I've dedicated much of the past decade to growing and empowering civic engagement at Miami Dade College—the largest community college in Florida and home to one of the most racially, ethnically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse student populations in the country.
"Students come to MDC's campus expecting to hear about how they can participate in their democracy, and know where they can vote."
Every election season we run into an unfortunate reality about our state and country's democracy: It wasn't designed for our college community.
Many, if not most, of MDC's students face what's known as a "civic empowerment gap." They have had relatively few opportunities to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence necessary to be active and influential participants in civic and political life. Many are non-native English speakers, were born in other countries, or are first-generation US citizens. Many grew up in working-class households, where issues related to government and politics seemed far-fetched compared to much more pressing and immediate needs. Most of them work in addition to studying at MDC.
Add in the fact that much of MDC's student body is made up of young and new voters—a demographic that faces its own set of systemic barriers to democratic participation—and it becomes clear that, although elections should represent the entire population, MDC's community is often underrepresented compared to voters who don't face a civic empowerment gap. Yet, MDC is representative of Miami. And if there's one thing we know how to do in Miami, it's celebrate.
That's why every election season, we celebrate the vote.
2022 marks the fifth year that MDC has taken part in Campus Takeover, the nationwide campaign, led nationally by the Students Learn Students Vote Coalition and the Alliance for Youth Organizing, to mobilize students around elections and to create a culture of civic engagement on college campuses during the Civic Holidays—which began with National Voter Registration Day on September 20, continued October 3-7 with National Voter Education Week, and culminate with Vote Early Day today and Election Hero Day on November 7—the day before Election Day.
If you passed through MDC's campuses during National Voter Registration Day or National Voter Education Week, you likely saw DJs performing, stilt walkers roaming, photo booths, food trucks, and exciting giveaways, all to spread joy and awareness about the vote. And if you're a member of the college community, you've likely experienced other institution-wide efforts, such as the election-readiness modules that more than 200 MDC professors have developed to foster voter engagement, poll worker recruitment campaigns, "decoding the ballot" events both online and in person, and wearable gear for students to visibly promote their voter participation. That includes today, when we're doing everything we can to ensure our community knows how, where, and when they can vote early.
All of it—both the festive and the more academic aspects of MDC's Campus Takeover celebrations—is based on the idea that voting is a cultural practice as much as any other facet of a community. When people can see and be a part of what's happening around them, they take part because it feels normal, expected, and even comfortable. It's what people like us do.
So, instead of trying to bridge students' civic empowerment gap by changing their behavior, the MDC community and its community partners work to change the voting experience to one that fits into their lives—and celebrates what makes the MDC community powerful and unique.
That extends to closing physical gaps as well. In 2018, after local elected officials initially denied MDC on-campus early voting sites, we led a successful campaign to bring early voting to our two largest campuses, ensuring that a majority of MDC students had access to voting sites within walking distance of their classes for weeks leading up to that year's midterms. In fact, that campaign and the resulting celebrations were a part of MDC's first-ever Campus Takeover. Since that campaign, more than 40,000 votes have been cast at these early voting sites.
In the years since MDC has created a one-stop election-ready website accessible to all students, recruited more than 100 students to be poll workers at local precincts, secured funding for dozens of nonpartisan voter engagement internships for students, and registered thousands of students with support from local nonprofits including the Engage Miami Civic Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County. And—of course—continued celebrating whenever possible.
The results speak for themselves. MDC's voting rate increased by more than nine percentage points from 2016 to 2020, outpacing the overall population's turnout growth despite demographics that dictate a much lower expected turnout rate—clear proof that investing in community colleges and their students' civic engagement can produce a strong return.
More importantly—though harder to quantify—voting and civic engagement are now a part of MDC's community culture and fabric. Students come to MDC's campus expecting to hear about how they can participate in their democracy, and know where they can vote. Their professors make it a part of their academic life, and through Campus Takeover, students can celebrate in a way that maintains its presence beyond the classroom. This week specifically, different members of MDC's community, including Engage Miami Civic Foundation, have mobilizations prepared for each of the five separate daily themes of National Voter Education Week—#VoteReady (registering to vote), #MailReady (preparing to vote by mail if you intend to do so), #VotePlanReady (making a plan to vote, whether by mail, early and in-person, or on Election Day), #BallotReady (understand who and what is on your ballot—it's not a pop quiz!), and #ElectionReady (mobilizing your network and community to make their voices heard as well).
All of this is accomplished with the modest resources of a public community college—an unfortunate fiscal reality that many major public institutions in our country face, but one we know is not insurmountable. Communities of all kinds can help their members make their voices heard by bringing civic engagement to them, incorporating it into the local culture—whatever that looks like where they are.
On college campuses around the country, that means working year-round to make civic engagement a presence in their students' lives. It also means establishing partnerships with organizations in our communities and tapping into national programs like Campus Takeover that help college communities mobilize and celebrate the vote.
Whatever form that takes, the result should be the same: A democracy designed for the people you serve in your community.
This content originally appeared on Common Dreams - Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community and was authored by Monica A. Bustinza.