Growing up, Georgia College alumnus Ian Bridgeforth liked playing with Legos— building neighborhoods and cities.
Today, the 29-year-old mover-and-shaker still likes creating from scratch. Only now, Bridgeforth “builds young people” by moving through real neighborhoods and cities—targeting and listening to a group of historically-underrepresented voters: marginalized youth, especially a group most often overlooked, black males age 18 to 24.
To do that, Bridgeforth enlisted the help of four Georgia College students. In the next five weeks, they’ll knock on doors throughout Baldwin County, encouraging low-income youth to vote come November.
“Historically, young people have been the drivers of huge social change. They have the energy and the ideas and the will – but we need to give them the tools and resources. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do,” he said.
Bridgeforth graduated in 2011 with a mass communication degree and went on to found a nonprofit civic organization in Augusta, called “Georgia Shift.” The grass-roots group seeks to give marginalized voters a seat at the political table.
They don’t tell anyone how to vote. They ask what issues are important to residents, then help them to see how voting can impact change.
Young African-American males are targeted, because "campaigns and organizations don't engage that group as often as they should," said senior sociology major Tavaris Johnson of Grantville, Georgia.
“A lot of the people we come across don’t vote, because they don’t think it matters,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to instill the value in them that this is something you should do as an American citizen. The people you’ll be electing are going to change things that really do impact you every day.”
Many residents "light up" when they see people at the door, Bridgeforth said. For many, this is the first time they've had someone ask what they care about.
Bridgeforth’s enchantment with politics started when he was an undergrad at Georgia College. He saw a 2008 presidential debate, featuring Barack Obama, and was intrigued to see “a person running for president who looked like me.”
That made Bridgeforth delve further into politics. He got a “fascinating” internship with former Augusta Congressman John Barrow, then worked in New York City after graduation. He did communications for two nonprofits, while continuing to dabble in local campaigns.
After the 2014 midterm elections, Bridgeforth started looking more closely at his home state, Georgia, which he said has one of the largest populations of young people in the country.
“I felt like Georgia was a very interesting state in the Deep South,” he said. “There are these little innovative pocket centers in Georgia, where you can tell the DNA is different. If there was any state that was going to be the leader in the Deep South, when it comes to policy and innovation, I thought it’d be Georgia.”
That led Bridgeforth, at age 24, to talk about starting his own nonprofit. He said people looked at him like he'd lost his mind. But he forged ahead, spending a couple months—putting 15,000 miles on his car—driving back-and-forth from Augusta to Columbus. Along the way, he asked people what they thought needed fixing in Georgia.
He discovered groups focused on women, race, religion and sexual orientation. But he didn’t see any focused fulltime on youth.
“And they wonder why these young people don’t turn out to vote? If I don’t tell you about an event, then I can’t get mad if you don’t show up,” Bridgeforth said.
He created “Georgia Shift” in 2016, hoping to bridge that gap. This fall, the organization is concentrating on Baldwin County, because it’s “a very interesting place, demographically,” Bridgeforth said. About half its 50,000 population is African-American. Plus, it’s a rural area with three higher-education institutions and lots of youth.
Every Thursday and Saturday, students will knock on doors in targeted, low-income areas throughout Baldwin County. By November, they’ll clock about 200 hours, reaching roughly 1,000 young voters. They’ll also text another 1,000 residents, away at college, helping them to register and vote by absentee ballot.
Bridgeforth’s goal is to see marginalized youth become “the fundamental drivers of political impact and public policy at every level.” His ultimate dream? To see young people in their mid-20s running the state of Georgia.
“How do we shift the dynamic to where all these candidates running for office answer to a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds?” he said. “That sounds very scary to a lot of people. But I find it incredibly exciting.”
Sociology professor Dr. Stephanie McClure said it “means a lot” to have her undergraduate students working with an entrepreneur alumnus. It will enable them to critically apply lessons learned in sociology classes. The purpose of a liberal arts education, she said, is putting knowledge to good use by serving the community.
Senior Chelsey Adams of Hardwick, Georgia, said door-to-door work suits her. She became a sociology major to learn about people and how society works. Negative changes in Baldwin County, like job losses, upset her.
To impact change, grassroots organizations like Georgia Shift are vital, Adams said.
“There’s a sense of apathy going around that I believe none of us are immune to,” she said. “This work is a reminder to people that elections are a huge opportunity to put someone in charge, who will work to reverse some of the damage that’s been done.”
“This is our town,” she said, “and we have some say in what happens here.”