Over winter break, 16 students traveled to a variety of locations around the United States to support voter registration, participate in political campaigns, and work with advocacy groups as part of the Wesleyan Engage 2020 (E2020) initiative. E2020 is a comprehensive university effort to support student learning via civic engagement and liberal arts education.
On Feb. 19, students gathered in Allbritton Hall to share their reflections on their winter session E2020 experiences. Some sought to educate young people about the electoral process and mobilize them to vote; others worked on issues such as immigration, criminal justice reform, housing justice, and reproductive rights.
Students wishing to volunteer in the public sphere over academic breaks may apply to the E2020 Fund for support for associated transportation and living expenses. Students awarded support, subsequently enroll in CSPL 494—a quarter-credit course that involves orientation, structured reflection, and a final paper.
Photos and information on the students’ winter break E2020 experiences are below. (Photos by Olivia Drake)
Olivia Backal-Balik ’20 worked for Philadelphia Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) over winter break. PICC has an all-volunteer-run program that conducts voter registration at naturalization ceremonies in Philadelphia. “It’s an exciting day because there are a lot of people with their families, or older people who are finally naturalized after waiting for 25 years,” she said. “I’ve worked a lot on the other end of immigration policy, supporting people who are at risk of detention, so to be on the other end and to see people finally granted asylum is exciting. I didn’t realize how many people get naturalized weekly, and they came from so many different countries, so it was really amazing. … What I liked is that I had it in my head that the older generation is not that involved in activism or grassroots organizing, but that group was really run by older retirees who come to register people, so it was cool for me to see what they were doing.”
Alec Black ’23 traveled to travel to Des Moines, Iowa, to canvass for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. “I hadn’t been that involved in talking to voters before, but through this internship, I realized how many people didn’t know how the Iowa caucuses worked. We led caucus training, so any voter could walk in and no matter which candidate they supported, we would help explain how the caucuses worked and get people more informed,” Black said.
Katelin Penner ’22, a recipient of winter and spring E2020 Fund grants, worked on about 12 campaigns and two issue groups—all within New York City, including “Housing Justice for All,” a housing advocacy group that focuses on “ensuring that no person in the state of New York is homeless and that everyone has the right to a safe, dignified, accessible, and truly affordable home.” She also talked about similar efforts in Connecticut, and encouraged others to get involved if, as she said, “you’re interested in housing justice and making sure that no one is homeless in the richest country on Earth.”
Syed Hussain ’22 volunteered his time working on a sheriff’s campaign just outside of Atlanta in Cobb County, Ga., an area that has had numerous issues with racially and economically biased policing and deaths of inmates in their large jail. “These communities have been de-motivated to participate in the political process and to vote, so a big part of what I was doing was creating canvassing maps and phone-banking lists to motivate populations that had not been involved in the political process. The primary is in May and I’m confident that I’ll keep working with them remotely as they go through the primaries. I’m not a citizen myself, so I have even more motivation in my mind to get other people to try to get out and do what I can’t as a nonvoter but as somebody who can still mobilize and help inspire these movements.”
Maya Gomberg ’22 assisted with the Elizabeth Warren 2020 presidential campaign in New Hampshire. She also works on Emerge CT, which helps recruit and train democratic women to run for office in the state. “When women run, they actually win in pretty equal proportions as men,” she said, yet “women don’t tend to run as much because they think they have to be overqualified to run for the position.”
Mitch Motlagh ’20 also worked for the Elizabeth Warren campaign in rural New Hampshire. “I wanted to go to a rural area because I feel like [those areas] don’t get enough attention on the national stage,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to get my feet wet, a good first step in order for me to get more involved in different communities and to be more engaged in the process of democracy.”
Perri Easley ’23 returned to her home state of New Jersey. “It is projected that this 2020 election will be just as important and crucial as the Civil War,” she said. “We’ve seen so much youth social activism and political engagement; there are a lot of students who do care passionately about issues, whether or not they’re necessarily ascribed to having more conservative or progressive values. We do care about issues and we do want to see a change in our communities. And I wanted to help make these students aware of how the system is rigged through gerrymandering, and give them a more in-depth look at the electoral college and why it’s problematic, and voter suppression efforts,” Easley said. “There were a lot of students coming to me afterward saying, ‘I didn’t know anything about this, what can we do?’ And that was the most rewarding thing.” Politics, she said, can be polarizing, specifically when it pertains to candidates. “But understanding what is on the table and what we can do, and getting students registered to vote and spreading the message about important issues is incredibly rewarding, and I hope to continue that this spring break and summer leading up to November.”
Belle Brown ’22 interned with a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C. She was able to shadow the attorney and go to court with him. One of the challenges she faced was dealing with complex questions of ethics and legal representation. She urged classmates to join the ACLU and Center for Prison Education if they were interested in getting more involved on campus.
Derek Chen ’23 worked with Turnout Nation, employing relational organizing to increase voter turnout. For Chen, the biggest challenge was convincing student populations who aren’t as civically engaged to become more so, particularly in North Carolina, which is a swing state. “My goal is to make voting a ‘regular thing’ that everyone does, talking to friends and family, convincing them to vote,” he said.
Clifton Watson, director of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships (JCCP), introduced the panel and explained the JCCP’s three flagship initiatives: the Office of Community Service; administrative support and oversight of WESU; and support for Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education. “The JCCP also supports a spectrum of civic engagement activity, and E2020 is our comprehensive effort to encourage folks to get involved in the electoral process,” he said. Watson is already reviewing E2020 Fund proposals for the spring semester. “We have a nice variety, but are also hoping to see more proposals where groups of students engage in work that pushes them out of their comfort zones – away from the familiar social networks, talking with folks who might have different ideas – as this is when some really interesting learning takes place.”