Where are they now: A closer look at Vote Everywhere Alumni
A few years ago, she was a busy undergraduate student at Western Carolina University (WCU) with a passion for politics. Today, Joanna Woodson spearheads the innovative Parties at the Poll initiative, a collection of 75 civic engagement events organized across the state of Maryland, primarily in Baltimore, aimed at increasing voter turnout for the 2018 Midterm Elections. She works with local leaders, continually seeking new ways to harness the wave of youth civic engagement that has risen this year. Occasionally, she also picks up the phone to dial a fellow Vote Everywhere Alumni. On the other line, she always finds support, a deep understanding of what life in public service entails, and friendship. “I was a part of the second Vote Everywhere cohort. There were 50 of us at that year’s National Civic Leadership Training Summit, but it was a distinctively intimate experience. I only spent three days with these folks but we’re still a tight-knit group till this day,” Woodson says.
As a member of the Democracy team at Mile 22 Associates, Joanna’s experience as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador is directly related to her professional career. She continues to partner with leaders in the civic engagement space, such as the Students Leaders Students Vote (SLSV) coalition. She moved from North Carolina, after graduating from WCU, to join Mile 22 Associates in Washington, D.C. She recently relocated again to Baltimore, Maryland to enhance the firm’s work in anticipation of the 2018 election season.
As it turns out, Washington, D.C. is a hub for alumni of the Vote Everywhere program. Many remain civically engaged after graduation from the program, in the nation’s capital or elsewhere. MacKenzie Bills, a graduate of Simpson College, made an international stop in Djibouti and Malaysia before relocating to D.C. In Djibouti, she interned with the Public Diplomacy team at the U.S. Embassy, advocating for free and fair elections, against government corruption, and advocating against Female Genital Mutilation. She says, “I care so deeply about the democratic process. I truly believe to have a voice and to be able to speak it, and share your experience without the government controlling it, is the most basic right we humans should have..” Immediately following her position in Djibouti, MacKenzie received a Fulbright to Malaysia as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA). MacKenzie had the opportunity to teach at a local school. Today, she is a Report Editor for the United States Department of State in The Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor (DRL)). One of MacKenzie’s major projects is the International Religious Freedom Report, where she analyzes religious freedom in Sub Saharan Africa. Bills continues, “As Americans, we are having conversations surrounding voter engagement and equality, but in other parts of the world, people do not have the same rights… That’s why it is so important for me to fight for democracy, and not just voter engagement but for the right of thought and the right to vote.”
Michael Blichar joined the Vote Everywhere program his senior year at Kutztown University, just in time for the 2016 Presidential Election. “I felt like it was so important then, more than it ever was, to be involved and let young people know the power of their voice. My interactions with students, regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum, were really rewarding. They let me know I wanted to get more involved in politics.” After graduation, Michael joined the Kutztown Borough Planning Commission and became a precinct committee person on the Berks County Democratic Committee. A few months ago, he was vetted as a candidate for State Representative in the 187th Legislative District of Pennsylvania. He credits the Vote Everywhere program for helping develop the grassroots experience that prepared him for success on the campaign trail, “There’s a lot of correlation between the Ambassadorship and what I am doing now… telling people about the issues, hearing their concerns, and empowering them to hit the polls.”
All in their early 20s, Woodson, Bills, and Blichar share the belief that young people are underrepresented at all levels of elected office, government, and leadership. This is why they have continued to work in the public sector. Bills explains, “The Vote Everywhere program really teaches you how to be a changemaker. It shows you how to analyze your role in a movement, when it’s your time to step up, and when it’s your time to step back and let others lead. That’s the most important lesson I learned.” Blichar and Woodson apply that lesson in Maryland and Pennsylvania, ensuring community members, especially young people, understand what is at stake during the upcoming elections. Blichar adds, “We shouldn’t sit around and wait for a champion. I can be my own champion for the issues I care about, and other young people care about. We can be the ones that run for office.”
About the Author
Kevin Hurtado is the Communications and Development Associate at Andrew Goodman Foundation. He graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor’s in International Studies and a minor in Human Rights and Genocide. Previously, Kevin worked as an Executive Assistant and Office Manager at Newark Charter School Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity in the city of Newark.