From the Sidelines to the Field: How to Go from Advocating and Protesting to Working for Candidates

By Zac Emanuel

Political involvement skews older, whiter, and wealthier than our generation. When I was in high school, from 2013-2017, political engagement was viewed as a novelty, or a hobby for most of it. I loved history, but I wanted to try and make it, rather than read about it. However, I noticed a change during the 2016 presidential cycle. 

The rhetoric and the policies that framed the 2016 cycle and the Donald Trump presidency, whatever your personal views of them are, have one absolute positive. They galvanized an entire generation, our generation, into being politically aware. Between the “Hope” and “Change” of our youth contrasting with the “Make America Great Again” to being the “School-Shooting” generation, the American youth, left, right, and center, have established a political mindset for themselves, and even more importantly, have begun acting on those beliefs. 

Over the summer of 2019, I was at a debate watch party where friends and I were playing drinking games based off of debate answers--somewhere I never would have imagined myself. Simultaneously I was having conversations over text, Snapchat, and Instagram with friends about our thoughts on the debate and the candidates. 

For many in our generation, having grown up alongside social media, using our socials to raise awareness, call out our representation, or express our thoughts is second nature. Instagram stories, in particular in my experience, have become the home to many of my friends and our colleagues, political and personal expressions, a statement of our values. Protests and marches as well have grown in popularity among our generation. For many, that may be enough. However, if you’re sitting, reading on your phone, whether this article or whatever breaking news about the 2020 election cycle, just broke and want to do more, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. 

Local Elections

The easiest way to get involved and get your hands dirty is to volunteer in a local election. While not as glamorous and sexy as presidential races or senatorial campaigns, your local school board candidates or your city council candidates still need people to help them run. Whether you shoot them an email or show up to an office in person, many candidates in smaller races do not have the budget to have a large campaign staff and are desperate to make the most of what money they do have. 

The plus’s, besides involvement in our own democracy, can have a great upside. A smaller, local race means you can have more facetime with your candidate, which could lead to many positives, from getting to know them personally, to getting a letter of recommendation, to having something to put on your resume. Furthermore, many smaller races feature younger candidates just starting their political careers. The phone number of your city council rep may become the phone number for your mayor, who could become your governor, etc. 

These lower-level elections are also how you get the training and experience larger races look for in both those who are employed by the campaigns or volunteer for them. Your first brush with “stereotypical” campaigning, canvassing, and phone calls is easier to come by working for your local state rep. 

Furthermore, these candidates are the ones who will be able to actually impact your daily lives in fundamental ways. While the President, Congressmen, Governor may have the title, prestige, or name recognition, your school board will likely affect you more if you are a student. Your local ordinances and statutes for community center funding, housing regulations, and what social services are available to you and your friends are fought for and legislated by your City or Town Council and State Representatives.

Find out who your candidates are. Most candidates have a website that has where they stand on critical issues, their contact info, and their headquarters address. Look them up, find who excites you. And get in touch. See what they need and what you can bring. Whether an email or a phone call, most local candidates are thrilled to have young men and women reach out to them to get involved and will have an opportunity of some kind for you. Whether that is knocking on doors, working a desk, and scheduling or running social media channels, I cannot stress enough how these local races open doors and give you the ability to make actual, demonstrable impacts on your locales.

If you do not know where to find what races are being run that affect you, and google is not helping, go on Ballotpedia. They cover municipal elections in the 100 largest municipalities in the country.  Often times if you can’t find your municipality listed, a quick search on google or skimming through your local newspaper will help find it. If that still does not work, contact your local Board of Elections or Board of Canvassers.

State Representatives

For those who are willing to put in a larger time commitment, applying to intern for your state representatives, your congressional representatives and senators, or the governor of your home state can be an amazing opportunity. The biggest things to keep in mind when applying for these positions is that you will want to work for the official whose views are most similar to your own and that most officials in office want to hire primarily residents of their home states, or secondly, students who attend school in their home state. If you’re a Democrat from California, attempting to work for a Senator from Texas really does not make sense on either end. 

