Local Politics Are the Best Way to Advocate for Change as College Student
Note: This article was originally published in Teen Vogue
In this op-ed, Ananya Kumar-Banerjee, communications director of Yale College Democrats, explains how to get involved with local politics.
Large legislative changes can be scary. Sometimes it feels like no matter how many rallies we attend, articles we write, and phone calls we make, we aren’t actually creating change.
In Connecticut, a state that was once considered strongly leaning Democrat, but whose state senate is looking more Republican, these fears are the same. Across the state, students like me are concerned that our changing state legislature may mean that our voices won’t be heard. We worry for our fellows citizens who may be negatively affected by legislative changes currently supported by the Trump administration, like increasing information sharing between ICE and local police agencies and the removal of the individual mandate protected under the Affordable Care Act.
I came to college with the goal of doing more than just talking about the threats faced by Americans citizens across the country with this new administration. I wanted to use the incredible privilege I’ve been given—access to a higher education—to do something to help others. Yale College Democrats, a group I joined as soon as I arrived on campus, has given me insight into just that.
Our group is focused on supporting progressive politics on a national and state level. Every spring, lawmakers in Connecticut have a legislative season, where members vote on a key group of issues. We actively find ways to get involved in this process, looking to find important issues that can better the lives of people across Connecticut.
This spring, we’re demanding Connecticut provide institutional financial aid for qualified undocumented students. Currently, undocumented families pay taxes that help fund financial aid for certain Connecticut students. At the moment, undocumented students don’t have access to the very funds that they and their families contribute to. This kind of bill could help equalize the playing field for students and prevent discrimination on the basis on legal status.
We’re also focused on paid family leave, which requires employers to provide a paid leave of absence for individuals recovering from a serious injury or illness, caring for a seriously ill family member, or caring for a newborn. At the moment, many high-paying jobs provide paid family leave. We want to help prevent lower-income families from having to worry about making ends meet simply because they or a loved one is sick or injured.
We are also advocating for equity in pay for men and women in the state of Connecticut. This kind of bill hasn't been made a major priority for legislators in the past, but we think that things might be different this time. We’re hoping to do everything we can to support an issue that could help pave the future for a more robust federal equal-pay law, someday.
An individual statewide mandate for health care is also on our radar. This is an important part of the Affordable Care Act, and the federal mandate was recently repealed by the current administration. An individual Connecticut-specific statewide mandate would require that individuals have health care or they pay a penalty. An individual mandate is essential to keep the cost of health care low for everyone, including those who need it most.
Think of it this way: If fewer people — specifically, only those who need consistent health care coverage — had health care, the health-care companies would be spending a lot more money for each person they cover and would have to dramatically increase the price of health care to stay as profitable as they've grown accustomed to being. With the increase in price, even some people with chronic illnesses would decide that it would make more sense for them to either pay for medical costs out of pocket or forego certain care entirely, and they, too, may eventually opt out of health care. This leaves the healthcare companies with fewer subscribers, who are often the seriously ill. This trend continues until the sickest people are paying incredibly high prices for health care while healthier people pay out of pocket on an as-needed basis and could potentially become bankrupt should they have a real emergency. The individual statewide mandate leads to more healthy people paying for health insurance, which allows health-care companies to charge lower fees to everyone.
What then, does it mean to actually “advocate” for these issues? Is it any different from what we as students would do individually?
Yes, because when we work together to connect with our local organizations and officials, we are more powerful. It’s important to remember that when it comes to the issues we care about, rarely are we alone in our passions. Look around your community and find out what existing infrastructures there are that can provide you with the tools to advocate beyond simple protest.
The focus of the legislative season in New Haven, our community, requires that we get to Hartford and attend public hearings on the issues we care about. Our legislative coordinator, Esul Burton, pays attention to the different bills that are supporting the issues our team has voted on. She works with different legislative captains who reach out to partners on campus, local organizations, and state representatives to develop a strategy for our advocacy and figure out how we can best use our voices as college students to fight for the issues we believe in. Oftentimes, it’s the small things that count: emailing and calling legislators who are on the fence about a bill and convincing them to support it, putting together a few Facebook posts or a photo campaign to raise awareness about an issue, or writing an op-ed in the campus paper.
The important part for students working to make a change is just doing whatever you can on your own. You don’t have to only make change by writing legislation from scratch or single-handedly championing a bill through your state house; it’s all about being a part of the process. If you want to support a local bill that could bring actual legislative change to where you live, you can write testimony. Testimony requires that you write a short message, approximately a page, explaining why the bill is important to you and then submit it to your local representatives when there is a public hearing for the bill. It’s a chance to express to your elected officials why the bill and issue deserve their attention and vote. It’s also an opportunity to explain your personal passions and interest in the issue, and to remind your representatives that there are people who still really care about particular issues, no matter what the our federal officials may say
Getting involved in local politics is powerful because your legislators are less removed—they could live just down the street from you, send their kids to the same school, and frequent the same cafes and restaurants. Take advantage of this closeness and make sure your voice is known where it really counts. Speak up in your local community, just like we do at Yale in New Haven and in Hartford at the Connecticut legislature. Because change has grassroots.