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Stony Brook Student Honored with Hidden Hero Award

This article was originally published on The Statesman on August 31, 2019.

Recent Stony Brook alumna Yark Beyan was awarded the Hidden Hero Award by the Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF) for her commitment to promoting civic engagement on June 22.

The AGF focuses on encouraging young people to participate in democracy. It founded the Vote Everywhere program, which was brought to Stony Brook University in 2015. Beyan joined the team in 2016, when she began serving as a Team Leader for the Stony Brook campus. Since then, she has been offered a position as Program Administrative Assistant in the fellowship department with the Open Society Foundation to support international work on social justice, education and human rights.

According to a press release issued by the organization, the AGF honors five Vote Everywhere Ambassadors who uphold its mission of “expanding civic engagement and defending democracy.” Taryn Dwyer, the Program and Fellowship Manager for the AGF, said Beyan encapsulated these qualities.

“The award is really meant to designate when somebody has done exceptional work on their campus and is really spearheading specific leadership on that campus,” Dwyer said. “Every semester [Beyan’s] been involved [with the AGF] she’s done really exceptional work.”

Dwyer served as a mentor and advisor for Beyan with the AGF and nominated her for the award. Dwyer said it was Beyan’s voter registration skills that led to her nomination.

“She’s done and led some exceptional voter registration work on campus,” Dwyer said. “At Stony Brook, during her entire time as an ambassador, her team has registered at least over 8,000 students.”

In order to achieve those numbers, Beyan helped Stony Brook revolutionize its voter registration initiatives. The school used to leave registration forms and a pencil on a table in the Student Activities Center at student orientations, which resulted in low registration rates, she said. Many who registered did so incorrectly. Beyan said her team had to devise a new strategy.

“We decided to start having a physical person there to register students, and we saw a huge increase from that,” she said. “Just having someone at the table meant students were being registered to vote correctly and at a higher rate as well.”

Beyan also helped to found the Center for Civic Justice, which aims to help engaged Stony Brook students “positively contribute to the betterment of their communities through awareness, advocacy and action,” according to its website. Beyan wrote the proposal to start the center.

“A lot of the other schools that are partnered with the AGF have a center, so we’re the outliers,” she said. “Rather than going to the administration and telling them to create a center, we [Stony Brook’s Vote Everywhere program] thought it would be pretty amazing if we wrote a proposal to start it and made it student-led instead.”

Beyan worked with Steven Adelson, the Co-Director of the Center for Civic Justice, to found the center. He called her a “standout leader and visionary,” something that allowed Beyan and her team to understand the need for a Center for Civic Justice on campus.

“They wanted to ensure that their work, and the importance of civic and voter engagement, was sustainable and part of every student’s experience… The students decided to bring together the ideas of social justice and civic engagement into a single term,” Adelson wrote in an email. “Civic justice is the process of acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to be a civic leader.”

Visiting the AGF table during the involvement fair in her freshman year, Beyan was told the story of how people who tried to register African Americans to vote were murdered by the Klu Klux Klan across the United States. It compelled her to join the AGF. After that, she stayed because of her passion for advancing democracy and says she wants other people to know these stories and fight for themselves.

“I’m very outspoken, and when I see something that’s like, a pothole, for instance, or why the heck tuition keeps going higher and higher, I just have that passion behind me,” she said. “I wanted other people to see how important these issues are.”

It isn’t always an easy task, Beyan said. Some people are reluctant to vote, but Beyan uses passion-based arguments to convince them.

“A lot of it is convincing them by saying, ‘Hey, this is your right,’ ‘People died for this right,’ and ‘This is what you should be doing as a citizen of the U.S.’ Playing into them and the way you frame it is really important to get students to register,” she said.

Beyan, who graduated in May, doesn’t plan to make a career out of advocating for voter engagement but said she also won’t leave it behind.

“I’m moving towards international development, so like women empowerment initiatives,” she said. “My career path has shifted a bit, but it’s still a passion of mine. Follow me on social media and you’ll see me talking politics all of the time.”

Beyan said the Hidden Hero Award was something she strived for during her time with the AFG.

“I’ve been seeing amazing students from campuses around the country receiving this award, and I’m like, ‘I hope one day I can get this. I probably won’t, but I’ll work for it.’ Being recognized like that is really amazing.”