On a drizzly, white-skied morning in downtown Richmond, a slew of about 300 Virginians of all ages, genders, and races gathered with members of Democractic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ (VT) Virginia staff for an organizing meeting. The purpose here was for official campaign members to teach ordinary people how to be more active in their involvement with the Vermont senator’s campaign. This involvement could be volunteering to do anything from phone banking, to voter registration, to hosting debate watch parties. The event was held in a lecture hall at VCU’s Academic Learning Commons. The room was buzzing with energy and was notably diverse, perhaps a result of Sanders’ focus on having a campaign that is accessible for all people, regardless of minority status, class, or ability. There was even reserved seating in the front row for attendees who use wheelchairs, in an effort to make sure everyone at the seminar was comfortable and had their needs addressed.
This event held a mixture of seasoned political advocates and newly engaged campaign members who had, like Ian Jones, a Richmonder who works for NiSource, never participated in politics “aside from ranty posts on Facebook.” After noticing Sanders’ “impassioned leadership,” however, Jones said he was looking to learn how to be “more supportive and involved” with the campaign. Other people in attendance echoed these sentiments, like Sean Clatterbuck, who had been to debate watch parties and phone banking events but wanted to “hone in on specific ideas of where the Richmond area is going to focus in terms of volunteer recruitment” and getting volunteers together in close proximity. Before the event, lots of this was already happening—volunteers were all together in one room talking about their own experiences, learning from others, asking questions, and otherwise networking.
The Virginia staff officially started the late morning’s events by asking everybody in the room to introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, and to talk for one minute each about how Sanders’ campaign would help them individually. A Maggie Walker student sitting behind me mentioned minority rights and wanting a president who cared about all of their constituents, not just people in the majority. Afterward, the directors asked a few people to share with the entire room what their support story was. One woman in the back row simply stood up and told everyone that she had kids in college. Her statement was met by hoots and hollers of people echoing the excitement for Sanders’ proposed affordable education policies.
Later on, people were asked to sign up to host phone banking events. Phone banking is a process of data collection in order to find out whether people are in support of a candidate or not, or if they are undecided. When somebody is known to be in support of the given candidate, the phone bankers for that campaign will call the person back closer to the time of the primary elections in order to remind them to vote. If the person called is unsure, the phone bankers will call back later in order to give a quick pitch of the platform of the candidate. And if the person called is in firm opposition, the volunteer phone bankers will know not to bother calling back. This process of campaigning is powerful, especially for a candidate who shies away from big-money politics, because it only takes around a minute per call and costs only as much as wifi and cell service.
Another major focus of this meeting was to break down the idea that Bernie Sanders can’t win the general election. The Virginia State Director for the Campaign, Peter Clerkin, said that this idea is perpetuated by the fact that “people will pay attention to the national polls…. [but] that’s not the way the primary system works.” In reality, state Republican or Democratic parties control primaries, and therefore, these polls can be misleading. More crucial are primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, which start the momentum for the rest of the primaries. After the event was officially over, the staff stayed to meet supporters of the campaign and answer questions. Clerkin wanted to point out that people who aren’t yet eighteen but who will be by the time of the election can still vote in the Virginia primary elections. He urged young people to stay involved with their communities, find causes they care about, and to consider volunteering with campaigns.
Regardless of whether you side with Collegiate alum Scott Werwath (‘15) and believe that “Sanders isn’t radical enough,” or Austin Jupe (‘17), who thinks it would be better to embrace “free markets with very limited policy,” it is important to make politics your own by staying engaged from a young age, and events like this teach people how to do so.
All photos by Sarah Smithson.