Election in the AM,

Frat Party in the PM


Theresa Kouo is the Assistant Director for Civic Engagement Education at the Gephardt Institute. With responsibilities for the management and strategic development of the Civic Scholars and Urban Fellows programs, Theresa fosters student civic mindedness, engagement, and leadership in civic life, most often as educator, facilitator, leadership trainer, advisor, and consultant. Theresa is originally from the Metro Detroit area, and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in Psychology and minor in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies, as well as a Master of Social work with specialization in community organization and focus on children, youth, and families.

Theresa comes to WashU after years in the nonprofit sector, with interest and skills in youth development, social justice education, racial equity, intergroup dialogue, advocacy, and community organizing.


Purvi Patel joined the IOP in February 2019 as the Director of Civic and Campus Engagement. In this role, she advises the IOP’s Civic Engagement student leadership, builds relationships with community partners, and works on civic engagement program development and strategy. Previously, Purvi worked as an administrator in diversity and student life at Washington University in St. Louis, Loyola University Maryland, and Oberlin College. Purvi is from Dallas, Texas and graduated with a B.A. in History from Loyola University Chicago, and a M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University.


Purvi Patel: You know, if you're going to go to a frat party, you could probably be a poll worker and like, give back to your community and figuring out like, where can young people uniquely fit into this particular election to make sure our vote and our voices can be counted?


Alex and Helen: Hey, I'm Helen. Hey, I'm Alex. Thanks for listening to Fresh off the Vote. We are a grassroots podcast with a mission to make politics exciting and more accessible. Our team is composed of 100% self identified Asian Pacific Islander youth and we're ready to make waves ahead of the 2020 election and beyond.


Helen: We really created this podcast as a home for conversations on the different key issues of the US election


Alex: and to discuss boating and civic engagement for Asian American Pacific Islanders


Helen: by Asian American Pacific Islanders. Alex, what was the first time you voted?


Alex: I voted for the first time in 2016. I had just turned 18 so I was super excited. I voted on my college campus, actually signed up to go in person. Got my little I voted sticker and yeah, it was a good day. What about you? When was the first time you voted?

Helen: I'm slightly jealous because you got the I voted sticker and I'm pretty sure absentee voters don't get the I voted stickers. So I voted in the primaries in March for the first time in 2016 and I requested my ballot from Virginia's voter registrar, and they mailed it to me. I went to my campus mail, got the envelope which had the ballot, and then an envelope that I needed to use the seal and mail it back. Virginia requires you to have a witness to sign when you're voting so I then proceeded to go upstairs in the dorms and knock on a friend's door and say hey, can you witness me voting and then sign off? She also had to vote in Massachusetts too, so we signed each other's ballots that day. It wasn't party at the polls. It was a different kind of party for voting absentee just because I needed to pull together some resources. But I remember back in 2015, when I entered my college campus for the first time, I went to WashU in St. Louis, Missouri, and there was a lot of changes that were going on, you know, with a lot of changes and being a young person going to college, not everyone gets to go to college and college is very expensive, of course, but when you come to a college campus, there seems to be a big atmosphere of excitement or be more active. When I got to WashU, I met some mentors and one of whom you're gonna hear from today on our podcast. Her name is Purvi Patel. She, at the time, was a new assistant director of the new center for diversity inclusion at WashU and she really became one of my mentors when I was in college. I think when you're going into college and you're suddenly thrust into this world of a lot of young people being super active, it can feel intimidating, and at WashU, we had so few Asian American student affairs staff members. So I was really glad that whenever anything related to civic engagement occurred, I could go to someone like Purvi and we had a ton of discussions. I believe that sometimes having an Asian American mentor provides a safe space, because maybe they know or they understand where you're coming from and they can help you process and unpack a lot of events that are happening.


