Democracy Summer Internship The Effect of Mentorship and Organizing Training on Youth Leaders

By Caitilin Hall Post date: Feb 04, 2016


As part of its effort to achieve a democracy “of, for, and by the people,” the nonpartisan voter advocacy organization Democracy North Carolina runs an internship program called Democracy Summer. This program is intended for sophomores, juniors, or seniors enrolled in North Carolina universities to learn about organizing and voter rights issues first hand. The students earn a stipend of $2,500 for the summer and work full time from late May to late July.  The Democracy Summer 2014 proved to be successful, not only in providing organizing and advocacy experience to the next generation of political activists, but also in establishing roots within universities, to better reach an underrepresented group in turnout demographics, the youth vote.

Lessons Learned

  • Mentorship from experienced organizers is a valued learning experience for interns. Internships also provide participants with a network with which they can utilize for job resources as well as further organizing opportunities.
  • Organizing experience can assist young citizens in future social movements and political activism.
  • Maintaining a blog throughout the process allows students to reflect on what they have learned. Blogs can be resources for other students interested in organizing, as well as other advocacy groups looking to engage younger participants. Blogs should be maintained frequently to fully utilize the advantages.
  • Interns provide an anchor for civic engagement within campus structures. This allows the organization to better achieve its mission of engaging youth voters.
  • By participating in a narrative collection project in the form of interviews of voters, interns learned about methods of research and storytelling to assist political activism.


Voting Climate in North Carolina

North Carolina has a troubling history of voter suppression. In the late nineteenth century, poor white farmers and recently freed black citizens formed a coalition which elected thousands of black individuals to local positions. These elected politicians pushed for such provisions as improved public education and lower interest rates on loans to farmers. In order to break up this powerful coalition, conservative leaders demonized the black officials and accused them of voter fraud.[1] These elected, black officials were forcibly pushed out of office through intimidation and threats. Legal barriers were put into place to make it difficult for blacks, as well as poor whites to vote. Jim Crow era literacy tests and poll taxes kept many black voters away from the polls. Even after these restrictions were struck down with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, underrepresentation of poor, black, and minority voters persisted. After years of some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country, the 2012 election saw North Carolina became one of the top fifteen states in voter participation.[2]

However, with the passage of the Voter Information Verification Act (VIVA) in 2013, one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country, new impediments to voting were placed in the way of North Carolinians. Provisions of VIVA have already taken affect. This law has eliminated same day registration, which disproportionately affects black voters. While black voters make up 22% of voters in North Carolina, they made up 35% of same-day registrants.  Democracy North Carolina estimates that about 21,000 citizens would have taken advantage of same day registration.[3] The law has also limited the number of days for early voting, a provision disproportionally utilized by black voters. In 2016, new regulations requiring most voters present photo identification will go into effect. Realizing the impediments that will be put in place for voting would be too high, the legislature passed some exceptions to the rule. However, exceptions can be confusing to those who are unfamiliar with the rules. This law again invokes elimination of voter fraud as its goal. However, studies have shown that this law will disproportionally affect low income and black voters. Understanding the history of oppression and how it affects groups of voters in the present day is critical to Democracy North Carolina’s voter engagement strategy.

Organization Mission

For the past twenty five years, Democracy North Carolina has been working to realize the goal of a democracy “of, by and for the people.” Democracy North Carolina is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that utilizes research, organizing, and training to increase voter participation throughout the state of North Carolina and decrease corruption and the influence of big money on politics. DNC believes that thedemographics of voters should reflect the diverse population of North Carolinians. DNC recognizes that race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other cultural factors impact who is elected, the issues that are prioritized, and the legislation that is passed. Therefore, DNC takes a social justice approach to community organizing and focuses on groups with historically low turnout rates. DNC maintains a grassroots presence on the ground all year round and engages in community outreach and training.[4]

Structure and History of the Organization

Democracy North Carolina grew out of Democracy South, a project of the Institute of Southern Studies. Democracy North Carolina currently has eleven paid employees.[5] The employees help execute the mission of the organization through research on democracy issues, organizing and educating citizens on registering to vote and the importance of voting. Employee positions include organizers for specific regions within North Carolina as well as research and communications positions. Employees are guided by the Executive Director, Bob Hall.[6] Bob Hall is a MacArthur Fellow, who has been collaborating on economic and social justice projects in the South since 1970.  Hall has extensive knowledge on voting rights and campaign finance reform and has served on numerous boards and governmental commissions. Democracy North Carolina also has a board comprised of 10 members which guide and support the mission of the organization. The board is made up of local non-profit, business, and political leaders.[7] Democracy North Carolina relies on volunteers to help execute voter education and “get out the vote” initiatives.

