Big Vote On Campus

In 2004, Kevin Killer watched as his fellow Oglala Sioux Tribe members were turned away at the voting booth in South Dakota when poll volunteers misconstrued new voter identification procedures and rejected tribal identification cards. A Denver native, Killer was volunteering for Democrat Stephanie Herseth's bid for the House of Representatives in a special election, on the Pine Ridge Reservation where his father had grown up. But it was watching that systematic disenfranchisement that really politicized him.

"I couldn't believe it was still going on in 2004, especially to my own people," Killer says. "They don't have money to give to campaigns. All they have is their vote to give, and for them to get turned away, why should they have faith in the system?"

Killer, now 28, decided to take time off from school at the University of Colorado in Denver to be a field organizer for Tom Daschle's senatorial campaign, working in Native American outreach on Pine Ridge. He brought other youth from the reservation on board with the campaign, going door to door to educate and mobilize voters in their community.

"Since we were much younger than the people we were talking to, we held them responsible," Killer says. "We said, if we're this young and we're voting, then you should be voting. It's all of our futures."

Though Daschle narrowly lost re-election, turnout on the reservation increased by 50 percent in 2004, in large part because of the door-to-door work of Killer and his peers. Working on the campaign on Pine Ridge convinced Killer that he should transfer to Oglala Lakota College, the local tribal college, where he could continue mobilizing the young adults who make up more than half the reservation's population. The college includes 1,500 students on 10 small commuter campuses spread over a reservation about the size of Connecticut, and its students experience daily the reservation's troubles, including a 75 percent unemployment rate. Killer needed to work a part-time job at Pizza Hut to attend the college, which offers far fewer political resources than larger schools.

But more progressive groups are now recognizing the value of supporting young people on nontraditional campuses. In 2006, his organizing work at Oglala Lakota won him a fellowship from Young People For (YP4), a division of People for the American Way that provides leadership training, career coaching, and financial support to 200 students each year who have demonstrated progressive leadership skills.

As YP4 is proving, investing in students like Killer and offering them those tools can go a long way on both community college and nontraditional campuses and the surrounding community. A stipend from the fellowship allowed Killer to serve as the Native American outreach director for South Dakotans Against Discrimination, where he led other young adults on the reservation in mobilizing against a 2006 ballot initiative banning same-sex unions. Though the initiative passed, Shannon County, which is 94 percent Native American and encompasses most of Pine Ridge, accounted for the largest percentage of "no" votes in the state, largely because of the get-out-the-vote work on the reservation.

The YP4 fellowship is one of several programs for campuses like Killer's that are traditionally outside the scope of progressive organizing efforts. YP4 has been increasing the number of fellowships to students from tribal schools, community and commuter colleges, and historically black institutions, building a progressive movement that better reflects the country. While Killer was the first fellow from a tribal college, the incoming YP4 class for 2008 includes eight students from tribal schools, as well as 17 fellows from community college campuses.

Thirty-four percent of the students at community colleges are minorities, accounting for 57 percent of all Native American students in college, 47 percent of Asian and African American students, and 55 percent of Latino college students. Thirty-nine percent are from the first generation in their family to go to college, and the average age of students on these campuses is 29. Eighty percent are working full- or part-time jobs, and 17 percent are single parents.

Unlike their peers at four-year schools, these students don't have a lot of time for activism. They can't take the unpaid internships that are often the entry point for young people hoping to work in politics. Fellowships allow these students to become activists and help develop the foundation necessary to translate their work on campus into progressive activism post-college.

"We're really prioritizing getting traditionally disenfranchised communities engaged in the political process," says Iara Peng, director of YP4. "Campus organizing can't start and stop there. We've got to make sure they have a role in the progressive movement and a sustainable role, and that means opening the doors and building the networks."

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National organizations like U.S. PIRG (the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups), Campus Progress, and College Democrats of America have also expanded outreach to students outside four-year colleges, especially around such issues as voter mobilization, college affordability, and debt. Young people at these schools make up the fastest-growing portion of students. Community colleges account for 46 percent of those in higher education, totaling 11.6 million students on some 1,190 campuses. But without support and encouragement, these students are less likely to get involved in politics than their counterparts at traditional colleges and universities, says Dan Shea, director of Allegheny College's Center for Political Participation, which was founded to study political engagement among college students and develop programs to promote more involvement.

"Many of the aggressive efforts to mobilize and register young people have focused on four-year colleges and universities. Community colleges have slipped through the cracks," Shea says. "So shouldn't we be heading into the community to find these groups of voters who will likely stay out of the process unless we go out there?"