Alex: Yeah, no, totally agree there. I think role models are so crucially important. On the topic of role models in college. We're actually talking about college voting today and the reason we're talking about it is because college students just don't vote. The majority of students who just recently earned their pillars to vote don't actually show up to the polls, which is kind of crazy, right? I was so excited when I turn 18. That was one of the big stepping stones right and more specifically, Asian American college students are atrocious at voting. Take for example, in 2018 in the midterm election, there is a college voter turnout of around 40% and that's already pretty bad. But Asian American males, for example, had to turn on rate of 22.6%. That is insane. That is literally half of the rate of the broader college electorate. So today we're trying to figure out, why is that the case? Why do college voters and more specifically Asian American college voters, not vote?


Helen: Yeah, I once heard this statistic that if all eligible youth voters actually voted, we would be such a force in the electorate, but we don't. And I think part of it is there actually are a lot of barriers that exist. But yeah, so we brought on Theresa Kuo from Washington University in St. Louis and Purvi Patel from the University of Chicago. Both of them are involved in political and civic engagement on their college campuses. And they're going to tell us today why this low voter turnout might be the case and what they're doing as two Asian Americans who are heavily involved in the college civic engagement space, what they're doing to reach out to the Asian American youth. And here we go. If you guys could introduce yourselves and what your roles are currently, where you're located, and overall your role with civic engagement.


Theresa Kouo: I'm Theresa Kouo. I am the Assistant Director for civic engagement education at the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis. I also currently serve on the Board of 18 Million Rising, which is a civic, Asian American organization that helps to organize folks on and offline in a former life.  Before I came to WashU, I was the executive director of APAIVote Michigan where my job was organizing Asian Americans in Michigan around the electoral process.


Purvi Patel: My name is Purvi Patel. I'm the Director of Campus and Civic Engagement at University of Chicago's Institute of Politics where I am really heavily focused on student civic engagement and democratic engagement. In my former life, I'm new to the Chicagoland area, but I am a chapter a member of NAPAWF, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, the Chicago chapter, and pretty plugged into South Asian political spaces and organizing spaces. I am a former St. Louis New Leaders Council Fellow so have thought a lot about progressive politics and used to, our fun fact and the reason why I'm so excited to do this with Theresa is that Theresa and I used to teach together for a two year civic engagement fellowship program.


Alex: So before we jump into it, we wanted to provide a little bit of a background on who Purvi and Teresa are past just their titles. So we started with the question that we all love to hear. Where are you from? No, where are you really from? We then dove a little bit deeper into what was their family background growing up and how did this shape their political identity in consciousness?


Helen: Talk about like where you guys grew up, and what was the attitudes within your family and your immediate community, and define community for us about civic engagement and about voting specifically in elections.


Purvi Patel: This is I think something that Theresa and I share in common as we grew up in like the middle of the country so we don't have a coastal Asian experience, which I feel like is different. So I grew up in in Dallas, Texas, I'm Gujju American, I'm upper caste, which I think it's important to acknowledge that. And my family expectations or what I learned about voting and political engagement was actually very little. My parents consistently voted, but they were also working full time balancing quite a lot. And so they didn't do the kinds of things that I think if I had a kid that I would do of, like taking my kid with me to vote, and modeling that kind of political engagement. They often didn't give to political campaigns. They gave philanthropically but often in ways that benefited their home communities so their village, school, or a temple in their village in India. We were democratic in a really conservative area, and my parents gave me pretty clear messages about like, don't talk about politics because you do not agree with the dominant worldview here and it's important to not stick out because there are consequences for that. I have a very vivid memory of being back home for the holidays at a restaurant and asking my little cousin who was in school, what his school based experience was like. I remember my dad saying,  "Be careful. We're at a restaurant. People here carry guns. Like you need to chill." I need to be really cognizant of who I'm around. My parents just don't have the skill sets and tools to talk about politics, but we talked about issues. We watch the news together a lot, but that's pretty much it. But also like, my dad was a member of a labor union his entire career and that is a form of political engagement and political organizing. I recently brought it up and asked him what the dynamic of what it was like being a part of a union, if he believed in unions, and that kind of thing. He's really clear about like, absolutely, I would not have been able to have any sort of career stability being the color of I am. That's like the kind of crude way he put it. He was never involved and he never talked about it.