Problem Addressed

As the history of North Carolina indicates, the struggle to realize the right of every citizen to vote is ongoing.The passage of the Voting Identification Verification Act in 2013, is the latest obstruction to voting, in a history of policies that discourage people from heading to the polls. To combat this problem Democracy North Carolina has been producing research and using this research to inform direct grassroots organizing and advocacy on voter rights. The need to educate and train the next generation of political activists is vital to the mission of increased voter turnout. Not only is there a need for young people to get involved in civil society organizations, there is also a need to increased participation among this demographic group. Voter turnout among young voters is particularly low. According to a report released by the United States Census Bureau, even during the historic 2008 elections, turnout of 18-24 year olds was only 44.3 percent.[8] These two problems are interconnected. Engaging young leaders and engaging youth to vote are part of the same need to educate the next generation on the importance of civic engagement.

The Project: Democracy Summer Internship


The Democracy Summer program was established by Democracy North Carolina to both produce youth organizers as well as tackle the problem of low youth voter turnout. Democracy Summer provides a stipend of $2,500 to nine students from universities in North Carolina. The program runs from late May to Late July. Students work together in teams of twoin Charlotte, Fayetteville, Durham, or Winston-Salem, and one communications intern to work in the Durham office. Democracy Summer’s main goal is totrain youth to be organizers. “A commonly used definition of youth organizing is, ‘an innovative youth development and social justice strategy that trains young people in community organizing and advocacy, and assists them in employing these skills to alter power relations and create meaningful institutional change in their communities.’[9]The participants of Democracy Summer 2015 completed a number of organizing and advocacy activities. They helped research voter experiences by collecting the narratives of those who expressed frustration in the voting process. The interns recorded these experiences and placed them on sound cloud, providing useful information for other voter advocacy groups.[10] Two interns also spoke at a public hearing on voter ID laws in Raleigh and other interns organized film screenings and discussions.Students also engaged in direct forms of organizing including participating in voter registration drives and the Moral Monday protests.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Student organizers maintained a blog about their experiences. Here they documented their reasons for applying to the program, which included desires to learn about the political system in North Carolina, as well as create change. They also documented some of their activities, in particular, their project to collect voter narratives. At the end of Democracy Summer, the interns reflected upon their experiences and lessons learned. Documenting their experience through blogging is a useful way for interns to process what they are learning. This process also presents a useful resource for potential future interns, young people interested in organizing, as well as nonprofit organizing groups that are looking to engage young organizers. However, the blog was not well maintained. In order to fully utilize this online platform, future interns should be encouraged to post more, and include links to social media platforms where they can post photos or videos of their activities so their experiences can be better documented. More evaluation methods could be put in place, such as pre- and post-internship surveys that allow the interns to describe aspects of the program they enjoyed as well as areas for improvement.


Outcomes of Democracy Summer 2014 can be broken down into three levels: community, relationships, leadership development. In order to make real changes in one’s community, it is essential to learn about the laws and policies governing the community. Democracy Summer was successful in educating youth organizers in the critical issues facing North Carolina One participant remarked, “I learned an enormous amount about voting laws, election politics, and how local governments work.”[11] Not only did they learn about the political system, they actively engaged with their government. Students participated in hearings in front of local governments, rallies, and voter registration drives. By performing these tasks,

Also on the community level, youth organizers provided anchors for voter engagement in universities. One intern, Gabrielle Henry returned to her school, Fayetteville State University and launched a Democracy Club to host civic engagement projects. Through this organization, she recruited student leaders and faculty members to participate in voter registration, pledge card collecting, phone banking, neighborhood canvassing, poll monitoring, and voter mobilization. [12]Another intern, Ebony West, also went back to her home campus of Eastern Carolina University and registered over 200 voters, as well as encouraging voter turnout through canvassing, voter education tabling, and providing rides to first time voters.[13]Through the Democracy Summer interns, lasting platforms have been created on campuses, which Democracy North Carolina and other voting advocacy organizations can utilize to reach the youth demographic. Engagement with their campus communities is indicative of the level of civic engagement that can now be expected of these trained youth organizers. As one intern reflected at the end of her summer, “I plan on still being an advocate for the community I live in.”[14] The knowledge gained from Democracy Summer is leading to direct changes in the organizers respective communities and we can expect this pattern continue as the organizers move through their career.

