by Gigi Gokcek, PhD and Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, PhD, EdD
On June 1, over 130 student delegates from 46 states arrived at Dominican University of California to kick-off College Debate 2016 (CD16). As a voter education partner for the Commission on Presidential Debates, Dominican launched College Debate 2016 as an initiative to engage and inspire young Americans to turn out in the November election. This September Dominican will host the first college convention for America’s youth, a moderated Town Hall, streamed live to colleges and universities throughout the United States. The salient issues that America’s youth identify at this Town Hall will be presented to the moderators of the presidential debates. In preparation for the September event, Dominican held training sessions for student delegates selected from colleges and universities across the United States, which focused on initiating civil discourse, engaging the digital citizenry, and social media activism. Reintroducing civility into the American political conversation was another important theme stressed by all of the speakers. (To learn more about the delegates, read the May 30, 2016 article in PS Now.)
The CD16 delegate training began with a screening of the documentary “Bring It to The Table” with filmmaker Julie Winokur. This documentary chronicles Julie’s travels across the United States to meet and listen to people from a variety of political positions. During her travels she invited people to sit at her table to talk about the roots of their political beliefs and their personal positions on a variety of topics. After the screening of her film, Julie demonstrated “Table Talks,” which are listening exercises that demonstrate how personal biases and assumptions can prevent one from listening and hearing others. All the delegates participated in their own “Table Talks” with each other. As CD16 is focused on issues, rather than party politics, the screening of this film, along with the Table Talks exercise, established a foundation for the delegates to listen and learn from each other.
On the following day, Dr. Sybril Brown led a spirited conversation with the delegates about citizenship, online identity, and civility. She emphasized that citizenship is a “right to have rights” but also conveyed that while we all have a right to be heard, we do not have the right to be wrong. The challenge to civility in our current political discourse is the displacement of face-to-face interactions with online posts, which prevent listening and learning from each other. One does not have to agree, but one should respect the other person’s position and try to learn and understand it. Social media is a tool for the next generation of voters; yet, one must leverage it, rather than be used by it. Dr. Brown encouraged the delegates to use social media as a way to begin the kinds of conversations needed to affect change. Given that college-age students often start revolutions to inspire and empower their peers, leveraging social media is an effective way to affect the change today’s college students want to see in the world. (Dominican’s radio station, Penguin radio, posted a podcast of Dr. Brown’s talk.)
Secretary of State of California Alex Padilla immediately followed Dr. Brown’s presentation with a story about his own personal journey into public office. Recognizing that voting members of his community into office was a way to create change, Padilla turned away from his background in mechanical engineering and towards politics. He emphasized the high correlation between geographic areas with socio-economic issues, like poor performing schools, deteriorating infrastructure, public health problems (e.g., Type II diabetes), and lower voter registration and turn out. He also pointed out that the majority of people who do not register or vote are disproportionately people of color, low-income persons, and the youth. In other words, votes do not accurately represent all of the citizens of America. He encouraged the delegates to be the leaders of today, rather than the leaders of tomorrow, because American democracy needs them now. (A podcast of Secretary Padilla’s talk may be found on Penguin Radio.)
Building upon Secretary of State Padilla’s address on voter empowerment, Alexander Heffner, the host of PBS’s “The Open Mind,” spoke about the need for an informed citizenship, which requires civility among voters. The current climate of anti-social activities, from name-calling to bigotry to violence, is undermining a real interrogation of ideas and positions, and thus failing to inform as well as educating voters and the populace. In doing so, he treaded on familiar territory already introduced to the delegates by Julie Winokur and Dr. Brown. Heffner stressed the need for facts to be the basis behind making powerful arguments and subsequent voting. He observed that the current political climate is obstructing American democracy because it relies on deliberation of positions and the elaboration of facts. In light of the current campaigns, Heffner focused on the role of the delegates to reintroduce civility, facilitate a reasonable debate, and provide effective consultation among their peers. (A podcast of Alexander Heffner’s talk may be found on Penguin Radio.)
Social Media Activism
Following these presentations, the delegates then participated in four breakout sessions; two that were issue-based sessions and two that were tech/social media based sessions. Representatives from FWD.us and NextGen Climate presented information on immigration reform and climate change respectively. More issues-based content will be shared with the delegates throughout the summer.
The delegates also learned about Vois a communication app, and Brigade, a civic engagement app. These apps can be utilized to engage and inspire the youth to become politically active in the electoral process going forward. The delegates will use the apps to help organize and plan events in the fall.
As College Debate 2016 is a social media and technology initiative, throughout the two-day convening delegates posted, tweeted, and shared their experience using #collegedebate16 as the identifying tag. According to Illinois State University’s Social Media Analytics and Command Center, the shared content on social media using #collegedebate16 reached approximately 195,000 people, thus making the hashtag “extremely viral.” Indeed, one delegate’s tweet reached 7,530 people. To incentivize continued sharing of their activities by the delegates throughout the summer on social media, Dominican introduced a competition around CD16 so that these students are able to earn prizes as they approach the September Town Hall. Delegates will earn points for posting videos, recording public service announcements, organizing events, and hosting issues-focused events, among other things. The leaderboard is updated weekly, and delegates receive bi-weekly e-newsletters that feature exceptional contributions, such as a video, with the identifying tag of #DearFuturePresident.
The delegates walked away from the June convening at Dominican with plans for their own college and university campuses. Many hope to screen “Bring It to The Table” on their campuses, organize voter registration events, and work with campus organizations to educate their classmates. To facilitate their planning, Dominican provided the delegates with an online social media toolkit, as well as a Google resource drive full of information on voter registration, issues, event planning, and organizations of interest. Delegates are tasked with encouraging their fellow students to participate in College Debate 2016 by becoming “CD16 Activists,” who would then utilize social networks in the same ways as the delegates themselves. The most productive activists could earn a spot alongside the delegates to participate in the September Town Hall. Any interested students can apply online.
With the Republican and Democratic Conventions now over, social media activity among CD16 delegates is expected to increase. As they tap into their networks, delegates hope to inspire other American youth to engage in the issues driving this presidential election. As the facilitator and driver of CD16, Dominican University of California is the venue that makes this all possible.
Gigi Gokcek, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Dominican University of California. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar, Ph.D., Ed.D., is the Senior Advisor for Strategy & Planning at Dominican University of California. She earned her Ph.D. in History of Art and Architecture from Brown University and EdD in Higher Education Policy and Leadership from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Dominican University of California is an independent university of almost 2,000 highly diverse undergraduate and graduate students. Located in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, Dominican integrates inspiring teaching and supportive mentoring with internships, community service, research, study abroad, and leadership opportunities.