For some local organizations and the city of New Haven, political education and organizing efforts for the 2020 general election will have a lasting impact years after votes are cast on Tuesday.
Despite challenges brought upon by the pandemic, political education efforts like FaithActs for Education, the Democracy School and the Citywide Youth Coalition have continued their push for civic engagement. FaithActs, a nonpartisan organization founded in 2014 in Bridgeport, has expanded its church-based civic engagement efforts to the Elm City this year after two years of meticulous planning and communication with local reverends. And the city’s Democracy School and Citywide Youth Coalition’s weekly “Freedom Tuesdays” have continued to offer the public opportunities to learn about current political hot topics and local government structures.
Together, these groups and projects have helped cultivate politically engaged citizens that they hope will both vote in the 2020 elections and be active in their communities even after votes are cast.
“This is about building community power that is sustained,” said FaithActs Executive Director Jamilah Prince-Stewart ’09 in an interview with the News. “This is about developing leaders that are going to stay [in New Haven]. It’s not just about the presidential election, although the presidential election is extremely important.”
FaithActs and voter turnout
FaithActs is a Black-led organization, run by a staff that is 75 percent people of color and 80 percent women. The group is working with local New Haven churches to commit residents to register and pledge to vote in the upcoming elections. Prince-Stewart said that she feels as if many political organizations focus solely on voter registration, which, while valuable, does not always translate into increased voter turnout at the polls.
To address this problem, FaithActs has encouraged local reverends to emphasize the importance of voting during church services and push congregants to make a plan to vote. The group has offered prospective voters rides to the polls if they request it. FaithActs has also developed bilingual nonpartisan voting guides in both digital and print formats. Print versions of these guides are sent to those who commit to vote in the hopes that they make informed decisions when they cast their ballots. Before COVID-19 shutdowns, the group organized forums and candidate meet-and-greets to educate New Haven voters.
Prince-Stewart said that FaithActs hopes to mobilize at least 3,000 voters across Connecticut’s 3 largest cities — New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford — for the 2020 election.
“Elected officials respond to organized people or organized money,” said Prince-Stewart. “If we can demonstrate that we can turn out 3,000 voters, we demonstrate that we decide elections in the state.”
After the 2020 elections, Prince-Stewart said that FaithActs hopes to work with state politicians to address systemic racism in state school funding. To this point, the group has organized a public Nov. 23 Facebook live event with Gov. Ned Lamont and other state leaders on statewide equitable education funding. She believes that if the organization can reach its voter turnout target for this year’s election, state politicians will be more inclined to bring FaithActs and their aligned community members to the table — to discuss issues such as school funding — in both the upcoming 2021 legislative session and beyond.
The Citywide Youth Coalition
Like FaithActs, the Citywide Youth Coalition is working on voter mobilization efforts for the 2020 elections but will continue to promote its political education and organizing efforts after the elections end.
“So political education really is … kind of like the entry point for Citywide,” said Citywide Youth Coalition Political Director Ta’LannaMonique Miller. “That’s where they go first, that’s where we have our weekly meetings where we talk about different subjects. We talk about identity, we talk about racism, we talk about capitalism. It’s really a holistic way of learning how the systems in America as a whole.”
The coalition of young adults aged 13 through 25 holds both political education meetings on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. — the “Freedom Tuesdays” — and organizing meetings on Thursdays at 3 p.m. via Zoom. Organization leaders told the News that the two meetings will continue past Election Day and will focus on a variety of topics based on the interests of their members. For example, on Nov. 6, the group will host a workshop on the need to have police-free schools as a part of its third annual Freedom Month. They also expect to hold protests and attend state legislative hearings based on the feedback they hear from their members.
“We understand that regardless of who is in power, our work continues,” said Citywide Youth Coalition Organizing Director Jeremy Cajigas. “Our work goes beyond just voting on Election Day.”
On Election Day, Cajigas said the organization will have its members canvass their neighbors to encourage neighbors to vote, providing them with information about their polling site.
About local government: New Haven’s Democracy School
The city of New Haven has also remained committed to ensuring that community members stay involved in local politics and government even after votes are cast in the 2020 elections. Despite COVID-19 challenges, the city continued its annual civic engagement program called “Democracy School,” a program that teaches select residents the structure, responsibilities and powers of local government.
“The purpose of Democracy School is to expose New Haven residents to the inner workings of city government,” said Omena McCoy, the program’s director. “Residents can be better informed and become better advocates for themselves and the communities that they express that they really care about.”
The weekly program began on Sept. 10 and ended on Oct. 22, spanning a total of seven weeks. In the end, 26 residents participated, an increase from the 20 slots the city initially offered. The city made the decision to increase the number of participants due to high demand. The group included community members from various backgrounds ranging from local radio broadcasters to clergymen.
After being accepted, participants were asked to write a “session assignment,” in which they attended either a full Board of Alders or committee meeting, a Board of Education meeting or the mayor’s office hours, and discussed their opinion.
Each week, participants learned about local issues such as economic development, the city’s budget, public safety and education. The cohort also heard from city officials such as Mayor Justin Elicker and Board of Education Vice President Matthew Wilcox about the responsibilities and powers vested in their offices. Participants were able to ask the city leaders questions about their position to further their knowledge.
McCoy said that most of the program participants reported that they enjoyed the “session assignment” and the program as a whole because they learned a great deal about city government.
“There are a lot of preconceived notions of the way that local government works,” McCoy. “But I think that being a part of Democracy School is a great way to break those preconceived notions down. Local government is here to serve you.”
The Citywide Youth Coalition was founded in 1976.
Christian Robles | firstname.lastname@example.org