Our long-awaited election season is finally upon us! For many this is an anxious moment in our collective life as the ongoing pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities and barriers to the ballot that imperil our most fundamental rights as citizens. As someone who has fought to defend and expand voting rights much of my adult life, I share the concerns of many who see in this moment the erosion of democratic norms that have traditionally encouraged counting the votes of all of our fellow citizens and the peaceful transition of power between rival parties.
As Director of the Hart Leadership Program I am also fortunate to work with some truly inspiring Duke students, individuals whose passions, idealism and unsparing critiques of this thing we call Democracy underscore the leadership opportunities that democratic engagement generates. In the rest of my letter I want to share with you some of their collaborative work. This past summer and fall, two dozen Duke undergraduates and a handful of MPP students have combined community-based research and civic engagement to design pilot projects that reform democracy at the grass-roots. Part of a Bass Project called “Elections in a Pandemic” student teams have devised creative ways to reduce language barriers and transportation obstacles to voting across North Carolina, making sure more absentee ballots by mail get counted than in any previous election, reducing election misinformation on the internet, providing rides to vote to every citizen in Durham who needs one, and engaging why students do not choose to vote. Combining diagnosis with problem solving, the students have not only shared their pilot projects with some of the leading democracy reformers across North Carolina and the nation, but are now implementing them, “learning by doing” in relationship with citizens and their non-partisan community based partners.
We have also been inspired by the creativity, acumen, and passion of students who participated in the Why Vote video challenge, an opportunity for students to create 30 second non partisan PSAs encouraging their peers not inclined to vote to do so. We received seventy one entries from students across the university. Between now and election day we will post two student finalists each day with winners announced and shown at a public forum on Monday at 5 pm, November 2nd. As all eyes turn to the outcome of the election, we look forward to celebrating the vision of our students, whose aspirations transcend partisan outcomes and generate hope for the future of our democratic experiment. Our first video features the work of Esperanza Hernandez’s If Kids Could Vote, a powerful and moving message for all of us to consider as we reflect on who gets to vote and why it matters. The video submissions can be found under the “Why Vote” message of the day under the HLP projects tab on our website. Please feel free to share, amplify and publicize these student messages!
Finally, our students have taken the lead fomenting transformative democracy work off of Duke’s campus this election season. Lauren Howell, 2021’, who became a leader of the non-violent protest movement against police violence in Raleigh this past summer, has recently teamed up with Hannah McKnight, 2022’, founder of Durham Drives, to promote a transformative form of citizen engagement known as “deep canvassing” for Bull City Votes, a Durham wide non-partisan effort to get every last citizen within Durham to the polls by November 3rd. Based on the premise that listening and empathy rather than partisan argument generate lasting political engagement and change, Lauren and Hannah’s message has not only helped recruit hundreds of volunteers to join Durham Drives and sign up for democracy work with Bull City Votes, but also engaged student leaders at our sister institution in Durham, North Carolina Central University. As the President of NC Central’s student body, KeShaun Coleman put it in his own deep canvassing message, “if our generation voted at the same rate as our parents, there would be 24 million new voters!” So may it be in 2020!
Director, Hart Leadership Program