Students and administrators representing 35 colleges and universities from across the country convened at Harvard Kennedy School this past weekend to attend the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement hosted by the Institute of Politics.
The conference featured several speakers who have worked to increase voting and political mobilization among young people, including March for Our Lives organizers Edna Chavez, Ryan Deitsch, David Hogg, and Tyah Roberts, who were awarded the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award at the conference on Friday.
The award honors “Americans under the age of 40 who are changing their communities and the country with their commitment to public service,” according to the John F. Kennedy Library website.
Chair of the National Campaign Committee Kenneth ‘Taylor” Whitsell ’21 said this year’s conference was aimed at looking at patterns and results from the 2018 election and possible applications for 2020.
“We have panels, town hall sessions, time for students to work on different projects related to voter engagement,” he said. “This year our main focus is figuring out what worked in 2018 on our campus, that involves the Harvard Votes challenge, how we’re tackling barriers to democracy across the nation, and steps we can take to ensure students turn out to vote in 2020.”
The IOP also partnered with When We All Vote, a nonpartisan civic engagement organization launched in July 2018 by Michelle Obama and six co-chairs: Chris Paul, Tom Hanks, Janelle Monae, Faith Hill, Tim Mcgraw, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
When We All Vote CEO Kyle Lierman said in an interview at the conference that the organization looked at voting trends among historically underrepresented groups including African Americans, Latinx, and young Americans.
“They just don’t vote at the same rate as older Americans, so we put extra time and effort into making sure they knew how to register, knew the process of voting, and understood the value and importance of their vote,” Lierman said.
Members of National Campaign Committee and When We All Vote stressed the importance of maintaining energy and mobilization, even in off-years like 2019.
“One inspiration for the conference was thinking about how we engage voters all the time, not just in election years,” Whitsell said.
Throughout the weekend, When We All Vote led workshops on addressing barriers to voting on campus during the conference. One panel included Stevie Valles, executive director of Chicago Votes, and a group of students who had led initiatives to address structural barriers to voting, like gerrymandering and voter suppression on their campuses.
Lierman said the benefit of an intercollegiate conference is to highlight and exchange ideas of students across the country. He pointed to Northwestern University, where 97 percent of students are registered to vote and voter turnout reached over 64 percent in 2016.
“How can everyone else steal those ideas and plans that Northwestern did, and other campuses that have been doing a good job, and continue to organize more and more campuses to take those best practices and implement them across the country?” Lierman said.
Lierman said this exchange of insights is what attracted students from other schools to come to the conference.
“We came in looking for constructive ideas to help bolster our infrastructure in accomplishing these goals and learning about ways to reach higher and do better in our mission, and that’s exactly what we found,” Stephen A. Cromwell, a representative from the University of Oklahoma, said.
—Staff writer Jenna X. Bao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JennaBao.