Activism

The Kids Are Alright

Student organizers vow to keep on working past Election Day.

The Kids Are Alright

Insisting that he would not have lost the popular vote count were it not for illegal voting, Donald Trump is demanding an investigation of voter fraud even though, beyond a tiny handful of instances, there is no evidence of widespread cheating. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Despite the Cubs’ victory the night before, when we woke up at 3:45 a.m. Thursday for the first leg of our #BestOfUS2016 journey with Ai-Jen Poo, it was almost as dark in Chicago as this election season has felt to many of us. But by the time we arrived in Reno, Nevada, later that morning, a few rays of light were beginning to shine through the crisp fall air.

When we set foot on the University of Nevada campus, students were gathering in front of the brand new “Knowledge Center” holding signs that read, “Hate Won’t Make America Great” and wearing shirts that proclaimed, “Organize, Vote, Organize.”

There’s little doubt that Reno — and even the University of Nevada, Reno — is a tough place to organize. There’s hasn’t been any sustained activism or organizing on the campus in recent years. What does spring up lasts for an election cycle or a few months, but doesn’t leave a mark. And the candidates at the top of the ballot this year just aren’t exciting to many students.

Jesse Ochoa, a volunteer organizer with Student Action, a nationwide movement based on college campuses, is from a predominantly Latino community in East Las Vegas. It was a rough place to grow up. The people there, Ochoa recalls, were “impoverished, disempowered and disenfranchised.” He was the kid the teachers wrote off practically before the school year even started. He watched his neighbors leave for work early in the morning only to earn less than the minimum wage, just because they were undocumented. Plagued by anger, Ochoa wound up involved in gangs and selling drugs at school until he dropped out altogether.

Things have turned around for Ochoa. He went back and got his GED and his Emergency Medical Services license. He’s now in his third year of studying mechanical engineering. He’s redirected his anger toward the systems holding people like him back. But on a campus where he sometimes feels out of place, he hasn’t forgotten his community or where he comes from. That’s part of what’s driven him to spend his time volunteering as an organizer with the Reno Justice Coalition, a local Student Action group that has a long-term goal of changing campus life for the better.

Jesse Ochoa

Student organizer Jesse Ochoa (Photo by George Goehl)

Ochoa has been hard at work on campus ahead of Election Day, but he’s also focused on organizing outside the voting booth — and after the election.

“The narrative that we’re hearing coming out,” Ochoa said, “is that people like us, people like me, in marginalized communities, we don’t matter, we shouldn’t be ‘catered to.’ That’s bullshit.”

“What we need is to create actual unity by organizing people to understand the struggles that each of us go through,” he continued, “and getting to fight back against those experiences that are negative.”

He’s not alone in feeling that the path to change lies through the people, not the politicians. While we were visiting with students in Reno, Student Action launched a tweetstorm using the hashtag #Nov9WeMobilize. With a series of memes and tweets throughout the day, young people at campuses across the country shared stories about why they’re organizing not just for the election, but beyond — addressing critical issues from student debt and climate change to tax justice or stopping endless war.

Voting is not enough.

“No candidate will save us,” read a tweet from Roosevelt University Student Action in Chicago. “We must build a movement to take matters into our own hands. Voting is not enough.”

The young people we met in Reno on Thursday, working hard in a sometimes thankless environment, represent a bright spot in an often bleak election cycle. They are working long shifts and making hundreds of phone calls to find volunteers and get people to the polls on Election Day, all while balancing classes and jobs.

On Election Day, the outcome may well hinge on whether millennials go out and vote. But no matter the results, young people like these are a reason to be hopeful about the future of America.

George Goehl

George Goehl, a longtime community organizer, is the co-executive director of People’s Action and has been described as one of the "intellectual gurus" behind the Occupy movement. Follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeGoehl.