Student Civic Engagement in the Land of COVID-19

I miss my classroom. You know, the physical space where we used to teach and learn? But, given what we do have, how we can encourage our students when they are feeling stuck about the political moment we are in. This post is for those who teach, those interested in teaching, and those seeking further education.

I spent the last year engaged in a study of student civic and political engagement programs throughout the state of California and am now back in the classroom applying some of the insights I gained. Although I did not exactly plan it this way, it turns out that right now is a pretty perfect time to apply these lessons.

Over the past week, I have been talking with students about a voter registration term project in which I have tasked them with the daunting challenge of registering and engaging 10 new voters each. Recently, I had reached out to a frustrated student who was on the edge of quitting the class. After three weeks, he told me he only registered one new voter. Many others in his network had declined, sharing that they either did not believe their votes would matter or that they did not trust him with the personal information needed to register. Frankly, he himself shared their sentiment.
Why bother?
What was the point?
How could he ever get ten voters?
Would it even matter?

This was one of those critical teaching and learning moments where I felt so much was at stake. A student potentially on the edge of an important insight, but feeling discouraged and confused. This class is 100% online and I only meet with the students in real time during office hours or when I reach out to set up a Zoom session for special help. I figured this was a make-or-break 15 minutes for this student but that I would give it my best shot. Here’s a portion of what I shared:

About that Voter Reg Project project...Please keep in mind that it does not have to be perfect!!!

This can be a hard assignment. Because democracy is hard. The people with power in our country right now mostly want us to feel discouraged. They WANT us to give up. They want us to spread around a lot of cynicism and negativity. Because when we give up, they can keep doing the horrible selfish things that are destroying our planet and killing our people without bothering with that pesky thing called democracy.

But every voter we get to register matters. Every voter we get to participate matters. And even the people who turn us down can matter if the process of talking to us about the political system moves them IN ANY WAY to think, to engage, to express their likes and dislikes. That's how democracy works -- a lot of people engaged in a big discussion about how our society should look; finding common ground; and then hopefully taking action-- TOGETHER.

Even if we only get ONE person to vote, that will be 100% more power than we alone could exercise all by ourselves. And if we are not eligible to vote ourselves, then moving even this one person to the polls means that we have gained ourselves a voice.

Mostly though, the PROCESS of registering voters, talking to voters, engaging our family, friends, friends of friends, co-workers-- all of this discussion is what creates the fabric of a democratic society. And THIS is what I want you to learn from. All of which is to say... use this assignment to learn!

And, if you are not 100% successful at getting 10 new voters to register, you can still learn. Look at the one person you DID get and treat that as a victory. And learn! What worked? What about this one relationship and interaction can you use to help build a stronger community with a growing circle of trust that can empower our community to act together, in solidarity, for the common good?

In writing that up in your final project reflection you will not only learn something important, you’ll teach me something about our community that will help me be a better teacher for all students.

So, hang in there. Keep working. And know that your voice and your actions matter.

Go get 'em!

Each interaction we have with a student matters. Though I think this student will in fact stick it out, even if he decides to take a different path, I figure this is a long-term investment. Hopefully, at some point in his life he will remember that at least one professor held out hope for him and confidence in his ability to build a society that works for all of us, together.


FACCC blog posts are written independently by FACCC members and encompass their experiences and recommendations.
FACCC neither condemns nor endorses the recommendations herein.

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