Theresa Kouo: Just like listening to Purvi's story feels like yeah, we have a lot of similar experiences, but also very different. My mom has always been a part of a union, but because she needed to. She's actually kind of anti union. She's like, "I have to pay money into this and blah, blah, blah. I don't know what they're doing. People are lazy, which is, you know, very coated in some other things, too." But yeah, so I was born and raised in Michigan, living here in St. Louis, as the first time I've ever lived out of Michigan. So yay for love that will bring you to places you didn't think you'd ever be. I am the daughter of refugees, which I think is a really important way and lens that I think about my political engagement and why I do the things that I do, and also gives me a really different perspective. So the Vietnamese community tends to be kind of conservative if you look across Asian American ethnic groups.  I think part of that is that my parents came to the United States as refugees during the Reagan administration.  They were like this wonderful country opened up to us, and the president of the time and the leader who made that possible was a Republican. 


Alex: So the AAPI community is far from a monolith. Views differ across the diaspora. For example, in 2016, 65% of Asian, Indian registered voters supported Clinton over Trump. Compare that to 40% of Vietnamese registered voters. Take another example from the same survey. Around 29% of Vietnamese voters identified as Democrats compared to 41%. For Asian Americans more broadly, the reasons as to why the Asian American Pacific Islander community differ so much on their views is for a very, very wide variety of reasons. Maybe it's due to historical run-ins have their origin country with American imperialism. Maybe it's due to an emphasis of a particular culture on religion.


Theresa Kouo: We also have very strongly held Catholic religious values and so a lot of times, I find that my parents are sort of single issue voters, and that's around abortion. So anyone who is anti abortion is going to get their vote. Similarly, my parents, they voted all the time. I just remember them going, getting the stickers. But because they worked so much, we didn't actually ever have a conversation about like, what did that mean? But I do have some clear memories of my dad, just saying, "Oh, we have to go vote. We're American. It's our civic duty." We have to and I think part of the refugee experience is that they think they're indebted to this country, and they feel like that's part of how they have to participate. They came as refugees seeking political asylum. They were leaving a communist regime. They have a lot of fears about socialism because that's their lived experience. And so I even think about today when we get into a lot of political discussions about different candidates, my parents are very scared of a political culture that is shifting more towards socialism. They see it as dangerous. And so a lot of times that sort of spins into, you have no idea what you're talking about. You've never seen what socialists do, and what communists do to people. And so I have to think and tread very carefully about how I approach conversations about candidates, parties, and political ideologies with my parents. It wasn't until college that I really came into my own political understanding. It's where I shifted how I thought about my identity, less as being Vietnamese, but more about being Asian American, because of the political power that holds. I don't very often say that I'm Vietnamese American, but now that I'm in the context of higher education, I do feel it necessitates that I do say that more openly because my last name now doesn't indicate that when you disaggregate the data: Vietnamese Americans are graduating high school at lower rates, are not getting into some of these elite colleges and universities in the way that say Chinese or Indian students are,  they tend to be lower income, have challenges with immigration, etc. I think now, I'm a little bit more intentional about saying that I'm Vietnamese American.


Alex: So Purvi actually recently wrote a Forbes article talking about voter suppression and in it she writes, "The student's political engagement is often impeded by voter suppression and unprecedented social and political challenges."  Wait, wait, hold up. Are we just lazy?  I thought we just don't like voting. What are some of these structural barriers?


Helen: What exactly, why are college students facing voter suppression?


