Ten years ago, a small clutch of University of Montana students coalesced around the question of whether it was possible to get young people excited about politics. They’d often heard members of older generations dismiss youth, saying there was no reason to engage them because they didn’t vote. It was particularly vexing, recalls Matt Singer, given that most in the group were already working on a variety of political issues on campus.
“We felt like we were just running our heads up against the wall,” Singer says, “partly because young people weren’t taken very seriously.”
From that group’s frustration rose Forward Montana, a nonprofit that Singer believes survived its early years due as much to luck as hard work. Singer, one of the group’s co-founders, remembers filling out forms in Vinnie Pavlish’s Aber Hall dorm room, unsure if anyone really knew how to start a nonprofit. Their first major effort in 2005—a successful opposition campaign to the confirmation of Student Regent Kala French—was launched with just a handful of volunteers and a $1,000 budget.
“We were all pretty jaded by the idea that was being put out by everyone out there that young people didn’t care, young people didn’t vote, young people weren’t involved,” says fellow Forward Montana founding member and current state Rep. Bryce Bennett. “From that, we just organically came together and said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this in a way that gets young people excited about politics.’”
Now Forward Montana is a constant presence in state politics, recognized for its pink bunny logo—now officially a part of the separate Forward Montana Foundation—and its role in several key issues and close elections. In 2008, the group worked against a move by the Montana Republican Party to challenge the eligibility of 6,000 Montana voters. In 2010, Forward Montana threw its support behind Missoula’s non-discrimination ordinance, a local step forward for LGBT equality that Councilman Jason Wiener calls “one of the more moving and stunning pieces of public policy to be involved in as an elected official.” And in 2012, volunteers registered more than 11,000 college students statewide to vote.
“It’s not like your civics class covers getting registered to vote, forming an opinion, volunteering for a cause that you care about—although clearly that would constitute a civic education,” says Wiener, a longtime supporter of Forward Montana. “So they fill that ably.”
As Forward Montana prepares to commemorate its 10-year anniversary in Caras Park on Aug. 16, volunteers are continuing to register voters and engage the public about upcoming ballot issues. (Legislative Referendum 126, a measure to eliminate same-day voter registration, is of particular interest.) Executive Director Kayje Booker says the organization has worked hard to maintain momentum from the 2012 electoral cycle, a watershed year that saw Forward Montana attain its biggest staff and furthest reach. Of course, in keeping with oddities like the pink bunny—dreamed up, Singer says, in 2007 by a designer who’d had too much coffee—Booker has also busied herself securing foam cowboy hats and stick ponies to help volunteers attract attention.
“You know you work at an awesome organization when you are, within the same day, ordering costumes from the clown store and working on an important policy piece,” Booker says.
In perhaps its boldest move yet, Forward Montana recently established an office in Bozeman; local recruits have already hit the pavement supporting that city’s non-discrimination ordinance. Yet one of the group’s biggest hurdles remains the same: How to get youth interested in politics. Booker says it can be frustrating to come across young people who feel their vote doesn’t matter. And while she admits it’s also an understandable mentality, past experience for Forward Montana has highlighted the importance of a single vote; after the group sent a bus of volunteers to Billings to knock doors for him in 2010, Democrat Kendall Van Dyk defeated incumbent state Sen. Roy Brown by a mere four votes.
“When you win by four votes, everybody can claim a little bit of the credit,” Van Dyk says. “But I think it’s fair to say without that busload of young folks from Forward Montana, we probably wouldn’t have got it done.”
Booker and others feel one of the most profound impacts Forward Montana has had in its 10 years is inspiring some of its own members to run for office. Bennett won his first bid for the Montana Legislature in 2010, and over two sessions has introduced policy touching on many of the same issues he once tackled with Forward Montana.
“I doubt I would have ever run for office if I had not been involved with Forward Montana,” Bennett says. “Not only did I learn the mechanics of a campaign by knocking on doors and making phone calls and helping build plans for campaigns, but I also had the people around me who were pushing … the idea that somebody who’s 25 and openly gay on top of that had a chance to win in Montana.”
Bennett feels none of the group’s original members would have guessed that Forward Montana would take on as much work as it has in such a short time. Yet despite its rapid evolution, Singer, who now lives in Portland, Ore., still sees the same youthful energy at Forward Montana when he returns to visit.
“Every year I get older and Forward Montana stays the same age,” he says. “That’s been the moment I’ve known this thing is going to work, and it’s going to work well past this point.”