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But now, "They do with these kids. They know how to get things done."
So Elsner, phone glued to ear, spends his days overseeing dozens of student leaders on 50 California college campuses as the movement makes face-to-face contact with thousands of previously uninvolved college kids, funneling the energy of a technologically savvy generation to fight Proposition 23.
They've reached deep into the Web Generation, organizing high school students in Wilmington one day, environmental-science majors at UCLA another, and cultural-anthropology and psychology students at Los Angeles City College another. If it all comes together, they'll have created a grassroots network of progressive-minded student leaders with the organizational breadth to tackle a few other messes created by the generations who came before.
With Election Day around the corner, Elsner sits in the green family room of his parents' home near Century City, multitasking. As he talks campaign logistics on his HTC Hero smart phone, Elsner, a wiry, good-looking guy with curly black hair, barefoot in khaki shorts and a blue-and-yellow-striped polo shirt, reads e-mails on a MacBook. An espresso machine, which he relies upon, is nearby in the kitchen.
"I've tried to get them to come with us on the mobile app," says Elsner to somebody on the phone, "but they're sticking with paper."
The mobile-phone application Elsner is pushing, which appears on the website PowerVote.ca, gets students to pledge to vote and allows the California Student Sustainability Coalition to text-message those who sign up for it, sending them campaign updates and reminding them to vote on Election Day. It's one more tool for mobilizing voters more quickly and effectively than before.
One coalition partner — run by veteran nonprofit organizers over the age of 30 — simply refuses to use the app. Yet their local organization reaches out to students statewide — kids who live and die by smart phones.
The old-school decision to rely on paperwork frustrates Elsner. "The technology is not perfect yet," he says later, "but it's the future. We can access young people who are always on their smart phones, and we don't have to hold on to a piece of paper and then input their information into a database. They're inputted directly when they sign up for the mobile app. It's an efficiency thing, really."
Elsner lived and worked in Washington, D.C., until recently, leaving behind girlfriend Heavener and his job at Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs), before moving home in August.
Elsner is the only paid staffer for the California Student Sustainability Coalition's "No on 23" campaign. (CSSC is a statewide student-organizing group that promotes, among other things, sustainable-energy use on California's college campuses.) His operating budget of less than $10,000 is paid by the Energy Action Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based, youth-led environmental- and social-justice group.
Since then, the work has been unrelenting: He gives tactical advice and support to student leaders, including those at UCLA and LACC. He starts reading and responding to an endless stream of e-mails, phone calls and text messages at 6 a.m. He trains student leaders at UCLA and LACC to sign up college students to vote, in many cases for the first time.
His days, spent in Santa Barbara, San Francisco and other college towns and cities — but especially in Los Angeles — have turned into something of a blur as he picks up campaign posters at UCLA, goes over voter-registration numbers with student activists at LACC, nails down details for a series of hip-hop concerts called the Clean Energy Tour, and prepares for a student march in Wilmington, while dealing with the leaders of coalition-partner groups, like the one who won't use apps.
"The quantity of e-mails is overwhelming," says Elsner, who prefers text-messaging, like almost everyone he knows. "You can plan your day, but then you get one call from a coalition partner and everything changes."
Since he graduated from Berkeley in 2009, where he was a political-science major with a focus on energy policies who helped run student campaigns, Elsner's passion has been organizing students for environmental causes.
"My parents are social workers," he says, "and they always taught me that if I want to make a difference, I should do it. I was very much brought up with the idea of fixing things by the little actions that we do, and [that] will make people's lives better."
This fall, not long after Elsner settled into his boyhood bedroom, where one wall is taken up by a bookcase filled with mostly nonfiction books on subjects such as China, race relations and war, his father, Nick, a Vietnam War veteran, put a question to him. "My dad read a newspaper article that mentioned how baby boomers were going to turn out and vote this year," Elsner recalls. "So he challenged me. 'What are you and your generation going to do?' "
Historically, says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, young voters show up for presidential races but not nearly as much for midterm elections. On the other hand, Carrick says, young voters usually are more turned on by issues than by candidates, and Proposition 23 is right up their alley.