If one of these officials are up for re-election, and you have done some work at the local level prior, apply to work for their campaign staff! While harder to get a position with than on a local level, Statewide races also require staffing and interns. Working in your home state (or adopted home) can give you both newfound love, and knowledge, of where you’re from, whether it is culture and cuisine, or what needs to be improved. You can see what the most pressing issue is for your fellow residents.

The more work you’ve done, the more connections you have made, like any field, will open up more doors for you. Many political candidates will cannibalize each other’s staff if someone drops out. People will get new jobs with new candidates and officials. Seeing if someone you worked with in the past can get you a position in races and in government that would not be open to you otherwise. 

Presidential 2020:

Like me, if you want to have an impact on an upcoming presidential campaign, whether by volunteering, interning, or job seeking, consider not only which candidate will you agree with most, but which candidate will need you the most. Oftentimes, insurgent, lower-tier candidates are more strapped for cash and need unpaid volunteers and interns. Furthermore, they will have less to lose and thus will have more opportunities for younger, less experienced staff. Will larger, more well-funded candidates take volunteers? Always. But if you want to do more, take on a larger load, and get truer experience shaping our democracy, the candidates with the most need will allow you to do the most. Getting involved early in the primary race and going outside the front runners will open doors for you. Oftentimes, as candidates pull out, their staff is cannibalized by larger ones, absorbing them. You might end up working for three different campaigns, but the experience working on it is second to none. 

Most do not want to make politics and government their full-time job, and strictly want to ensure their beliefs are represented. I understand that. We all want to pursue careers that make us happy. For me, that is government and politics. I view it as a service to my fellow Americans, to try and make this world a better place. I hope you do too. Whatever your views are, our generation needs to make sure our voices are heard, whether in the office, at a protest, or at the ballot box. 2020 is an election for our collective future. Make sure your vision is seen. 

Ways to create impact: 

  • Word of mouth: In this stage of the election, with so many candidates in the running, it can be overwhelming to pick one. Voice your opinion on social media to generate noise for your candidate of choice.

  • Donate to specific political organizations or campaigns: if you feel strongly about an issue, find an organization that supports aligned politicians and also acts around the cause.

  • Help people get registered to vote: Spreading the word via social media is an easy yet effective method, but you can take it a step further by volunteering to register people in your community or even hosting your own voter registration event. 

  • Become a poll worker: You can help by volunteering to become a poll worker, helping to set up polling places, and monitor the polls throughout the day to make sure that things go smoothly.

  • Canvassing: engage with voters by going door-to-door to speak with them at their homes to engage voters of a particular district to talk to them about your candidate, spread the vote, get them to register to vote, gather data, sell merchandise, solicit donations, or distribute information. 

  • Phone Banking: reach out to voters for canvassing or getting out the vote.

  • Attend a College Democrats or Republicans meeting: Many campaigns will come these clubs, and opportunities to get involved will present themselves right in front of you.

  • Search the web to find your candidate's local offices: Find out where your candidate's local office is. Go in and say you'd like to volunteer for an hour or so, and they'll get you working on a number of different, interesting projects you want to do. 

  • Use social media: it’s an easy way to encourage and influence your peers. Show them that you are supporting a candidate and that if you can volunteer, they can too. 

Overall, get in contact with the office of your political party or your favorite candidate. They are always welcoming more help, and the hardest part is initially reaching out. Grab a friend and start contributing to a campaign today. Not everything is glamorous: data entry, cleaning the campaign office, creating yard signs, stamping envelopes––but everything helps. 

About Zac: 

Zac is a registered independent in the state of Rhode Island (with liberal-leaning views), and studies political science and political economics. His first taste of political involvement came in high school, where he volunteered for two campaigns for his local state senator and his local congressman.  He did grunt work, collecting signatures for about 20 hours a week outside of grocery stores in order to make sure they were on the ballot, and staffed information booths. Demonstrating how volunteering opens doors, he was offered a paid position for the fall on Rep. David Cicilinne’s campaign. Following his freshman year of college, he spent his summer working full time for the State of Rhode Island as research aide in the Governor of Rhode Island’s Executive Legal Counsel’s office, and as the assistant to the Public Information Officer and Communications Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. Most recently, this past summer, he worked for New York State Assemblyman and Democratic National Committee Vice-Chair Michael Blake of the Bronx as Acting Communications Director.