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CAHSS Alumna Channels Hands-On Democratic Theory Class into Practice

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Susan Dugan


Feature  •
students registering voters

From left to right: Colton Arciniaga (BA '24), Angela Martinez (BA '24), Frankie Stroud (BA '26), Cameron Duffy (BA '24) and Aidan Mcnally (BA '26) working to register potential voters on campus in Alena Wolflink's radical democracy class, fall 2023.

In the wake of the 2022 Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, Alena Wolflink, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, began searching for a better way to teach democratic theory that would channel student passion into effecting meaningful change.

Alena Wolflink
Alena Wolflink

“There’s a lot of discussion about reaching across the aisle and having conversations across differences to reach mutual understanding,” she said. “But today’s students often are rightfully alienated by that kind of language. It can feel like empty rhetoric because it doesn’t capture the deeply entrenched ideological differences people have or change the fact that someone benefits from someone else’s suffering.”

To better address those concerns, Wolflink applied for and received a Community-Engaged Teaching grant to support her fall 2022 class on radical democracy that included having students register voters on campus in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.

The grant enabled her to facilitate her vision for providing a hands-on experience of democracy in action by partnering with New Era Colorado, a statewide, nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to engaging youth in political activism including voter registration.

The course explores what defines and shapes democracy and civil engagement and how both “collaboration and consensus and conflict and antagonism” play integral roles, according to Wolflink.

“Too often theory classes don’t get to the nitty gritty of what’s on the ballot and the importance of voting and voter education,” Wolflink said. “Students have a lot of energy to be involved in politics but don’t really know how to get a foothold. This class allows them to try out activism by registering voters, figure out what they like and don’t like and connect with a community organization that offers ongoing possibilities for engagement.”

Trish Hyde, New Era Colorado
Trish Hyde

The grant provided voter registration tables, iPads and other necessary supplies and an initial honorarium for Trish Hyde, New Era Colorado regional lead organizer. Students completed a workshop with Hyde at the beginning of class to learn how to register voters, who can be registered, acceptable forms of identification needed and how to interact with potential voters.

In addition to registering voters, students created nonpartisan voter guides offering simplified explanations of state and city ballot initiatives and answered voter questions. Wolflink subsequently offered the class in fall quarter 2023 through a now ongoing partnership with New Era and plans to offer it again in fall 2024, ahead of the upcoming presidential election. To date, students have registered 290 voters.

Class discussions challenge students’ perceived understandings of politics and democracy and encourage discussion about the pros and cons of different models for democracy.

“We have so many conversations in class, going back and forth about how theory informs practice and practice informs theory,” Wolflink said. “The two are not really so different because theorizing is both a practice and an action.”

A subsequent New Era workshop led by Hyde toward the end of the course focused on helping students understand and process their experiences registering voters.

Hyde helps students think through and frame the very different concerns and priorities of their generation and the crucial role their participation in elections and the electoral process can play. She also walks students through ways to stay connected with politics and the organization including upcoming volunteer opportunities.

She points out that young people make up the largest voting bloc in Colorado, “with one-third of Colorado voters below the age of 34. This means that if we all show up for the issues that matter to us, we can drive real, lasting changes.”

Hyde added that “it’s important for young people to understand that their lived experiences —both in the communities they come from and those they become a part of — make them experts in the issues that face our generation today.”

Jacky Jimenez
Jacky Jimenez

For former student and alumna Jacky Jimenez, Wolflink’s class in radical democracy offered a deeper perspective on “what democratic participation looks like and whose responsibility it is to engage citizens,” she said.

As a first-generation student who previously registered voters in the Latinx community, registering voters on-campus offered a unique opportunity “because the demographic we were targeting was different in age, background and political priorities. It was a great experience registering and recruiting my peers to vote because I had to rework my approach and usual talking points.”

Wolflink believes the class offers students a gateway toward doing something positive on behalf of causes and issues important to them. “You get over that first hurdle and all of a sudden it's easier to envision the next step,” she said.

Hands-on voter registration also helps students build resilience and perseverance.

“People can be very rude and some of it is an exercise in disappointment and humiliation. It’s important for students to process those experiences. You will be rejected in life and things will not always go your way, but you can develop tools for dealing with it and not getting demoralized. A big part of participation in democracy is learning to not take people’s differences personally.”

In the end Wolflink hopes students’ experiences in and outside the classroom lead to more effective ways to disagree “and tolerate the pain of disagreement,” she said.

“Even in instances where there doesn’t seem to be any real hope of fixing it, they can make their own standards more complex, less ideological and more grounded in an understanding of the complex role diversity and heterogeneity play in democracy.”

Today a government relations associate for Salazar & Associates at the Colorado State Capitol, Jimenez credits Wolflink’s teaching and mentorship with helping prepare her for a career in Colorado politics.

“I spent the majority of my undergraduate experience trying to find my voice both inside and outside the classroom,” she said. “Alena’s style of teaching encouraged me to find my voice inside the classroom but her willingness to mentor is what built my confidence outside the classroom.”

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