One aspect of the internship that is critical is direct mentorship of the organizers by experienced Democracy North Carolina Staff. “Being surrounded by so many intelligent staff that seem to know every answer to every question I could have was an invaluable resource.”[15]Developing these personal relationships is important, not only as they serve as a resources for future opportunities, but also because organizing is built upon forming relationships.  “One of the most important things that I have learned while working this summer is the importance of making personal connections in organizing. Organizing rests upon the principle that there is strength in numbers, that communities and people can affect change through their unified voices.”[16] Forming these relationships with current organizers, as well as stakeholders on the ground is a critical part of successful civil society.

The primary purpose of Democracy Summer is to create leaders in the social justice movement. Leading people to affect a specific policy concern is often about listening, forming relationships, utilizing research, and making connections. One participant reflected, “Democracy Summer has taught me how to organize people behind a specific cause and build coalitions.”[17] Participants gained skills in how to relate the information they learned about policy to people in their communities. “I was able to observe what creating a network and getting important information to people means while also making it interesting and relevant enough to get people want to be on board with the cause.” [18] Developing dynamic leaders that can organize behind social justice issues by engaging community stakeholders is a critical part of democracies.

Overall, Democracy North Carolina was a success. Participants were able to engage directly in advocacy and organizing. They formed relationships with experienced staff, as well as with the communities in which they worked. Many interns were able to take what they had learned about voting rights issues and organizing techniques, and apply them to their university campuses. This direct application indicates that the training in organizing was successful. The program was also successful in connecting the voter rights movement to campuses, directly engaging the youth demographic. Other advocacy programs can utilize youth organizing in order to train young leaders and engage directly with youth networks.


Works Cited

“About us,” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 1, 2015.

“Annual Report for 2012.” Democracy North Carolina. Accessed December 1, 2015.

Ballard, Bonnie, “Summer Reflections.” Democracy Summer Blog, accessed December 5, 2014.

“Board of Directors” Democracy North Carolina. Accessed December 1, 2015.

Christens, Brian D. and Tom Dolan. “Interweaving Youth Development, Community

Development, and Social Change through Youth Organizing,” Sage Journal (2010), accessed December 2, 2015.

File, Thom. “Young-Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections, 1964-2012,” Untied States Census Bureau (2014), accessed December 3, 2015.

“Forward Together, Not One Step Back.” Democracy North Carolina, Vimeo video, 15:02. 2012.

Guitierrez, Isela and Bob Hall. “Alarm Bells From Silenced Voters,” Democracy North Carolina.       

Henry, Gabrielle. “Summer Reflections,” Democracy Summer Blog, accessed December 5, 2014.

“Interim Report of Millennial Partnership Project.” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 5, 2014.

Irvin, Daniel. “Summer Reflections.” Democracy Summer Blog, accessed December 5, 2014.

“Our Staff.” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 1, 2015.


[1]Democracy North Carolina.  “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.” Vimeo video, 15:02. 2012.

[2] “Annual Report for 2012.” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 1, 2015.

[3]IselaGuiterrez and Bob Hall. “Alarm Bells From Silenced Voters,” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 2, 2015.

[4] “About us,” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 1, 2015,

[5] “Our Staff.” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 1, 2015.

[6] No relation to the case study author.

[7] “Board of Directors.” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 1, 2015.

[8] Thom File. “Young-Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections, 1964-2012,” Untied States Census Bureau (2014), accessed December 3, 2015.

[9] Brian D. Christens and Tom Dolan. “Interweaving Youth Development, Community Development, and Social Change through Youth Organizing,” Sage Journal (2010), accessed December 2, 2015.

[11] Bonnie Ballard, “Summer Reflections.” Democracy Summer Blog, accessed December 5, 2014.

[12] “Interim Report of Millennial Partnership Project.” Democracy North Carolina, accessed December 5, 2014.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gabrielle Henry “Summer Reflections,” Democracy Summer Blog, accessed December 5, 2014.

[15] Bonnie Ballard, “Summer Reflections.”

[16] Daniel Irvin, “Summer Reflections.” Democracy Summer Blog, accessed December 5, 2014.

[17] Gabrielle Henry, “Summer Reflections.”

[18] Bonnie Ballard, “Summer Reflections.”