As Shea notes, these schools pose the most challenges to organizing: Students typically don't live on campus and work full- or part-time. They are more likely to be parents, often attend classes evenings or weekends, and are invariably more pressed for time. Get-out-the-vote work there requires more creative efforts than on traditional campuses, like visiting classrooms, providing voter-registration information along with course-enrollment paperwork, or registering students to vote when they pick up their student IDs. Creating opportunities for these students to participate in campus groups or political meetings often requires more flexibility in scheduling or multiple events.

Putting in the effort at these campuses, though, can yield big gains, says David Rosenfeld, national program director of student PIRGs. While 59 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 who attended college voted in 2004, students at community colleges are more likely to mirror the trends among young adults who don't go to college, only 34 percent of whom voted in the 2004 election.

But unlike their peers who do not attend any sort of college, these students do congregate in a common place -- on campus. And if progressive groups make the effort, community college students can be an entry point to a whole population of young people who have traditionally been hard to mobilize. These students are also more reflective of and involved in the surrounding community, Rosenfeld notes, facing the same economic and social struggles as the roughly 45 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who aren't in college.

"Community colleges are deeply rooted in the community they reside in," Rosenfeld says. "The vast majority of students are from the community, the faculty are often very active in the community, and the college itself runs programs that many community members are directly involved in."

Student PIRGs have been working with students at these colleges throughout their 30-year history, incorporating chapters on nine community college campuses as well as a number of large commuter schools like the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston and the University of Connecticut's Hartford campus. Their most recent effort has been on the nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District, with its more than 114,000 students making it one of the largest networks of community colleges in the country.

Prior to the 2006 midterm election, U.S. PIRG trained 50 student leaders in the district to register their peers to vote, who made more than 4,000 get-out-the-vote contacts on campuses. Since then, PIRG has been working with the L.A. students to lobby their representatives on the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which passed last September, and to organize around issues like increasing Pell grants.

PIRG is also working with L.A. students to help professors identify free and low-cost textbooks, and has promoted for-credit internships for political projects, allowing students to incorporate activism into their coursework. For-credit internships are a model PIRG uses on all the campuses where it works. But on community college campuses, where students often lack the time to commit to extra-curricular projects due to job or family commitments, the internships are an essential element to making activism an option. Since PIRG began its pilot internship program at the Los Angeles colleges, students have earned credit hours raising money for a local emergency food program and planning a "Voting Rocks" concert on campus to raise awareness about the primary elections.

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College Democrats of America, too, is working to add more community and other nontraditional colleges to its ranks. On such campuses, college affordability has been a particularly important topic, says Katie Naranjo, programs director for College Democrats and a student at the University of Texas in Austin. Working on these campuses to organize around legislative issues like the College Cost Reduction Act and increasing Pell grants have been good entry points. Expanding the conversation to issues like health care has also been important for outreach on these campuses, where students are more likely to be feeling the crunch of rising costs. Increasing flexibility of event times has also been key.

"We have this demographic of people who may not be between the ages of 18 and 24, but they are Democrats, and they do want to be involved," Naranjo said. "We're trying to do things organizationally so that people can attend, [like] having two meetings a week, one set in the day and one set in the evening."

Campus Progress, the student-centered division of the Center for American Progress, is another group expanding its programs to nontraditional campuses, especially on issues like college costs and student debt. Campus Progress is forming chapters at schools like the City University of New York (CUNY) and Pasadena City College in California, large commuter campuses that draw students from the surrounding city, and has brought programs like film screenings and workshops to nontraditional campuses.

In November, Campus Progress hosted a workshop on credit-card debt at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, bringing in experts on finance and legislative affairs to talk about deceptive solicitation, avoiding escalating fees and charges, and the role of government in protecting consumers. It was the first time the organization had hosted an event on a community college campus, said Ramya Raghavan, communications and outreach manager for Campus Progress. "There are willing and able activists at community colleges," Raghavan said. "They're ready to organize; they just need to be given the tools."

Those tools are now helping students like Kevin Killer open up the doors of political participation to other students. His organizing increased voter registration at Oglala Lakota College by 15 percent during the 2006?2007 school year alone, and through the YP4 fellowship, Killer landed a position with Campus Camp Wellstone, a national program that trains students to become political organizers, where he is now helping launch a new national Native American leadership program. In April, he'll be bringing Campus Camp Wellstone to Oglala Lakota to train students from all of the school's 10 campuses in how to register their peers to vote and mobilize them on the key issues in preparation for the 2008 elections. He was also elected president of the YP4 fellowship network last year and continues to serve as a senior fellow, and has been working with the organization to create more opportunities for students like him. Last year, there were three fellows from Oglala Lakota, including Killer's sister, Kimberly. This year, the YP4 fellows will include four students from the campus.

"For a lot of these students, these schools are their only choice," Killer said. "We want to have all the resources possible to make those communities successful."

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