By Natalie O’Brien, AAFSC VOTES 2012 Campaign Assistant
450 donut munchkins
185 voter registrations
2 civics workshops
1 ‘AAFSC VOTES 2012’ campaign
As I reflect of the whirlwind of stars, stripes and voter registration forms that was the ‘AAFSC VOTES 2012’ campaign, I am truly astonished and proud of what we have accomplished over two and a half short months. From discussing comprehensive immigration reform with a congresswomen over za’atar, to persuading Arab business owners on Atlantic Avenue to operate as voter registration sites, to taking questions on Susan B Anthony from our Civics English as a Second Language students, the eclectic range of experiences that I have been exposed to over the course of this campaign are ones that I will treasure both professionally and personally.
This campaign set out to equip people with a democratic toolkit. Within this toolkit was the know-how and the means to participate meaningfully in US democracy. The first items in the toolkit were voter fundamentals: registration, the location of polling sites and how to fill out a ballot form. But the toolkit went further than this. The more ambitious and intangible elements aimed to engage and inspire. We connected people to their local candidates through our ‘Meet the Representatives’ morning teas. We linked people to interesting articles, blogs, broadcasts and interviews. We incited people to ask themselves what issues matter most to them and what type of society they want live in. ‘Educate, engage, inspire’ emerged as our campaign mantra.
The emphasis on voting as a means of political engagement is appropriate. As the most accessible end of the spectrum of political participation, voting is where most people come into contact with politics and so where the process of civic engagement will often begin. That very act of casting a vote prompts you to think about the type of country or state or city that you would like to be. Your vote effectively becomes your voice, the way you articulate to our leaders what matters most to you and help them better represent you.
A campaign of this nature does not stop with an election. Building civic engagement in any given community requires a long-term purview with ongoing initiatives on many fronts. Arab-Americans share many challenges with other minorities: language barriers, lack of culturally competent services, particularly in health and education, and coming from societies with different social and cultural norms. However, Arab-Americans face some additional challenges related to negative stereotyping and widespread misinformation about Arab history and culture. These are types of marginalization that would be helped considerably by increased political participation. Needless to say, civic engagement will be an ongoing priority at AAFSC.
A big thank you to everyone who contributed directly to the campaign – particularly Rama for making us interns feel welcome and appreciated every step of the way, Ismahan whose stubbornness and persistence ensured she registered an inordinate number of voters, and Baraa and Alex, our two wonderful volunteers from Fordham University – as well as all those colleagues, friends and family who took a genuine interest in our work.