Since his first campaign for elected office in 2006, Congressman Jamie Raskin has trained young adults to become political organizers.
"Politics at its best is all about education," said Raskin, who represents Maryland's 8th Congressional District. "You're educating people about the process, you're educating people about the substance of the issues, and then you're educating and getting educated by people about the prospects for real social and political change," he said.
Known as Democracy Summer, the program was formed alongside Raskin's first campaign for the Maryland State Senate in 2006 as a way to not only conduct political outreach but also to educate and encourage young adults to become involved in politics.
Unlike previous years, in which the program was held during election seasons, Raskin explained the 2017 program was designed to continue the effort from his 2016 congressional campaign and help candidates in other states running in off year elections.
He said he decided to revive the program after receiving hundreds of applications for just 20 intern positions at his congressional offices.
"That meant that the vast majority of young people I had to turn away and I didn't want to simply throw them to the curb," Raskin added.
"We are investing in them significant time and effort in building their skills and their capacity on electoral change and the skills one needs as a progressive activist," said Ruti Kadish, executive director of the program.
The program recruits 50-60 fellows for two six-week sessions between June and August and follows a curriculum in which the participants learn a variety of topics from voter outreach to public policy issues. Kadish explained that entrants in the program begin with a variety of skill and experience levels having been involved in prior campaigns through their high schools and colleges.
"For the most part no one coming in see's themselves as activists, those people are already involved in campaigns, initiatives, and organizations at deep and meaningful levels," Kadish said. "The folks coming to us are looking for new ways to get involved and build their skills," she added.
"In the wake of the election, a lot of people were moved to action and one way that I thought would be a good way to be involved to enable the next generation of progressive leaders is to train them," said Paul Ellis, a student at Ohio State University originally from Silver Spring, who assists Kadish to oversee the program.
Hannah Wilcove, 20, from Rockville and a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, completed the program during the first session.
"I learned a lot about the campaign and electoral side," she said. "I knew how the general process worked but also learned what it's like to be the one running for office which I hadn't really experienced," she added.
Wilcove, who is studying women's studies, explained the program acquainted her with paid leave issues.
"One of the issues I hadn't know as much before was paid and family leave and how it's often viewed as a woman's issue but it really so much more than a fringe issue and more of a mainstream issue," she said.
Every day, the fellows learn a specific skill or policy from a guest speaker. Speakers include elected officials, organizers, and policy specialists.
David Moon, who worked as Jamie Raskin's campaign manager in 2006 and currently represents District 20 in the Maryland House of Delegates, was also invited over the course of the program to speak about his experience in running for office.
"It's not about generic campaign training but there's a real effort to infuse social justice and pragmatic campaign strategy into what these kids are doing so they're coming out of it with values and not just skills," he said.
"Our goal is to get people actually active," said Jon Heintz, the cofounder of the J Walkers Action Group, a grassroots organizing nonprofit focused on training politically active individuals to conduct phone banking and door-to-door canvassing.
Heintz, who also owns a childcare business in Bethesda, explained that interpersonal communication is vital to electoral campaigns especially in the wake of the 2016 election.
"Conversations between two average people are more important now because with ‘alternative facts' people don't believe what they see in the news or on the internet, but when they see someone who cares about specific issues and has that conversation, people have some investment in that," he added. Heintz instructed and oversaw the program's interns for one evening as they phone banked to recruit Maryland voters for future phone banks.
"Jamie Raskin's campaign was one that I tracked closely and I really like his policy positions," said Michael Shang, 20, a student at Johns Hopkins University. "When I heard about this program, I decided now is as good a time as ever to learn about politics and political organizing," he added.
Shang explained that he always viewed himself as a spectator with an interest in politics but the program provided a different perspective by giving him a deeper understanding of how the political process works.
"It's one thing to spectate and see what come up in the senate or house or what someone said, it's another thing to see how it works and how we get a bill to the Senate or how we change the narrative on some issue," he explained.
"I've always wanted to go phone banking and canvassing but I never really had the opportunity to go, so, honestly, I just didn't know what it was about," said Zainab Mirza, 19, a student at American University originally from Ocean City.
Mirza, who was participating in the program after having been a Maryland General Assembly page in high school, explained that Democracy Summer complemented her experience in witnessing a legislative process.
"This experience, especially after the recent election, has motivated me to do more in my local government," she added. "While I look at things in the big picture, I think it's important while I'm here, at home, to start things at the local level and then get up that international level."
Camilla Duke, like Ellis, began as one of the campaign interns in 2016 and presently assists Kadish in running the program, explained that she's observed more energy among youth since the November election.
"People since November 9th, 2016 have been a lot more fired up, especially young people and people that were that necessarily that interested in politics," she said.
Duke, who is from Bethesda and attends the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, explained that she hoped programs like Democracy Summer would make an impact in future elections by energizing young voters to become more involved and invested in politics.
"It's been interesting to see where people have different interests and leanings," she said. "To see how invested out fellows were and how invested I became was something pretty spectacular," she added about a trip to Georgia's 6th Congressional district to help Democratic Congressional nominee Jon Ossoff.
Raskin said he hopes the program will serve as an example for other legislators to create similar training programs in their districts.
“We are in active discussions right now with the DNC and the DCCC and different actors on capitol hill on how we can replicate Democracy Summer across the country in 2018,” Raskin said.
Such a program.
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