Where Are They Now: Joanna Woodson

WCU Vote Everywhere alumni, Joanna Woodson, at the 2016 National Training Institute.

Joanna Woodson’s journey began in the heart of the Appalachian region. Her Vote Everywhere team at Western Carolina University secured the institution’s first-ever on-campus polling location in 2016. That same polling site was later revealed to have surpassed voter turnout at all other locations in Jackson County. It was at that moment, Joanna caught the itch to continue doing civic engagement work. Her passion for politics has turned into a fulfilling career, dedicated to ensuring communities understand the power of the ballot.

We recently sat down with Woodson for our “ Where are they now” series to discuss her experience in the Vote Everywhere program, how it affected her post-college career, and the Andrew Goodman legacy.

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and your time with Vote Everywhere. What inspired you to join the program and how did it contribute to your plans after graduation?

That’s a big question! I was a returning student. I had dropped out of school, made my way back to Western Carolina University, and just happen to be working in the Center for Service Learning with Dr. Lane Perry. I am always talking politics with most people and I remember one day, Dr. Perry asked if I was interested in becoming a Vote Everywhere Ambassador. I had no idea then but it was the beginning of this huge journey. We started out doing voter registration drives with the three of us: me, Dr. Perry, and another Vote Everywhere Ambassador, Ashlynn. Before we knew it, someone mentioned getting an on-campus polling place and we decided to get involved.

My experience with the Foundation has shaped the trajectory of my life directly. There’s a strong correlation between my time as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador and what I am doing now. Right now, I am working for Mile 22 Associates and #BaltimoreVotes. In August, I moved from D.C. to Baltimore to help push the #PartyAtThePolls initiative here, which is what I spent the majority of my time on leading up to the election.

For the 2018 Midterm Elections, we helped host 92 parties across Maryland, most of which were in Baltimore, working with leaders who stepped up by saying they want to help reshape our local democracy. I worked with local leaders, day in and day out, to help them implement programming on their turf, for their communities. On a more systemic level, we are currently developing what’s called Maryland Votes Together, a statewide coalition in Maryland to help organize civic engagement efforts.

You joined Vote Everywhere in the early stages of the program, a year after it was first piloted in 2014. Can you describe what that experience was like?

I took part in the second cohort of students joining the program. What I remember most was attending the National Civic Leadership Training Summit (NCLTS), which was extraordinarily engaging and so much fun. Everything from the media training to having the opportunity to meet Dr. Clarence Jones was very impactful.  It was just an experience I will never forget.

There were probably 50 of us there, and somehow, AGF managed to make it an intimate experience where we were able to develop bonds with each other. Some of the ambassadors I only saw for three days, and here we are a few years later, still a tight-knit group who talk regularly.

Many Vote Everywhere Alumni work on different issues in government, nonprofits, or at NGOs. However, there still remains a deep commitment to public service. Recently, Vote Everywhere Alumnus Michael Blichar Jr. became the first Ambassador to run for public office. Why do you think it is important for young people to be part of the conversations in the public sphere?

I was so thrilled when I saw that Michael was running for office! He is the first of the Ambassadors to run for office, and I am positive he is not going be the last. Our crew is so amazing. The development that happens during the Ambassadorship kind of lends itself to continued public service. Individuals who typically are interested in being an Ambassador are people who are driven, excited about change, and who are motivated to do the work. Thanks to the training that folks get from AGF, from the mentors that come along with it, and from the guidance of the Program Managers, you get people like Michael and MacKenzie, who are just bursting into the world and who are actually making change. Those are the people we need in public service.

I think for those who are coming up as the next cohort, or who may not be thinking about it yet but maybe an Ambassador in the next five years, it is so critical for them to see people like them who have been able to be molded by this program and also add their own flavor to it. The people who go through the Vote Everywhere program are the ones who are the changemakers.

What is one skill you gained from your Vote Everywhere Ambassadorship that has been most valuable in your career?

I was more on the cynical side before the NCLTS. I was one of those who hung back and didn’t dive into making friends immediately and embrace the culture of the Vote Everywhere program. After a day of being at the NLTCS, after spending a little more time with everyone, I learned how to open up and trust the people who are doing this work. I also learned how to be better at listening to other people’s stories, and just be present with them. This has been transformational for me in my work going forward. Being able to show up, and not hang back and be an observer of situations, but be a full participant in situations I find myself in.

How has the Andrew Goodman legacy informed your passion for civic engagement and public service?

It is so hard not to get caught up in the election cycle. It is really easy to get soaked in the details of the work, and the stress of the work, and the thanklessness of the work that often accompanies public service. To me, Andrew Goodman is an example of why this matters. When I  look back at my time at the Foundation, and the legacy that the Foundation has created, or the legacy left by Andrew himself… it is an instantaneous reminder of why this is important and why we do this. So even though sometimes, the details are hard, and the day to day is hard, and elections are hard, we can do it and we’re doing it for the right reasons.

Woodson plans to attend the University of Maryland Law School next fall. However, she wishes to remain in the civic engagement space after graduation, fighting for voters and ensuring communities have the resources to make their voices heard. The Vote Everywhere network continues to inspire her. She says, “the work that I’ve done and the relationships I have built thanks to the Vote Everywhere program have meant so much to me, this is what I hope to do for the long run.”


About the Author

Kevin Hurtado is the Communications and Development Associate at The 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.