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D.C. Students Speak, and D.C. starts to listen
DC Students Speak opened this year’s first general membership meeting with a bit of hometown pride. “D.C. chillin’/ P.G. chillin’/ My name Wale, and I came to get it,” a YouTube video of Wale’s “Chillin’” greeted the 30 or so students who trickled into White Gravenor 206.
Sam Brothers (COL ’14) reluctantly convened the meeting with a disclaimer. “Because DC Students Speak as of yet unfortunately does not have access to benefits in Georgetown University … I just have to read this disclaimer,” he said. The crowd giggled. “This program is hosted by Sam Brothers and DC Students Speak and is not sponsored by Georgetown University. Any views in this forum are the views of the individual and do not imply endorsement or support by Georgetown University.” (Disclosure: Brothers is a staff photographer for the Voice.)
In a town of professional politicos, DC Students Speak may be the youngest and least-experienced interest group vying for attention. And they face an uphill battle. Working as an advocacy group for student issues, DC Students Speak hopes to elect more students to Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, the District’s hyper-local government bodies. Commissioners can have great influence over D.C. life, since District agencies are bound by D.C. Code to take ANC resolutions into account and each ANC commissioner represents only about 2,000 residents.
Although DC Students Speak estimates that students make up 15 percent of the District’s population, they only hold two of 276 ANC seats. Many permanent residents are reluctant to encourage student representation, arguing that students are a transitory group without the requisite experience or long-term vested interest in their neighborhoods.
Despite pushback from neighborhood groups, DC Students Speak leaders believe they have come to represent an emerging political constituency. They point out that in recent weeks, public officials have started to take student interests more seriously, by speaking out against ANC redistricting that disadvantages students. And in just nine months, DC Students Speak has expanded from Georgetown University to establish representation at American University, Catholic University of America, George Washington University, Howard University, Trinity-Washington University, and the University of the District of Columbia.
But to achieve their goals, DC Students Speak must first convince students to register to vote in D.C. Then they must create opportunities for students to run for office. And they must create an institution that can last, even after its leaders graduate.
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Though only founded in April 2010, DC Students Speak is already in its third incarnation. Mike Trummel (COL ’10), who began the project with the help of a $3,000 ReImagine Georgetown grant, had initially conceived of DC Students Speak as a student media aggregation website. The website pulled content from student publications at American, Catholic, Howard, George Washington, and Georgetown.
“Our vision of this website is that it can be used as a tool for students to better understand the challenges that students collectively face,” the leaders wrote on the website right after its launch. “More than just raising awareness, DC Students Speak also strives to be an advocacy organization, with the aim of mobilizing DC students to work together towards common goals.”
But by July, the leaders were reconsidering their aims. “There was sort of a lack of a mission,” Scott Stirrett (SFS ’13), the group’s current chair, said. But they recognized a new opportunity. Jake Sticka (COL ’13) had decided to run for the Georgetown ANC, replacing the former student commissioner Aaron Golds (COL ’11).
“Around August of 2010, we sort of thought long and hard,” Stirrett said. “And this was when Jake was in this process of qualifying on the ballot. And we said, we see ANCs as this big problem, in the sense of there’s not enough students on ANCs.”
Sticka won the election in November (he ran uncontested), and DC Students Speak launched a new blog in January. After the 2010 Campus Plan was filed in December, debate had heated up about off-campus housing, Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle routes, and other points of contention between neighbors, students, and administrators. The new blog mostly focused on these issues. “We were more Georgetown-focused at the beginning because it was all Georgetown students,” Stirrett said.
The group went back to the original plan. “We went back to the initial view of the organization, which was this idea of breaking bubbles of all these different campuses,” Stirrett said. American University students were contending with similar issues during American’s 2010 Campus Plan debates. And they had launched their own voter registration drive, called “A Voice 4 U,” which had gotten American freshman Deon Jones elected to the ANC containing American University. The students who had organized that drive joined DC Students Speak, and later created a chapter at American. Over time, DC Students Speak expanded to other schools as well.
“We’ve been tremendously happy with the fact that in nine months we’ve been able to grow to seven universities throughout D.C.,” Stirrett said.
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DC Students Speak still faces a number of challenges, and its most serious one may also be the hardest to overcome: convincing students to change their voter registration to D.C. Last year, Sticka won his seat on the ANC with only nine votes (one person wrote in another candidate). Others before him were only a bit more successful. In 2008, Golds took the seat with 48 of 52 votes cast. In 2006, Jenna Lowenstein (COL ’09) won with 20 of 21 votes.
Many residents opposed to student representatives see low rates of voter registration as a sign that students are not politically engaged. But there are some serious disadvantages to registering in D.C.—disadvantages that affect the politically engaged more than anyone else.
For one, D.C. has no representation in the Senate and only a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans stripped D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of even her largely ceremonial vote in the Committee of the Whole. Despite the protestations of Norton and organizations like DC Vote, President Obama seems unlikely to make D.C. voting rights a priority anytime soon, so registering in D.C. means having no representation in Congress.
On the local level, it pays to register Democrat. The winner of the Democratic primary for mayor has gone on to win every election since 1975, when D.C. citizens were first allowed to elect the mayor by popular vote. And since voters must declare a party on their voter registration, almost 2,600 voters switched their party to “Democrat” in advance of the 2010 mayoral election just in order to have a say, the Washington Post reported.
