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Making civic engagement cool again

Local educator teaches civics and registers students to vote

BRATTLEBORO—A new voter, Samantha Fisher, pins a red “Your Vote is Your Voice” button to her sweater.

Her teacher, Cindy Holden of Vermont Adult Learning, discusses the Vermont Voter’s Oath with Fisher.

Vermont is the only state to have such an oath, Holden says. She asks Fisher what she thinks it means.

“That you can’t be bullied into a vote,” Fisher answers.

Holden nods. “You can’t be bullied, and you can’t be bought,” she says.

The two women discuss the history and intent behind the oath. Although its language has changed, it has always intended to keep elections free, Holden explains.

Fisher, 17, will turn 18 in August. Under a recent Vermont law, 17-year-olds who turn 18 before the presidential elections are allowed to vote in the primary. A lot of 17-year-olds want to vote in the primary, Holden says, a trend that warms that educator’s heart.

Fisher looks forward to the March 1 primary. Although her family is not big on voting, Fisher said her “kinda hoodlum” and “weird” friends enjoy discussing politics. Like her, many support U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

She stresses she is not a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump because “he preaches hate.”

She admits a lack of knowledge of local politics, observing that it’s rare for the local government or state officials to reach out to young people.

Only once has she met a local legislator who asked Fisher her opinion. (She thinks it was State Senator Becca Balint, D-Windham.)

“I’ve been dreaming of this since I was little,” Fisher says, holding a copy of the voter’s oath. “It feels really good being one step closer to changing things.”

She still remembers a scene from the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club where one of the characters had a fake ID — only so he could vote. “That’s going to be me,” Fisher remembers thinking.

“Yes, I’m a dork,” she says.

“It’s the best kind of dorky, though,” her teacher responds, laughing.

Vermonters can sign up through the Secretary of State’s office to run a voter registration drive, so Holden launched the voter registration drive for her students. To her surprise, they responded — and they started bringing their friends.

Once people register with Holden, she takes the forms to the town clerk’s office.

Holden also helps young men confirm whether they’ve signed up for Selective Service. The federal government requires all men to register within 30 days of turning 18. Until they turn 26, all male U.S. citizens and male immigrants are then subject to service in the U.S. military if called upon to do so.

If they don’t sign up, they will be locked out of applying for federal student loans, federal jobs, or federally funded job-training programs.

Technically, not signing up for Selective Service is a felony, Holden says, one that can come with a penalty of five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. But since 1980, when registration for the draft was reinstated by President Jimmy Carter after it was ended after the Vietnam War, the government has rarely prosecuted violators.

A better grasp of issues

Holden, who delivered the first voter registration to a town clerk’s office on Nov. 20, 2015, has registered 21 new voters from Windham County.

Holden started the voter registration drive as a component of her civics education class. When many of her 79 students began this class, they displayed a thin foundation in social studies, she said.

News reports become more interesting to students who have a better grasp of issues, she said.

Holden launched a new module a year ago using the 100-question naturalization test the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service gives to people seeking citizenship.

The class has grown to include additional instruction materials and, for those who want it, voter registration.

Holden explains the module’s overarching goals include providing foundational knowledge, offering advocacy skills, and registering to vote.

In the kitchen of Vermont Adult Learning’s Birge Street offices, Holden has covered one wall with photos and information on the national, state, and local governments.

Pointing to a copy of the Declaration of Independence, Holden says she finds ways for students to connect with the information.

The Declaration of Independence might sound archaic, she tells students, but it reads like a divorce settlement. In that context, she frames the Constitution as the life and home that the United States plans to create as a once-again-single person.

The program focuses on the federal government, Holden says, calling it the biggest and quickest government system for students to start with. In her lessons, she anticipates drilling down to helping them understand how local government works.

How students can belong

Pointing to the photos of Vermont’s Congressional delegation, Holden says that to most of the students, these people are still just “three old white guys.”

“I’m all about voter registration,” Holden says, calling it the first step to becoming civically engaged.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” she says.

Many of the students in Holden’s programs don’t feel they have power or belonging in their own communities.

“You have to feel you’re in the game,” she continued. “Do you want to play a game you don’t think you can win?”

As Adelaide Abbott, 18 — upbeat, a new student, and a newly registered voter — sits at the kitchen table, she is happy to discover how many of the 100 questions on the naturalization test she knew the answers to. (Abbott says there’s more to learn.)

This is the first presidential race that Abbott says she’s paid sharp attention to. The same goes for many of her peers.

“I’m totally a Bernie fan,” she says, adding that she’s excited to put her voice out there.

Abbott says she wants to make a good choice with her first-time voting, and she says she has searched for information on the candidates.

One takeaway from her first-time-voter research? “Trump is a big, huge, scary guy,” she says. Abbott says that she and her friends worry about Trump becoming president.

“We want our country to be safe, and [we think] people should be treated respectfully,” she says.

Abbott wants to speak with a few Trump supporters and understand why they support him. It’s important to understand where people come from, she says.

Holden will email a reminder to all the people who registered through her prior to the primary. She’ll send another reminder before the November presidential election.

“We’re [Vermont Adult Learning] in the empowerment biz, and politics is power,” she said.

Building people’s sense of civic engagement is about more than building skills or knowledge, Holden says; it’s also about building a sense of belonging and a sense that they have the power to change things that effect themselves.

“I’m hoping we’re coming to a time when civic engagement is cool,” Holden says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #345 (Wednesday, February 24, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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