The Memphis Urban League Young Professionals hosted “Meet the Candidates” at the Hattiloo Theatre in an ongoing effort to engage more millennials in the Oct. 3 elections. (Photo: Jessica B. Mason)

Music resounded in the background as dozens of ‘young professionals,’ mostly under the age of 40, circulated the room. Some shook hands over brief introductions while others engaged in presumably intense conversations, their voices elevated as they struggled to speak over background tunes. The lively scene undoubtedly resembled an after work happy hour, featuring a DJ and bartender; but the cause of the gathering was much more than a social networking affair. 

Monday, the Memphis Urban League Young Professionals (MULYP) hosted “Meet the Candidates.” It was one of a series of events the local organization is holding in an effort to engage more millennials in the upcoming municipal elections. This particular event, held in an enclosed patio space of Hattiloo Theatre, featured candidates running for city council seats.

Ayanna Perkins and Joshua Perkins. (Photo: Erica R. Williams)

“We specifically decided to have the mix-and-mingle because we wanted to meet young professionals where they are,” MULYP Vice President Ayanna Perkins said. “We know that most of them enjoy social events but also want to be involved politically. This was an easy gateway to get them involved.”

More than a dozen city council candidates attended “Meet the Candidates”, held in partnership with Hattiloo Theatre. Each contender was allowed 30 seconds for introductions, but the remainder of the two-hour-long gathering consisted of them ‘mixing and mingling’ with attendees.

Although Monday night’s event mimicked a social mixer, MULYP leaders said they’re known for hosting more formal civic engagement events year-round, including information sessions and forums featuring elected officials. This year they’ve revved up their measures in time for the October 3 municipal elections.

“We’re coming up on a very important time with these particular elections,” MULYP President Joshua Perkins said.  “We’re seeing more millennials running for office in these races. It only makes sense that we actively engage millennial voters.”

It’s also a part of the MULYP’s mission. The service-oriented organization, with members between the ages of 21-40, supports the objectives of the National Urban League, Memphis Urban League, and National Urban League Young Professionals. The group relies on the Urban Leagues’ national empowerment platform, consisting of six main areas, to guide their events. One of those areas is focused on civic engagement and advocacy. 

 “The Urban League is a civil rights organization and that’s what we build around,” Joshua Perkins said. “As the local division that focuses on millennials, it’s only right we do our part to get more of them involved civically.”

Historically, millennials have the lowest voter turnout of any age group. According to a 2018 Pew Research study, only about 46 percent voted in the last presidential election. That number is even lower in municipal elections. 

MULYP leaders said there’s a reason behind the dismal turnout, specifically in Memphis.

“If millennials are not engaged or feel as if the candidates don’t represent their interests, they usually don’t vote,” A. Perkins said. “This is particularly the case in Memphis when, historically you see the same group of people being re-elected. Seeing this continuously happening causes some voters to become disengaged.”

According to MULYP leaders, that disconnection makes voting less of a priority for some millennial voters. 

“There is a negative stigma around politics, especially local politics,” Joshua Perkins said. “Some think it’s hard to get involved or don’t know how to do it. We want to make politics relatable and help bridge that gap.”

With less than three months until the local elections, MULYP leaders are hoping that their efforts help increase millennial voter turnout in Memphis.

 “We are trying to get younger voters to see that their vote really does count and that we have a responsibility to vote and set the stage for younger generations,” Joshua Perkins said. “Once we do that, we continue our mission by providing them with the resources needed to be informed voters.”

Though optimistic in the impact of the local civics organization, leaders recognize that not everyone will be engaged.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Joshua Perkins added. “And while we know that we can’t reach everyone. We’re just glad that we’re doing our part to reach as many as we can.”

MULYP is hosting a “Civics 101” session August 22, followed by a mayoral forum September 3 at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.