Students step up on politics and activism

Zachary Owens and other student protesters Before the Spring Campus Forum March 3.

While circumstances have no doubt changed in light of NAU’s move to online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester and other actions taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, students have been politically involved in their communities.

Nearly every day leading up to the closures and social distancing practices that began around the start of NAU’s spring break, students could be seen tabling and taking signatures for initiatives, while politically active clubs met regularly. Additionally, high-profile speakers like journalist Michel Martin and United States Senate candidate Mark Kelly addressed students on campus this semester and events such as climate change forums, discussions of indigenous issues and many more occurred almost weekly. There is no mistake that student involvement in politics and activism has been on a roll and will continue in some capacity as the 2020 election approaches.

As political battles rage in Washington D.C. and around the country, voter participation is spiking. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more people voted in 2018 than in any midterm election in decades, with an 80% increase in participation among voters ages 18 to 29. This comes alongside upward trends in overall engagement during the 2018 midterm election cycle in a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research organization. This study found 68% of Americans were the same or more likely to participate in civic and political activities than they were two years before. NAU students have followed suit through involvement in clubs, campaigns and attending various events where they engage the issues and take matters into their own hands.

Senior Jessica Mendoza is the president of the NAU chapter of the Arizona Students’ Association (ASA). Her organization seeks to increase educational opportunities for students across the state.

“We’re an organization that has been around for a long time and our main mission is fighting for more affordable and accessible higher education for all students,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said the ASA works to achieve these goals by engaging the student population and turning out to vote in important elections. In light of the upcoming 2020 general election, Mendoza and the ASA have turned their attention to voter registration.

“Since it is coming up on election season, we’re mainly focusing on student turnout for the elections and the tuition rises,” Mendoza said.

As club president, Mendoza was also instrumental in the ASA’s presence at NAU. She said after losing funding in 2014, the NAU chapter was forced to shut down. However, Mendoza personally worked to reestablish the organization as a club in 2019 and has been working hard to raise awareness of their efforts and recruit new members.

Mendoza said it is important for students to get involved in issues important to them. She said they need to address issues like climate change and student debt while they are still in college.

“If we don’t get involved now, it will only keep going downhill from that and we don’t want to see what happens in the next 10 years when we don’t do anything about it,” Mendoza said.

The ASA club president also suggested that getting involved in political issues can be a learning experience. Mendoza said many skills that can be learned from working on a campaign are also applicable elsewhere, such as organizing, communication skills and working with IT infrastructure.

Senior Haley Evans is the president of the Civic Engagement Club. She is a founding member and became involved in it after enrolling in the civic engagement minor program.

“I started my freshman year when I took an FYI class, which is a first-year seminar,” Evans said. “They referred me to the [civic engagement] minor, and I’ve been doing that two years now.”

Evans said the club aims to get students involved in activism and engaged in issues of public importance so they can, in turn, help their communities.

“We’re trying to teach people how to be better engaged in their community whether that’s organizing for a political campaign or going to a city council meeting,” Evans said.

Like Mendoza and the ASA, the Civic Engagement Club is looking ahead to upcoming elections. They are focused on registering more people to vote and actually getting them to cast ballots in 2020.

The club trained members to take part in voter registration drives, teaching them the rules and the paperwork requirements. They also lobbied the university to regularly invite students to register.

“We’re also trying to work on a project that involves including voter registration with class registration at NAU,” Evans said.

The Civic Engagement Club and several other NAU organizations invited Mahima Mahadevan, a political organizer and member of the Peace Corps, to speak on campus. Mahadevan addressed students on getting involved in campaigning and how grassroots organizing can be the best way for them to engage in important political issues and work toward achieving desired outcomes.

“Grassroots organizing is the practice of authentically and mindfully engaging with people and communities to enhance their political power, not only get their votes,” Mahadevan said.

She also discussed her time as the co-deputy director for Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 2018 congressional campaign. In that election, Tlaib claimed a surprise victory to become one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, a win that Mahadevan largely attributed to Tlaib’s relationships with community members and the campaign’s strategy of grassroots organizing.

Mahadevan said that grassroots organizing can be an important part of any political movement. Even though Mahadevan’s experience with the campaign strategy is largely through elections, she said it can be used for various activities, even something as simple as on-campus student initiatives.

Mahadevan said that interacting directly with community members and addressing their concerns can not only help to win an election but also create an engaged coalition of voters for years to come.

“Grassroots organizing is a long-term investment, which kind of counters what we think a lot with campaigning when we think of election work,” Mahadevan said. “Grassroots organizing means you’re building political power, which inherently means that’s not just a short term cycle but that you’re building something long-lasting.”

Mahadevan described the campaign as an uplifting and formative experience. She took a chance by getting involved but encouraged students to do the same.

“Rashida’s campaign was the first time I worked on a political campaign as a staff person,” Mahadevan said. “If there’s someone out there that you are really motivated by, inspired by and believe that they are the person that you want to see in office, don’t hold yourself back.”

Many students like Mendoza and Evans have done just that, turning their attention to their communities as political issues abound. By working hard, giving their time and engaging those around them, students like these are truly taking matters into their own hands.