone in the field looking at doing this to take an important first step and look at the research

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