While many political Yalies spend their summers on the Hill in Washington D.C., this year, some students will try to forward their political interests the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors and talking issues with community members.

This summer, the new Yale group 2004ward will send approximately 55 students to work with local community organizations in states across the country, registering and educating voters in preparation for the November presidential election — a sure turning point, according to students involved in the group.

Working in teams of approximately five students, Yalies will distribute information door-to-door in Oregon, Washington, Arizona and New Hampshire, as well as Ohio and Florida, key swing states in this year’s election. In each state, students will work on issues that most pertain to that locale. In South Florida, students will be campaigning for immigration reform, while teams in Ohio will focus on campaigning for education programs.

“We’re trying to make the idea of political participation outside of your hometown more attractive to people,” Alek Felstiner ’04, a 2004ward co-coordinator, said. “The objective is to involve Yalies in the political process more in the places it’s going to matter the most.”

2004ward does not advocate support for any particular candidate or party, Felstiner said. But participants will be able to focus on issues they find important by partnering with progressive organizations from ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — to the National Call to Defend Immigrants. The group also hopes to register traditionally underrepresented voters such as minorities and immigrants, co-coordinator Ben Healey ’04 said.

“We’re making a difference in the elections by expanding the democratic process and empowering communities that do not have their voices heard in elections,” Healey, a Democratic Alderman in New Haven, said. “Folks want to do it in a way that’s not connected to the Democratic or Republican parties, to talk to people about the issues they care about without having to be partisan.”

Many minority and immigrant groups traditionally vote Democrat, although some groups, such as Cuban-Americans in South Florida, are known for leaning Republican.

Healey, Felstiner and other students came up with the idea for 2004ward after local elections in New Haven last fall. They envisioned the program as a way to help politically-interested students work on a national scale. A ten-week internship program, 2004ward will run from June through August. Each internship pays $1500 for the ten weeks; students on financial aid will receive an extra $1000 to make it possible for them to join. The funding comes from grants, employer stipends and individual “sponsored” funding solicited by group members.

With the April 15 application deadline approaching, Felstiner said the program is almost full and represents a wide cross-section of the Yale population.

After three summers volunteering as a counselor in an academic program in her hometown of New York City, Evelyn Malave ’05 will spend this summer in Tucson, Ariz. working for USAction, one of 2004ward’s partner organizations. Malave said she is excited to dedicate forty hours a week to politics.

“I think this is a really crucial election, and I don’t even consider myself a very political person,” Malave said. “But I do really care about this election, so I’m willing to make myself into that kind of a person for it.”

Judith Joffe-Block ’04, who will work in Miami with ACORN this summer, had been wanting to get involved with campaigning and felt that the time after graduation would be “perfect.” Many of her friends will also work in Miami for 2004ward. For both Joffe-Block and Malave, whose best friend will also be in Tucson, 2004ward has connected them to others.

“Most of these folks are people who would be doing something like this with their summer, and we wanted to be able to put them with other Yale students and their friends,” Felstiner said.

Felstiner — who spent the past three summers working for a hospital union, working on community organizing in New Haven, and working in Africa — will be spending this summer with the 2004ward group in Portland, Ore. Healey will join the 2004ward group in New Hampshire after fulfilling his aldermanic duties.

Other schools have picked up the 2004ward plan as well. The program has spread to 14 other schools in the northeast, including Wesleyan, Columbia and Princeton. In total, Felstiner said he expects the schools to send between 100 and 150 students out this summer.

Not only will the students contribute to the organizations they work for over the summer, but Felstiner said he hopes they will return to Yale energized and educated to take active roles in the campus political environment that inspired the project to begin with.

“We saw that potential because there had been such a tradition of political activity on campus,” Felstiner said. “We had the sense that this is going to be an election that defines our generation in a serious way and we wanted to be able to put a whole bunch of people on the street to work on it.”

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”17820″ ]