Jen Tolentino '08
On the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, this alumna continues the legacy.
By Tom Kertscher
Jen Tolentino ’08 was in elementary school when she learned women didn’t always have the right to vote.
“I realized that it had been less than 100 years since women had had the same rights as men, and I remember being shocked,” Tolentino said.
As the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches — it was made law on Aug. 26, 1920 — Tolentino is working to get women and other groups of traditionally unrepresented people to register and vote.
Tolentino, based in Los Angeles, is vice president of policy and civic tech for Rock the Vote, a nonprofit that works to build the political power of young people. Since 2015, she has directed the organization’s efforts to protect and expand the voting rights of young people through grassroots organizing, legislation, and litigation efforts. She formerly worked at the Pew Charitable Trust’s Voting Information Project.
“I wanted to work on campaigns that convince marginalized communities, such as young people, who typically are not getting a lot of the education around civics any more, about the right to vote … about how do they actually effect change in their communities through building political power,” she said.
While Rock the Vote’s national platform helps young people across the country register, the organization also helps teenagers preregister to vote, such as in California, where 16-year-olds can sign up. When it’s time to head to the polls or fill out an absentee ballot, Rock The Vote also sends out a reminder via text.
Along with its voter registration and preregistration efforts, Rock the Vote offered a mix of classes on the history and importance of voting in more than 2,000 high schools across America before the 2018 election.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds jumped from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018, the largest percentage point increase for any age group. Rock the Vote, in partnership with MTV, had been founded in 1990 to energize people in that very group.
“Being part of that movement and energy and contributing to how we funnel this activism that we’re seeing into actual political change is really exciting,” Tolentino said.
A record 117 women were elected to Congress in 2018, and a record 127 congresswomen are now serving. However, that number only makes up 29% of the total seats. Twenty-five women were also sworn in as U.S. senators in 2018; while that’s also the highest number in history, it accounts for only a quarter of the seats in the upper chamber. It took nearly 100 years for a woman to be elected speaker of the House — Nancy Pelosi in 2007 — and, of course, the country has not elected a woman president.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 28% of executive elected offices in state government are held by women, and 27 of America’s 100 largest cities have female mayors.
Tolentino said she is excited by the number of organizations recruiting and training women to run for office, but there is much more work to be done in terms of shifting the norms and expectations of our society.
“Getting the right to vote 100 years ago, there was an assumption that women are equal, and they should have equal political voice,” Tolentino said. “But equality has been very slow in coming, and we still have a lot of work to do to raise up the voices and positions of power of all sorts of different women.”
Tolentino majored in English at UCR and earned a master’s degree in public policy at UCLA. She also participated in the University of California District of Columbia program, which allows students to study and work in Washington, D.C. She credited the diversity of UCR’s campus with helping her succeed in her career.
“It just grounded me in the type of community and work that I want to do,” she said.