Maya Enista is living an American dream.The daughter of immigrants is a driving force behind registering hundreds of thousands of young voters and engaging them in the democratic process.
Enista's parents came to the United States from Romania in the late 1970s for political asylum. She says they worked hard so that she and her brother, born in the early 1980s, could have opportunities in a free country.
"My mom cleaned houses. My dad drove taxis. And they sort of re-built their American dream," says Enista.
Raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, just outside New York City, Enista says as a kid she was embarrassed by her parent's foreignness. But as she got older, her heritage became central to her own identity.
Her first day at Rutgers University, near New York City, was September 11, 2001. On her way to math class, she got news of the attack on the World Trade Center. "I think that that really spurred my decision to go into public service because I didn't understand the world that we lived in when this happened," she says.
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At the time, nearly two-thirds of 18-to-24-year-olds did not vote so Enista joined a summer campaign with Rock the Vote. She supported the group's mission to register young voters. Enista continued that effort while she finished college.
"For the last two years of school I was the East Coast coordinator and managed voter registration from Maine to Florida. We registered upwards of 30,000 young people to vote," she says.
Maya Enista has helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of young voters.
After graduating in 2004, Enista worked for the Hip-Hop Convention, a national nonprofit that uses youth culture as a springboard for social and political action. There she registered 300,000 voters in advance of the 2004 election.
And the results showed. The turnout rate among young adults jumped dramatically in the 18-to-24 year old age group.
Reaching young voters
Enista's next move was to Mobilize.org. In 2005, she was named its chief executive officer, a position she holds today at age 26. The group targets the 80 million-strong millennial generation, those born between 1976 and 1996. She says the 8-year-old nonprofit, which was founded at the University of California, Berkley, works to improve democracy by investing in millennial-driven solutions. "We've grown from ten students on a campus to tens of thousands of young people around the country who are working to build the democracy that they want to inherit."
Maya Enista giving a speech at the Lew Frey Institute in Orlando, Florida.
Enista says the backbone of Mobilize.org is a project called Democracy 2.0. "We work with young people to identify the issues they care most about, work collaboratively to propose solutions and then we provide them the resources they need to implement those solutions and then track and evaluate their progress."
An annual survey determines the millennial agenda. Mobilize.org raises money from charitable groups and turns it into grants, like the $4,000 award given to a Brown University student to design a web-based fix for voter registration on campus. "He came to one of our summits, proposed the idea, received the grant and in the three months before the 2008 election deadline, he had 220,000 requests for absentee ballots."
Technology for the public good
Enista says her generation is comfortable with technology and its application for social good. She says Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are part of a young activist's tool kit. "We are able to find people not necessarily based on who lives in our dorm or who are neighbors are, but we are able to build sort-of affinity groups with people in different states, across the world, across different interests."
Late last year, Maya Enista was named one of 50 world visionaries by the alternative magazine UTNE Reader. While humbled by the recognition, she says it signals that millennials are coming of age. The emerging social networks promoted by Moblize.org foster dialogue among people who might not always agree with one another.
That conversation, she says, is fundamental in a healthy democracy; a political system that - as the daughter of Romanian immigrants - she is determined to preserve.