On the presidential map, D.C. is solid blue. In 2008, Obama won 92.5 percent of the vote. Students considering switching their registration from a swing state may feel that a presidential vote cast in D.C. is far less meaningful.
So DC Students Speak has to make a compelling pitch.
“What we’d say is we understand that it can be a difficult decision if you live in a swing state or a swing district,” Stirrett said. “Many, many students don’t live in swing districts … When it comes down to it, D.C. issues affect students far more than issues back at home, or in the federal government.”
What’s more, Stirrett argued, many students spend 11 months of the year in D.C. if they decide to stay the summer to do an internship or take classes. So issues encompassed by the Campus Plan “have a tremendous impact on your life,” he said.
Furthermore, since ANC single-member districts only have about 2,000 residents, contested elections are often won by only a handful of votes. “One vote in an ANC election can be such a crucial sort of tip,” Stirrett said. “In most jurisdictions, the margins of victory or defeat are going to be significantly larger.”
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There is a precedent for students registering to vote in D.C. The most successful coalition was Campaign Georgetown, the 1996 voter registration drive that got about 1,000 students registered to vote in D.C. and elected two students to the Georgetown ANC for the first time ever.
And so far, DC Student Speak’s efforts are not for naught. Stirrett and Sticka estimate that the Georgetown chapter has registered 150 people in D.C. Including the “A Voice 4 U” voter registration, they estimate about 500 students have been registered across the District. Stirrett also stressed that while Campaign Georgetown had registered about 1,000 students in 1996, they did so during an election cycle. DC Students Speak has a head start.
“We’ve seen several hundred students registered in a place where we’ve already had this infrastructure built for a couple of months,” Ricky Garza (SFS ’13), executive director of DC Students Speak, said. “At these other schools we’re really just getting started … All of this is just beginning, so you can look forward to a lot more.”
But just registering students to vote isn’t enough. They need someone to vote for. In 1996, students competed in, and won, two single member districts. After the 2000 Census, the Georgetown ANC was redistricted. The redistricting committee created a safe seat for students, which encompassed the Southwest Quad, Village C, New South, Village A, Alumni Square and some townhouses. Darnall, Henle, Harbin, Copley, Nevils, and LXR were split off into other districts. Students were no longer competitive in any other district except the safe one. Campaign Georgetown quietly fizzled out.
Chad Griffin (SFS ’97), one of the leaders of Campaign Georgetown, helped turn out the vote in 1996. He said it was “unfortunate to hear” that students have only ran in the safe seat since 2002. Competitive elections had made previous student campaigns stronger. “If someone wanted it then, they had to work very hard,” Griffin said.
Sticka blamed the 2000 redistricting for student apathy about voter registration. “When you don’t have competitive districts, when you don’t have a reason for students to get involved, they don’t have the ability to have their voices heard,” he said.
This year presents another opportunity. Every ANC must again be redistricted following the 2010 Census. Though DC Students Speak as an organization wasn’t directly involved in the Georgetown redistricting task force, members of DC Students Speak have been included in the discussions, in Georgetown and across the city. The students on the Georgetown task force—Sticka, Ruiyong Chen (SFS ’13), Robert Biemesderfer (COL ’12), and John Flanagan (SFS ’14)—have pushed for three competitive districts for students on an eight-member commission. (Disclosure: Flanagan is a former Voice staffer). The proposal submitted by the task force to the D.C. City Council only gives students two safe seats.
Going forward, the Council will have an opportunity to call a hearing on the redistricting proposals from across the city. “A lot of that is going to be dependent on how people throughout the city feel about redistricting and if they really do feel as though they need to listen,” Sticka said. “I hope the Council will hear there are grievances from a number of areas and allow those voices to be heard.”
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DC Students Speak’s first general membership meeting also included a special guest: Fiona Greig, a new mother who is considering a primary challenge against Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). Greig, a consultant for McKinsey & Company who has a Ph.D in public policy from Harvard, came to the meeting to hear about student concerns and try to recruit people to her campaign.
Students questioned Greig about a wider range of issues than DC Students Speak usually addresses. Rather than only asking about the Campus Plan or the noise ordinance, students wanted to know what Greig thought about building height restrictions. How would she improve accountability of teachers? Would she help expand student access to affordable Metro? How would she address the city’s energy policy?
Greig had a request for the students as well. “I invite you to think big and act local by supporting my exploratory committee,” Greig said. “I need a campus captain. I need volunteers to moblize fellow students to register to vote and to actually show up to the polls. But most of all, I need you to tell me about your big ideas and interests in the District.”
DC Students Speak has started attracting attention from other politicians as well. At the end of August, Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) sided with students on the issue of Georgetown redistricting, telling The Current that the existing plan was “grossly discriminatory” to students. Sticka said DC Students Speak had not contacted Mendelson prior to his interview.
Georgetown ANC Commissioner Charlie Eason went even further, telling the Voice on September 14, “It was clearly gerrymandered to attempt to dilute the representation of GU students, who represent almost half of the residents of the ANC. I don’t need to imagine this; I was expressly told that was the objective.”
“If students show they’re engaged on the issues, if they show they really care about them, and they also show that they’re willing to register to vote, you will see a city government that is much more responsive to their needs,” Sticka said. “Even without prompting.”
Disclosure: The author once wrote a blog post for DC Students Speak expanding on a column published in the Voice.