Like her schedule of meetings, memos, and appearances on MSNBC, Stephanie Young’s work to increase voter participation is seemingly never-ending. Not to mention the ongoing fight for voter rights and recruitment of volunteers from small towns to Hollywood. But as the Executive Director of When We All Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit launched by former First Lady Michelle Obama, this LA-based communications powerhouse recognizes there’s no singular way to engage voters. Instead, Stephanie meets voters where they are: a takeover at the Roots Picnic, a full-page New York Times ad, and pop culture moments everywhere. With the 2022 midterms in sight, she shares what’s keeping her focus sharp and her motivation high.
ON MEETING VOTERS WHERE THEY ARE
Our whole mission at When We All Vote is to change the culture around voting and to increase participation in each and every election by helping to close the race and age gap. The culture piece is so important for me. That means how we infiltrate culture, how people get these messages—not just about voting, but about civic engagement at large—in all the materials they consume when they’re not even thinking about it. When you’re watching Verzuz, your favorite TV show, or a concert. We want to make sure we are inserting our messaging in as many diverse places as we can.
ON HER MOST VALUABLE ADVICE
When you put your head down and do good work that speaks for itself. You don’t have to search for the next opportunity, you don’t have to go in a room and try to prove yourself, rather, people know you by reputation. That has been instrumental in my growth, both personally and professionally, and that’s set me up to be successful as I still climb.
“I’ve never been afraid to take risks, and it's created a space where I stand out.”
ON THE BEST TIMES SHE WAS TOLD NO
In 2012, during the Obama reelection campaign, I was interviewing to be a press secretary for Michelle Obama’s team. I didn’t get that job but, instead, I did become Deputy Communications Director for the State of Florida for the President. That set me on a very different path where I had the incredible experience of running a team and learning what it takes to engage voters in consistent, creative, diverse, and authentic ways. Because of that experience, I was able to work for Congressional leadership and onto the White House. Similarly, when I was transitioning out of the White House, there was a job that I really wanted and I got a no. That was very painful for me, but I had another opportunity on the table that I took and now I see that by completely leaving the public sector and going private I gained a whole new skill set and understanding. I created more diverse relationships, and it really helped to influence my path as a leader. I know people say “no is just a redirection” and there are all these super corny quotes, but actually, they’re true.
ON HER PROUDEST CAREER ACHIEVEMENTS
At my last job at the White House, I was the Senior Public Engagement Advisor, focusing on the African American, civil rights, and criminal justice communities. I was instrumental in developing the strategy for the final moments engaging the Black community for the first Black president. There was so much energy around “the last” and, for me, being at the helm, it was very important to create moments that could live throughout time. One of them was when I organized an old guard/new guard civil rights meeting for the president. I had in that room John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, who both have passed now, people like Al Sharpton and Ben Crump. And on the flip side, I had Brittany Packnett Cunningham, DeRay Mckesson, and all these other folks who were bridging that gap between the past and future and sitting down with the president of the United States. It was a moment in time.
ON THE POWER OF PERSONAL STYLE
The way you present yourself is the way you feel about yourself and it expresses who you are. Working in politics there is a respectful way you are supposed to look, but I’ve always had color. A green, a red, a pink. I’ve never been afraid to take risks, and it's created a space where I stand out.
ON KEEPING HER EYE ON THE PRIZE
I recognized, by working in the federal government—or outside of the government, or just being alive today—progress is incremental. What sustains me is that you can do good little by little. I don’t care if you register 10 voters or 200,000 voters—it matters. I’m able to keep my motivation in these moments when we’re engaging Americans all across the country who want to do good in their community, who want to feel like they’re a part of progress, and we’re giving them the tools to do it while having some fun.
“What sustains me is that you can do good little by little. I don’t care if you register 10 voters or 200,000 voters—it matters.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY AHEAD OF THE 2022 MIDTERMS
The challenge is exciting because we have to get people energized, we have to recruit volunteers. We just released an ad in the New York Times where over 30 voting rights and voter registration organizations signed on to take a pledge to do several different things, from registering a million voters to recruiting 100,000 volunteers, so building on this coalition has been really important. The voting community is very large. And it has to be because of what we have to tackle. It’s exciting to know that we’re not in this alone. We’re supporting each other. And the challenge of breaking through the noise and getting people excited is thrilling.
ON THE FUTURE OF CIVIC ENGAGEMENT CAREERS
What’s needed in this space is diversity of thought. If anybody is thinking of getting into a civic engagement or non-profit space, it’s hard. Searching for funding always poses a challenge and limits what you can do, but what's beautiful about this work is you can be so creative. And coming to the table with diverse experience, from either digital worlds or corporate worlds or wherever, it’s all of value. When we’re trying to reach real people, you can't if you don’t have real people working with you who understand what they consume and what moves them.