The first time María Méndez voted was last November, during the 2022 midterms.
Méndez will never forget that day. It was her first election as the coordinator of Juntos Podemos, a new initiative to engage young voters across the city, and she had “a really euphoric feeling” seeing so many she helped register make that same inaugural trip to the polls.
“I was a little stressed,” the 19-year-old South Philly native told Billy Penn, “but it did feel really good.”
Juntos Podemos — which translates as “Together We Can” — was in many ways a natural next step for Juntos, the Philadelphia immigrant advocacy organization.
Founded in 2011, its original purpose was to help migrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America, access resources to sustain their new lives in the U.S. Later on, as people settled in and had families, the work shifted to developing the community’s next leaders.
“Now we’re at this point where a whole generation of young people are coming of age to vote, are becoming young adults,” Erika Guadalupe Núñez, Juntos executive director, explained to Billy Penn.
She called the new voter engagement effort “the first of its kind,” and described Méndez as the perfect choice to lead it.
“She’s an example of someone who’s gone through every tier on our leadership ladder,” Guadalupe Núñez said of the teen organizer. “She got to the end of the ladder and was like: ‘Ok, what else?’”
A ‘rope of hope’ that changed her life
Méndez first discovered Juntos at 16, as the city was embroiled in COVID lockdowns and the shockwaves that followed the murder of George Floyd. Inspired by Juntos’ community work, she joined its youth group, Fuerza, before becoming an ambassador, a paid position offered to young people in the community to help further aid efforts.
“That opportunity changed my life forever,” said Méndez. “It was this rope of hope that pulled me out of the struggle that I was going through.”
When her time as an ambassador ended, Juntos offered her the position of junior organizer. When she graduated high school, the opportunity to lead Juntos Podemos was waiting.
“It’s kind of like full circle for me,” Méndez said, citing her ability to offer ambassadorships to other youth as part of the Podemos voter outreach effort.
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Méndez and her ambassadors got their feet wet knocking on doors and canvassing in advance of the November 2022 election as part of Philly Vota Seguro, an effort from national political organizing group Mijente, which targeted Latino voters in North Philadelphia.
“When it comes to electoral stuff, the Latino community is often very overlooked by both Republicans and Democrats,” said Chio Valerio-Gonzalez, Mijente’s national organizing director, who said she took Méndez under her wing to show her the ropes.
Ahead of Philly’s 2023 primary, Valerio-Gonzalez joined Méndez at a number of youth voter engagement efforts she led at schools, summits, and rec centers.
“I one hundred percent admire her and all that she is,” Valerio-Gonzalez said of her young mentee.
Voting as ‘one of the tools’
In the lead-up to the May election, Méndez estimates she engaged upwards of 200 young people across four school events and three youth summits, in addition to her other community work. They were spread across both North and South Philadelphia, she said.
Unlike with the November midterms, where her and her team’s efforts were directly focused on voter registration, Méndez began trying to connect with community members by discussing issues beyond the ballot box.
“I stopped bringing voting as the first thing,” Méndez said. “When you go up to people and are just like: ‘Voting this, voting that,’ that’s all they hear, they disconnect.”
It’s a philosophy espoused by national organization Mijente — to not pitch voting as a silver bullet when it comes to enacting change, but as “one of the tools that we have at our disposal,” said Valerio-Gonzalez, the organizing director.
“For me, when I think about the importance of voting, I don’t think [of] politicians,” Méndez said. “I think of our community and the issues that we’ve been facing.”
Those issues — things like gun violence, the opioid crisis, and education — were common talking points on the campaign trail for adults, Méndez said, but she felt younger voters and future voters were too often left out of the conversation.
“A lot of youth, even myself, feel very belittled by many older adults because we don’t have a space to share our values,” she said.
Her main goal for Juntos Podemos is to “highlight youth voices” no matter what part of Philly they hail from, and to continue to grow the initiative with each election.
“I just want youth to be a part of the conversation,” Méndez said. “This is our city too, and I think a lot of people forget about that.”