Campus Closed? Remote Organizing for College Dems
April 22, 2020
When I started my senior year at North Dakota State University, I knew our College Democrats chapter faced an uphill battle to grow our membership. In a deep red state, entering one of the most contentious election years in American history, my goal as chapter president was to both maintain what we had already built and continue our growth trajectory and I wanted to do it in a way that would translate to real results for progressive causes and Democratic candidates. Our first tabling event in the student union was held directly across from the College Republicans and a foam core cutout of Donald Trump. We weren’t intimidated. That day, 50 new students signed up, including four exchange students from Europe and two from China.
In the months that followed, we developed strong channels of communication with our members. I used MailChimp to create an engaging email series with meeting notices, event recaps, primary/general election countdown calendars, and community volunteering opportunities. With nervous energy mounting over the impeachment hearings, we upped our in-person offerings: adding presidential debate watch parties with food and drinks to our regular organized meetings. We were off to a great start.
In February, I joined College Democrats from around the country at Arizona State University for the 2020 College Democrats of America Winter Convention. What a boost of motivation to be with hundreds of like minded students! We attended panels with local politicians, trained in communication and campaign organizing, watched and discussed that week’s debate, and socialized over complimentary snacks from the Bloomberg campaign.
How quickly things change. NDSU, like many other colleges and universities across the country, has closed our campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are attending classes online, and the physical spaces in which we gather to learn, live, and organize are temporarily shuttered.
As an affiliate of the Democratic National Committee with over 500 chapters and 47 state federations, CDA is a critical part of national and local Democratic infrastructure. College Democrats work to elect Democrat candidates, offering wide-reaching volunteer support to campaigns and GOTV efforts in races at every level. CDA also provides members with leadership and networking opportunities to further their own activism and involvement. This work helps sustain a rich pipeline of experienced college graduates who will become the next generation of progressive leadership. Putting such an essential system on hold simply wasn’t an option.
With so much at stake in November, it was important for our individual chapter to also get creative with the resources we had and continue our work educating and communicating. That meant changing a lot of what we knew about organizing. Here are some of my successes, lessons learned, and tips for other young activists:
Leading by Example
Recently, CDA has been mobilizing students to contact their members of Congress and ask them to support the All Dependents Count Act, which would expand the CARES Act and provide financial relief to dependents ages 18-24.
If you’ve never called your legislator before, making that call can feel like an intimidating task at first. So, to motivate my chapter members and make the process less scary, I called all three of North Dakota’s congressional members — on Instagram Live!
By modeling how to make a call and what kind of language to use, I was able to give viewers the tools they needed to do it on their own. Viewers could hear the message I communicated and see how quick and achievable calling could be. Office phone numbers and a script were then posted online, and we encouraged other students to call and then tag three friends to do the same. This was my chapter’s first digital call to action!
Keeping People Connected
Our chapter transitioned to using Zoom for official meetings, and we’ve reprioritized digital calls to action via social media, keeping our members informed and active. My advice to other activists would be: Continue to stay up-to-date on current events and important issues, and be sure to spread the word throughout your networks.
Also, you may want to consider hosting online get-togethers outside of regular meetings to maintain camaraderie and morale as well. Have a politics-themed Netflix Party and connect over an episode of The West Wing or a Michael Moore documentary!
Maintaining your presence on social media is crucial: Make sure to post on all platforms you’re currently using! Engage members on social media through online challenges and opinion polls. Member spotlights can be used to celebrate successes and give your chapter a human face, and Facebook Live Q&As are a great way to connect your membership to local candidates.
We’ve encouraged our members to continue exploring how they can assist state and local elections in North Dakota and their other home states.
Here’s another idea: Host or attend a virtual phone bank! Utilize tools like Mobilize.us to set up your event and track attendees. It’s also a great resource to find local events near you or virtual events you can attend from anywhere! The DNC also maintains a similar list of “Do from Anywhere” events that’s worth bookmarking.
If in doubt, get in touch with your state’s Democratic Party or local unit chapter and ask about opportunities to get more involved. Every election counts!
Sharpen Your Saw
One of the best things you can do to support your members and the movement is to keep building up your own skill set.
On a national level, the College Democrats of America Communications Team is providing a wealth of information on virtual event-hosting and organizing. They even created a rapid-response Facebook war room, where College Democrats can share resources, upcoming online events, and opportunities to safely organize in local elections.
Explore opportunities with progressive training organizations like The National Democratic Training Committee, The DNC’s Best Practices Institute, Run For Something, Swing Left, and EMILY’s List. And encourage your members to do the same. In addition to being great opportunities for learning and professional development, virtual trainings enable you to meet others and network with Dems from across the country!
Not sure where to begin? NDTC’s Getting Started Quiz can point you to relevant on-demand training resources.
It’s impossible to fully comprehend the obstacles we presently face as organizers and as citizens, but what we can control is how we use this time. How are you and your chapter adapting? What’s your plan to emerge from distancing with unity, purpose, and the hard skills to execute?
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