The first cohort of students participating in the Wesleyan Engage 2020 (E2020) initiative dedicated their winter breaks to working for voter registration and issues advocacy groups, as well as for a range of candidates for presidential, congressional, and local offices.
The 16 students participating over winter break were stationed in states as far-flung as Georgia and Alaska, New York and Arizona. Wesleyan awarded over $20,000 to assist with participants’ living and travel expenses while they conducted this work.
Many students chose to work with organizations advocating for particular issues, including criminal justice reform, housing justice, reproductive rights, and immigration.
Others focused their efforts on voter engagement and registration. Perri Easley ’23 spoke at her former high school, Morristown-Beard School in Morristown, N.J., and at the Morris County Chapter of Jack and Jill of America to educate young people about important issues around the 2020 elections, including the US Census, the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and voter suppression. Voter registration drives were held at both events for high school students who are of eligible age to register to vote.
“Politics can be polarizing, but I really wanted to educate the students about government in a general way and encourage participation in the process, regardless of political affiliation,” said Easley of addressing her former high school. Easley is active in a number of groups at Wesleyan focused on social justice, civic engagement, community service, and foreign language. Easley is a proponent of mental health awareness, and volunteers for organizations such as the Crisis Textline. She also works as a Channel Kindness reporter with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. On campus, Easley is the campaign/current events coordinator of the Wesleyan Democrats, and works on engaging Wesleyan students on political issues and promoting voter registration.
“We’re interested in brainstorming ways to make Wesleyan more politically active leading up to the 2020 elections,” she said.
Derek Chen ’23 spent his break volunteering in his home state of North Carolina with Turnout Nation, another nonpartisan, nonprofit group that seeks to increase voter turnout through “relational organizing.”
“This is accomplished via a peer-to-peer system in which coordinators recruit ‘captains’ who ensure that 10 or more of their acquaintances are registered to vote while simultaneously looking to recruit other people to be captains,” Chen explained. “Personally, I have reached out to my social circle to attempt to find civic-minded people who would be interested in becoming a part of this project.”
Chen said this has been his first foray into activism on this scale. He found it enlightening to talk to others about their political engagement, and exciting to know that he is making a tangible difference in his community.
“The type of work that I have been doing is definitely something that can’t be replicated in a classroom,” Chen said. “Interacting with a wide variety of people and talking about ‘boring’ things like our civic duties has helped me become more politically aware while also giving me an opportunity to learn about my friends’ level of civic engagement.”
Students also volunteered with the presidential campaigns of several candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Michael Bloomberg, along with campaigns of candidates for US Congress in Alaska and New York, for New York City Council, and for County Sheriff in Cobb County, Ga.
Indigo Pellegrini de Paur ’21 worked at the Bloomberg campaign headquarters in New York City.
“I have learned so much about the ins and outs of running a campaign,” she said.
Noting that Bloomberg has refused to accept campaign donations, she said, “As a political science student, this experience adds to my pursuit of understanding the American political system.”
In addition, this work has given her a chance to connect with many other volunteers and campaign workers.
“I have the opportunity to work closely with others passionate about tackling climate change, increasing gun control to decrease gun violence, and reinstating a positive sense of democracy in a country where many have become disillusioned with the system.”
Clifton Watson, director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships, said the Jewett Center is pleased by the initial response to E2020 and excited about the possibilities for future academic breaks. Over the spring semester, the Jewett Center will continue to raise awareness on campus of E2020 and to encourage students to seek out diverse opportunities in the public sphere. The Center also plans to host events on campus for participating students to share their experiences, and to hear from professionals working in the political arena.
Several students who conducted civic engagement work over winter break will share their experiences at a panel hosted by the Gordon Career Center at noon on Feb. 4.
Students interested in participating in E2020 over spring break may now apply for funding here, through Feb. 7.