Originally published by The Erie Reader on February 28, 2014.
Zainab Javed, President of the PA College Democrats at Mercyhurst University, is on a mission to “make civil responsibility cool again.” Javed teamed up with Lillie Gabreski, the President of the PA College Democrats at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, to put on the upcoming PA College Democrats Western Region Conference – the first of its kind.
With an open invitation to anyone under age 36, the event will be packed full motivated, opinionated, young leaders. The day-long conference will include discussions on running for office at a young age, getting political jobs and internships, and lobbying state and local officials.
The conference even brought in a slew of Pennsylvania politicians, including State Representative Ryan Bizzarro and State Senator Sean Wiley. Javed and Gambreski hope that bringing young politicians to the conference will inspire high school and college age democrats to find their political voice and form an opinion on the local, state, and even national political scenes.
Ellie Hartleb: Why did you start a branch of the PA College Democrats at your university?
Zainab Javed: I started Mercyhurst College Democrats because I strongly believe student political organizations are crucial to giving young people a voice within the political process. Alone, our voices are drowned out – but together, we make politicians listen to us. We’re a part of a statewide and national coalition of youth activists and leaders, and we’re lucky to be working with an amazing state federation that provides us with the tools and resources to work towards progressive change within our community.
Lillie Gabreski: The Behrend chapter of College Democrats has actually been in existence for around 20 years, and has, as a whole been very successful. Because of the efforts of past members of this club, many influential political leaders have come to campus, including Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama in 2008. I took over as President last spring with the intent to help our branch grow stronger and with the aim of engaging more students in politics during their time in college.
EH: What is the purpose of the upcoming PA College Democrats Western Region Conference?
ZJ: The Western Region Conference is a fantastic opportunity for College Democrats to meet, network and exchange ideas with young Democrats and elected officials from across the region. We have amazing panels on running for office at a young age, lobbying state and local legislators and even scoring the dream political job or internship. We ultimately want to inspire students to become more involved with their local political parties and campaigns.
EH: What do you hope the Erie community will gain from College Democrats programs? What do you hope your school will gain from College Democrats programs?
ZJ: College Democrats trains students to become a part of the democratic process. From organizing voter registration dorm storms, to shuttles to voting sites, we’re educating and mobilizing voters on Election Day. We’re learning how to lobby our local and state leaders on issues that affect our day-to-day lives. In short, we’re making civic responsibility cool again.
LG: I hope that the community will see how influential young people can be in bettering their communities. Our branch in particular has been pushing to become more involved in community service and outreach, to show how much Erie means to us even if we’re not all originally from the area. My goal when taking over the presidency for this organization was to engage more students in the club, and to impress how important politics are on our lives, even while students are busy with schoolwork and other activities.
EH: What message do you hope this conference sends to young people?
LG: This conference was planned as an inspiration to young people, and a motivator to push them to involve themselves more in their communities and politics. Many young people have so much on their plate that politics gets pushed to the side, if even considered, even though it has such an influence over our lives and our futures. We hope that this conference helps both students who might not generally be as involved with politics, and those who plan to enter careers in the field, to learn the ropes on how their voices effect the field as a whole.
ZJ: To add on to that, I want this conference to convey that young people have the power to make a difference. We can affect change at a young age. Look at our panelists– three of the elected officials speaking are less than a decade older than us.
EH: What are some immediate and long term goals for your branch of the PA College Democrats?
LG: One of our major goals is always recruitment; we want to engage as many students as possible. We hold voter registration drives every semester in conjunction with the campus’ College Republicans and Political Science Society organizations, as well as organizing shuttles to voting booths, to try to encourage students to use their voices for political action. In the long term, I hope to continue to strengthen this branch so that it continues to be able to host influential speakers, incite action, and voice student opinions to the Erie community.
EH: Why is it important for high school and college students to find their political voice at a young age?
LG: Many people become cynical about our political system due to what they perceive as apathy or inaction on the part of our elected officials. As a college student, I often see my peers either completely uncaring about politics or absolutely engaged in it. Our political system is essential to the way we are able to live in this country, and it’s so important to learn how you can have a voice in it from a young age. While there will always be some students that are more passionate than others, I believe that all young people should have a general knowledge of what is happening around them, especially when decisions are made on behalf of young people due to low voter turnouts in that age range.
ZJ: Millennials make up a sizable chunk of eligible voters, but we don’t show up to the polls. Like Lillie said, young people are underrepresented in politics. The decision makers are representing older generations with vastly different priorities. There’s a reason Medicare is untouchable, but student loans are a big “who cares?” We need to get to the polls. We need to learn how to lobby our state representatives. This conference will give students the tools to learn how to engage and bring our issues to the forefront of the conversation.
EH: What is unique about Erie’s political scene that makes it a good place for college democrats?
ZJ: I’m in love with Erie. Erie is one of the last strongholds of Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local.” Our political leaders are extremely accessible. It’s a great area to build up a sense of political efficacy. When politicians take the time to get to know young people and listen to their concerns, they’ll be more likely to think their actions will make a difference and become more politically engaged. We’re just lucky to be a part of an extremely supportive and inclusive political party. Mercyhurst College Democrats helped me connect with many of Erie’s political leaders. They have been nothing short of wonderful towards me. They’re excited to get young people involved.
LG: Many of Erie’s elected officials are on the young side, which makes it easier for college democrats to relate to them. Increasingly, politicians are seriously considering the interests of college students. The openness and encouragement that young democrats receive from Erie’s political leaders is overwhelming, and with chapters at so many of the local colleges it is very easy to become involved in what is going on.
EH: Why did you choose to host primarily local politicians?
ZJ: We actually have speakers from outside the Erie area coming in, including State Rep. Brandon Neuman. That being said, we’re really proud of our local elected officials and party leaders and just want to show them off. They are young, energetic and ambitious.
LG: We have amazing political leaders in Erie, so of course we want to showcase them to the students in this area, and let the students know that they’re there serving us in the immediate area.
EH: Why should political leaders focus on young people?
ZJ: Young people are the future! We have a lot to offer: energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Politicians and county parties need to keep engaging us even after election season is over. It’s important to train the next generation of political leaders, as well as listen to our concerns as they make decisions that directly impact us.
LG: It’s no secret that young people are the future of our community, state and country. The educations we receive and the opportunities we are afforded will directly affect our future and our impact on our society. Young people have a passion for politics and progressive change that I feel can be incited in others as well, and so they are extremely valuable in campaigning and decision-making. If we want to make changes for the better of our community there is no better place to look for support than in the people that will be taking it into their hands in the years to come.
EH: How do you see PA College Democrats programs growing at colleges in the Erie area?
LG: I think that as more events like the Western Regional Conference are held more students will be interested in being a part of the programs, as they see the direct benefits it affords them. It only takes a few students with passion for politics to encourage others to become involved, and events like this one aim to find those student leaders and give them the tools they need to build their programs. If we can give students the means to grow their chapters and their campus’ political atmosphere, then we are taking a step in the right direction for politics in the community as a whole.