Sanda Balaban, Founder of YVote and Program Director for Civics Unplugged
“There’s a reason why people aren’t civically engaged. In Mexico everybody goes to vote. It’s a deeply installed habit! For example, there are special ballots for kids there. It’s like celebrating your birthday, or brushing your teeth.”
Meet Sanda Balaban. Sanda Balaban is the founder of YVote and serves as Program Director for Civics Unplugged. Through these ventures, she hopes to broaden youth civic engagement and to help equip the leaders of tomorrow for their roles and responsibilities as citizens shaping a more just world — Think Indivisible for Adolescents! She has a consulting practice called FLIP, (Future of Learning and Innovative Programs) through which she supports youth-serving organizations in innovating and increased organizational efficacy; and she heads the Reader Advisory Board for Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering education from a local, non-ideological perspective. Sandra serves on four boards: Eskolta School Research and Design, which works with urban public schools to help the most vulnerable youth reach their full potential; The Hope Reichbach Memorial Fund, which provides stipends and professional development to enable high-potential college students to pursue otherwise-unpaid internships with social justice-oriented nonprofits in Brooklyn; the Brooklyn Lab Charter High School, an XQ Super School which opens this fall with the aim of preparing students with the digital literacy and leadership skills necessary to succeed as they grow as ethical leaders; and Kepler, a global network of universities, beginning in Rwanda, focused on delivering the skills emerging economies need.
There’s hope for us all. After entering the Hamilton lottery every day for two years, she actually won. And, it appears that Sanda’s luck hasn’t run out: at Civic Hall she won tickets for Asher Novek’s Speak Up, Rise Up storytelling festival (and loved it). Sanda is proud to be a Civic Hall Organizer in Residence (CHOIR) and can be followed on twitter.
What Does She Do?
Sanda’s heart and soul, blood, civic sweat and tears these days is for YVote:
“YVote is a new youth voter initiative focused on helping high school student leaders channel their passions and beliefs into positive civic action. Through analyzing issues they care about — affordable housing, immigration, mass incarceration — through the lens of “Why vote?,” YVote focuses on voting because research demonstrates it is an indicator of, and gateway to, ongoing civic engagement and is a vital form of individual and collective agency. While any traditional youth voter initiatives focus on registration and turnout, YVote is addressing underlying motivation through exploring a deep connection to things young people care about and how they are impacted electorally.”
YVote was piloted this summer with fifty racially, economically, and politically diverse juniors and seniors from twenty-plus high schools across all five boroughs of New York City. They’re now ready to take the work to the next level, preparing youth to serve as the nucleus of a more broad-based “18 in ’18″ campaign focused on massively increasing turnout in the midterm elections.
Sanda is also the founding Program Director for Civics Unplugged, a new nonprofit committed to empowering young people with an understanding of their roles and responsibilities as citizens, allowing them to participate fully and contribute positively to our society and world. Civics Unplugged is partnering with twelve high schools — six public and six private — bringing a cadre of Civic Fellows (juniors and seniors) from across the schools together monthly, hosted at Hunter’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, to learn from and connect with each other about civic issues and current events, and to return to their schools as “civic spark plugs.”
Sanda views YVote and Civic Unplugged as two sides of the same civic coin: both designed to create a more informed, engaged citizenry. While YVote is created by young people, Civic Unplugged is adult-designed, but student-driven.
How Did She Get Into This Work?
Sanda has more than two decades of experience in the education space where her focus was at the intersection of innovation, equity, and excellence. Like many of us, she was dumbstruck by the electoral outcome. This overlapped with scheduled double reconstructive foot surgery. As she recalls, recovery provided “time off-my-feet in order to radically rethink my theory of action and impact, and to hone in on how to channel energies in a way that feels edifying.”
In late winter, Sanda re-watched the iconic “Eyes on the Prize” PBS series, struck anew by how instrumental young people were on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. She was further sparked by a close reading of Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” which got her to thinking about the possibilities of engaging young people in cross-partisan relationship building at a formative age, while their identities and political consciousness are still malleable.
How Did She Come to Civic Hall?
Sanda first heard about Civic Hall while it was still a gleam in Andrew Rasiej’s eye: At a Rosh Hashanah dinner some years back, he ecstatically described the as-yet-unopened Civic Hall in response to a question posed to the table, “What Are You Doing In the Name of Justice?”
In Sanda’s case, a civic seed was planted.
Sanda has attended events at the CH space over the last two years and is grateful to be here officially through the CHOIR program. She’s really enjoyed her first month here and feels like a kid in the civic candy store.
What Project Is She Working On?
Sanda’s big aim for the fall is getting the twelve Civics Unplugged schools off to a successful start and figuring out how to gain enough funding for YVote so that she can focus on it more fully, building upon their very successful summer pilot and broadening to support participating youth in designing and implementing action campaigns, while engaging more and more young people, in and beyond New York City.
What Is Her Ask of Civic Hall?
While Sanda has worked in education and youth development for over 20 years, with some peripheral work in youth civic engagement, the civic sector is new to her. Sanda is very invested in ecosystem approaches to sectoral work, seeking to create connective tissue for collective impact.
“There’s a reason why people aren’t civically engaged. In Mexico, everybody goes to vote. It’s a deeply installed habit! For example, there are special ballots for kids there. It’s like celebrating your birthday, or brushing your teeth.”