Continuing the Business of Hope and Engagement
In January of 2016, the Andrew Goodman Foundation brought its Vote Everywhere program to Western Carolina University (WCU) as it expanded the organization throughout the southeast. I worked for the WCU Center for Service Learning as a student service corps member at the time, completely unaware of who Andrew Goodman was. Though I was a newly hired student, I had quickly established my niche in the office, finding myself talking politics with my workmates daily. I was a natural fit for the first round of ambassadorships, though I hadn’t a clue at the time that I was on a life-altering journey. Remember, this was 2015, and the election season had officially begun. It was a simpler time, indeed.
I soon began to pursue civic engagement—i.e. securing a polling place, registering students, educating the students, and encouraging students to vote—full-time on campus. At this precise time, WCU saw a perfect amalgam of determined and innovative students, ambassadorships from the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Campus Vote Project, and stalwart leadership in the form of Service Learning Director Dr. Lane Perry.
But time marches on, and eventually we had to ask ourselves, “What about after the election?” What happens when newly-elected officials and their policies proceed forward in 2017? The architecture for on-campus civic engagement which had been so carefully crafted is still standing, but the students are burned out on politics. And everyone is exhausted.
The Student Democracy Coalition (SDC), the team comprised of a combination of students from the two aforementioned organizations, grappled with this dilemma of engaging burnt out students at the beginning of the following Spring semester.
However, the team persisted and found innovative ways to engage students in a new political climate. It became clear that some aspects of the previous semester’s model would no longer be relevant, and the SDC broke down the old method of Register, Educate, Activate (i.e. ballot casting), in order to reevaluate what students would show up for in the spring. Students decided that in the wake of this divisive election, strategic advocacy would replace activation, education would become more expansive, and registration would operate as a supporting actor between the two.
The advocacy and educational work was thrilling this spring. North Carolina is a compelling place to live, full of interesting policies, and though sometimes maddening, it does provide for the perfect learning environment. Students of diverse political backgrounds came together to attend smaller political organizing opportunities across North Carolina, as well as the National Women’s March on Washington during the semester. At these events students were able to network with representatives and even help lead change on issues like juvenile prison reform.
Though our representative had not heard about this issue before, and though his stances on criminality are more conservative than others, we brought him research and statistics, and began developing a working relationship with him. Within two weeks he was a cosponsor of NC HB 280, a reform bill. This bill is still making its way through the General Assembly, but regardless of the outcome, we consider this a great individual success of our advocacy.
Perhaps one of the most meaningful educational experiences this semester was the Common Grounds dinner. Common Grounds was meant to be a coming together of people from different demographics, political affiliations, and corners of the university in order to share a meal and discuss the meaning of fear in 2017. This meal was not directly related to civic engagement, but it helped to rebuild the foundation of humanity which underlies healthy civic conversations. It was at this meal that students who may never have set foot in a room together previously, shared stories that dug deeper than the surface, in search of finding a common thread of personhood. The conversation at this dinner was refreshing, as there were no tensions between any of the groups, and many participants expressed a desire to establish Common Grounds as an annual program, something I was delighted to hear.
These moments of simple clarity I have cherished this semester, because it most certainly has not been an easy task carrying on with the same spirit after the election. The negativity felt by students in the days afterward doused the momentum our organization felt in the months leading up to November. It seemed that regardless of for whom one voted, no one was satisfied once the ballots were counted. It’s a difficult thing to admit that our team had to slow down after experiencing such a powerful start in 2016. But, as life is unpredictable, there were important lessons to be learned from it. Whether or not you want to carry on, democracy requires strength and motion. This forward movement is the blueprint for the future, as I train the future of the Student Democracy Coalition to take over next semester. After May of this year, the last of the original members of the coalition will go on to their next phases of life. As we transition, it is hard to let go in order for the next generation of leaders to take over something that I have cherished for so long. But that is life, and onward we must march toward a better tomorrow.
About the Author
Joanna Woodson is a senior at Western Carolina University, a Vote Everywhere Ambassador, and 2017 Newman Civic Fellow.