By Joanna Woodson, Student, and Lane Perry, Director, Center for Service Learning, Western Carolina University (N.C.)
In early 2016, the Andrew Goodman Foundation and Campus Vote Project brought their organizations to Western Carolina University (WCU) in hopes of attracting civically-inclined students as fellows. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, these two organizations were catalysts which set off a university-wide push to organize, mobilize, and Get Out The Vote. Though many folks have seen the tip of the iceberg, they do not realize this movement took months of researching, planning, observing, and lobbying—and those actions still only scratch the surface.
An example demonstrating the tenacity, expertise, and intentionality of the Student Democracy Coalition (SDC) is captured by the specialized approach to establishing an on-campus early voting polling location on campus. Initially, the Jackson County Board of Elections was approached to determine the process for establishing an early voting polling place—it was immediately clear that there was no step-by-step process. In this moment there were two options—establish the process or move on. History will show that the SDC chose the far more complex pathway of establishing the process.
To establish the process which would lead to the university’s first polling location, the SDC leadership informally approached the Jackson County Board of Elections and the upper-administration of WCU to gauge the desires of each. They then developed a petition and obtained over 1,000 student and community signatures in support of the on-campus polling place. With the signed petition in hand, formal requests were made to WCU upper-administration, local state representatives and senators from differing political affiliations, and other key constituent groups to support the request.
Simultaneously, the SDC leadership had been attending Board of Elections meetings to learn and demonstrate symbolically the commitment to this request. This public request was intentionally structured to speak about the value of an on-campus polling place for students, to showcase three different party student representatives (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents), and to illustrate the desire of the university as a whole. While this is simply a thumbnail sketch of a yearlong effort, it demonstrates the SDC’s commitment to understand and interpreting policy, building and funneling capacity, and putting civic heads and hearts into action!
This was an exciting time leading up to the election, but soon after November 8th the team had to ask one another, “What about after the election?”. What happens when newly-elected officials and their policies continue developing into 2017? The architecture for on-campus civic engagement, which had been so carefully crafted, is still standing but the students seem to be burned out on politics. The whole team is quick to admit that it, too, has been exhausted.
However, the SDC team persisted and found innovative ways to engage students in a new political climate. It was clear that some aspects of the previous semester’s model would no longer be relevant, and the SDC broke down the old method of Register, Educate, Activate (i.e. ballot casting), in order to reevaluate what students would show up for in the spring. Students decided that in the wake of this divisive election, strategic advocacy would replace activation, education would become more expansive, and registration would operate as a supporting actor between the other two components.
The advocacy and educational work was thrilling this spring. North Carolina is a compelling place to live and study, full of interesting policies, and though sometimes frustrating, it does provide for the perfect learning laboratory for 21st century democracy . Students of diverse political backgrounds came together to attend, observe, and learn from smaller political organizing opportunities across North Carolina, as well as the National Women’s March on Washington during the semester. At these events students were able to network with representatives and even help lead change on issues like juvenile prison reform in North Carolina.
These moments of simple clarity we have valued this semester, because it most certainly has not been an easy task carrying on with the same spirit after the election. The negativity felt by students in the days afterward doused the momentum and spirit the organization felt in the months leading up to November. It seemed that regardless of for whom one voted, no one was satisfied once the ballots were counted. It’s a difficult thing to admit that our team had to slow down after experiencing such a powerful start in 2016. But, as life is unpredictable, there were important lessons to be gleaned from it. Whether or not individuals want to carry on, democracy requires strength and motion.
Simply stated, by engaging in democracy you shape democracy. This profound concept is equal to the time, energy, and heart individuals put into it. This forward movement is the blueprint for the future, particularly as the future of the SDC is developed to take over next semester. After May of this year, the last of the original members of the coalition will go on to their next phases of life. It is challenging to let go in order for the next generation of leaders to take over something which has been cherished for so long. But that is life at its core, and onward we must march toward a better tomorrow.