Purvi Patel: It's hard to vote. Tt's hard to vote with a mail in ballot. It's hard to vote in an absentee process and I think Theresa and I probably experienced this more. We're not at universities that are regional. Our voter engagement strategy or registration strategy has to be a 51 plus strategy, which means that we have to have the capacity to help students navigate voting and registering and turning out in Texas as well as Illinois. The rules are very different. And we have seen some states shut down polling places, limit early voting.  All of those things make it harder to exercise the franchise of voting.  I was on a call and was talking about coaching a student through a process. They were from Tennessee originally and they wanted to vote in their local elections. That's the home community they cared about, were informed about, and they wanted to continue to exercise their voice in.  They were going through the process to try and register and they didn't realize until like the last moment that they had registered, but they weren't eligible to get a mail in ballot because of absentee rules. Being a college student wasn't an effective rule for that board of elections process. And so something that I have struggled with in the last like three or four months is the assumption that most major voter engagement processes and programs and people who are doing this work, as they're engaging with youth, the kind of dominant theory or the prevailing assumption is that youth just don't participate. Like it's their individual choice, when really, there are like systems and processes that make it exceedingly difficult for them to participate even when they want to, even when it's not a matter of individual choice, desire, or a lack of willingness or effort. Those structures make it really hard for a young person to navigate effectively, and COVID and the season that we've got coming up, I think we're going to have to navigate it in even more complicated ways.


Theresa Kouo: Yeah, and you think about like, college students, this is generally their first time voting. Someone who's been recently naturalized, they also don't know what the process is to vote and it can be really intimidating. So when we're thinking about in person voting, like, what's all the things that you have to have, what lines do you go in? What are all of these stations? It's really unfamiliar. And so part of it is just like helping us understand all the mechanics.  One of the things that we're contending with is that Missouri is one of the very few states that still requires a notary. Your ballots need to be notarized. And so what we're thinking about the COVID is like more students are going to be voting absentee or voting by mail in ballots. Thankfully, we're even allowed to do mail-in voting now that the governor has signed a temporary relief to allow mail-in voting but only through December of this year. After that, we go back to needing to have a reason to vote absentee. So I think one of the things that we're working on is an August election. It's is a local election we have in which the Medicaid expansion proposal will be on, and our university is really invested in that. And so we really want to make sure that this can be not only a practice for November, but like getting students involved in these local processes. We are spreading the word across faculty and staff to say like, if you can become a notary, you should do it because that's going to become vital in this election season. There are all these hoops that students and young people have to jump through and if they don't know and they don't know who to go to. There's so much misinformation out there.


Helen: One of the biggest misconceptions I hear is people think when they get their driver's license they automatically are registered to vote, which for my state is not true. It's like you can do it while you're there, but it's not like once you get a license, you're in the system.


Theresa Kouo: Yeah, you generally have to opt in.


Purvi Patel: Yeah, and some states like I think Florida pre registers 16 year olds, which just means that you'll get a nudge when you're of age to actually be able to vote. But no, that's not it! That's not true! I think people have a lot of assumptions about having already registered and don't realize that a part of the process, a part of the skill building that Theresa and I are trying to teach students is that there's a lot that you need to do to verify, to be prepared to actually be able to exercise your vote and to be informed about then what's on the ballot to make an informed civic choice. The other thing that we didn't mention, that I think folks are going to start thinking about is actually how can young people be in service to boards of elections as poll workers, because the typical profile of a poll worker is usually someone who's a senior citizen and in a high risk category for COVID. So you know, if you're going to go to a frat party, you could probably be a poll worker and like, give back to your community and figuring out like, where can young people uniquely fit into this particular election to make sure our vote and voices can be counted.


Alex: This issue of poll workers is very, very real. In early April, the Wisconsin government decreased the number of polling sites that they had for their primaries from 180 to 5, just 5 across the entire state, like Purvi said, if you're able bodied and you can go to a frat party, you can probably become a poll worker. Go out and just google how to become a poll worker and see if you can help out in your local area.


Theresa Kouo: And I want to have one other thing that we're doing that maybe we haven't done in the past is trying to think through more opportunities to educate students around what are their rights when they go to the polls, right. What does it mean to get a provisional ballot or request a provisional ballot? How do you advocate for yourself if something happens? How do you advocate for others, if you see something happening, that shouldn't be?


