Deciding to Volunteer
Volunteerism has been an important way for me to connect with my community for quite some time. When I was a student at the University of Minnesota I volunteered with the Center for Teaching and Learning and I have spent time working in a women’s shelter taking crisis line calls.
When I received a call from a volunteer coordinator with NextGen America and was asked if I would be interested in volunteering with them by phone banking and reaching out to young voters in Pennsylvania, my interest was piqued. NextGen America’s mission is to, “identify, engage, and mobilize people under the age of 35 who are less than likely to vote or who are not currently registered to vote”. Their values aligned with what I hoped to accomplish.
I agreed to make calls for two nights, one hour each night. It felt great to be doing something tangible, even if it was a bit awkward to cold call people and read a script. After the first week, I agreed to continue to volunteer for one night a week and have done so since. The calls have taken on their own rhythm and I have tailored the script to fit my speech patterns, making it feel more natural while still getting information to people and asking them to pledge to vote. Initially, I was hesitant to speak with people about a topic that could potentially be divisive. There have been a few conversations that have been challenging, especially if the person on the other end of the line holds a different political stance than my own. But this experience highlights the importance of being brave and holding difficult discussions to make sure everyone’s voices are heard at the polls.
Some nights are difficult and the time feels to drag on forever. These are the nights of endless no answers, wrong numbers, people who don’t have the time, people who are at work, people who don’t want to talk, and those who flatly hang up. But then there are the engaging conversations with people about voting. I thoroughly enjoy calls where the other person is as enthusiastic about the importance of voting as I am.
Each week, I am asked to participate in different ways. My favorite night so far was when I was able to do a virtual phone bank, where other volunteers gathered over Zoom to make calls together. Everyone was on mute except for the coordinator who played music. I felt a great sense of community and connectedness. It was wonderful to look over to see so many others making calls who are just as passionate about the issue as I am. There are good nights and bad nights, some more challenging than others, some more rewarding than others, but overall, I am glad I have the opportunity to take action in a real way.
Voter Engagement at Penn
At the University of Pennsylvania, there are plenty of opportunities for me to build on my efforts to increase voter participation. I recently learned about Penn Leads The Vote (PLTV), the University of Pennsylvania’s student-led, nonpartisan civic engagement and education organization. I reached out to Benjamin Oh, Senior Research Coordinator at the Netter Center, to learn more about PLTV.
PLTV is housed in the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and works closely with the Office of Government and Community Affairs. It is composed of student leaders from across academic disciplines and backgrounds dedicated to voter empowerment for the Penn community. Collectively, PLTV aims to promote active, local engagement, reinforce every voter’s right to be heard, and support the development of voting habits that will last a lifetime.
— Benjamin Oh
Voter Engagement During a Pandemic
In the midst of the ever-changing challenges of 2020, PLTV has utilized its experience to increase on-campus voter turnout by over 400% in two consecutive general elections — the Fall 2018 midterm elections and the Fall 2019 local elections — while adapting and seizing opportunities to expand their engagement with students, faculty, and staff. In addition to providing critical information on registering, learning, and voting through their website, PLTV has coordinated with partners to introduce Canvas Pages and Modules for students, as well as opportunities for anyone to volunteer and be a local leader in their own communities. From phone banking and text banking to student organizing, the opportunities to be engaged are abundant, and more necessary, than ever before. There are 24 million young voters nationwide and the potential impact of Generation-Z voters remains limited only by their ability to organize and mobilize.
The leaders at PLTV understand that for many, engaging may seem like an intimidating or inaccessible process. Not everyone is as willing as I am to answer the call to volunteer. Navigating complex systems for registering, requesting mail-in ballots, and voting in-person are daunting, but with a little encouragement, everyone’s voices can be heard.
How You Can Get Involved
In response to the pandemic, PLTV will continue to provide resources, information, and materials like their COVID-19 Voting Toolkit and Quaker Vote Project so that anyone can be a local organizer. As we begin this Fall semester on a remote basis, PLTV will continue to meet challenges and break down barriers that have continued to disenfranchise young voters, particularly voters of color, and build community through collaboration, education, and some fun competitions. Across ages, communities, identities, and leanings, voting continues to impact our daily lives — now, in the midst of the pandemic, it remains more critical than ever that not only we, but those around us, are represented.
Whether you volunteer to make sure others vote, or just make sure you are registered, you’re becoming an engaged citizen and making sure your voice is heard. That is something that will last you a lifetime.
Special thanks to Benjamin Oh for his contribution and partnership on this blog post. Benjamin Oh is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (C’19) and an MS in Social Policy (SPP’19). As a student, he served as Director of Penn Leads The Vote and now works at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships as an Emerson Fellow, dedicated to the institutionalization of democratic civic engagement and youth voting rights.