Alex: So okay, we get it. The system kind of sucks. There's all these rules. There's all these rights. There's all this and that. And sometimes even when we do go out and vote in mass numbers, it feels like sometimes things don't even change in the way we want them to change. It can be really easy to just say, f**k it, I'm not voting anymore. Purvi tells us why this is the wrong mentality to have but goes deeper into why this might be the case. Why are we becoming more and more jaded?


Theresa Kouo: We are in an age of direct action and protests and of deep skepticism of institution. And so when you're doing democratic engagement work for youth voters, in this time, where many of their institutions are falling short in so many clear ways and not speaking to young people's voices, needs, or issues at the level of urgency that people are feeling that the institutions need to be responding, it can be really hard to make the case for why it's important to participate.


Speaker 1: We will also celebrate the future end of real slavery and we all will overcome...


Purvi Patel: Attention that I come across in my work persistently across both when I was doing Institutional Diversity work at Wash U and here is like, what's the method of engagement that has value? And I think for youth voters for college age students, it is something that I grappled with at that time in my life and continue to grapple with but like, what's the right means of engagement? What the most powerful means of engagement? And what's the most valuable means of engagement? And often students get into a space where like organizing direct action is seen as like the most dominating pathway for effective change and I think it is certainly one pathway, but it can be hard to make the case for that and how voting fits in with that.


Theresa Kouo: Part of what Purvi is making me think of is like, in a way, how we approach our initiative, right? It's like, there's going to be students who come who are like, yeah, I'm going to vote like that's the political action that they're going to take and they're ready to take it. And that's not always connected to like, Okay, so how does that impact policy and community change work? And then you have students who are coming from like the community change piece, like I want these things to change in my community, however, that's defined, whether it's the campus community or others, and so how do we help them make that connection to like the electoral process and policy. So at WashU we borrow the term from Nancy Thomas and the Institute for Democracy in Higher Education at Tufts University.  We borrow from them the the concept of Politics 365. It's not just about elections on that one day or those major elections every four years with the president of the top of the ticket, but its power you engaging in the political process all year long, whether that's through engaging in tough conversations around issues, whether that's paying attention to all of your local elections and participating in all those, whether that's through protest and advocacy work to hold your elected leaders accountable. How are we building programming that helps students see the range of activities that they can engage in? How do we meet students where they're at right, so now we're creating these like academic voter engagement hubs, where we're asking like academic departments. So for instance, we've piloted with biology, which is one of the like larger majors for undergrads. So they have a team of faculty and staff. We're like, yeah, we really want students to like be engaging in this. We've trained some of their faculty and staff, we've given them a kit of stamps and envelopes, key dates, phone numbers, and then a direct line of contact to us for any challenges or questions that they have. And so our hope is to replicate this across the campus, right. And one of the ways that we're trying to be strategic about it is looking at our voter turnout data and seeing which disciplines did we see lower turnout from students. So it typically is in some of the sciences, in engineering.


Purvi Patel: Our data tracks pretty similarly at U Chicago, like our STEM focused engagement is a lot lower. So part of what we're doing is we've created a student organizing strategy that's in tuned with states so that we can get the specificity around different needs and timelines and organize by regions. But we're also doing a similar effort in partnership with registered student organizations, as well as academic units in an attempt to try to meet students across the board.


Alex: Of course, it's always the STEM nerds, am I right? Hey, I can be a doctor mom, but at least I can vote. This raises a really important point, though. Why are certain groups in certain demographics within the college electorate not showing out at the same rates? It turns out that the system does not lend itself well to communities of color more broadly.


Theresa Kouo: And then another point on our data is the lower turnout rates of students of color. And so we're trying to be much more intentional about how do we reached out to our students of color on campus to get their leaders trained, because I think they need to be the messengers and they need to be the ones who help their peers along. How do we get them the resources and tools that they need to be able to do that more effectively?


Purvi Patel: Something that I think about a lot in partnership is thinking about communities of color is certainly those students are not voting, some of the same rates and Asian American students amongst students of color nationally are not voting. I mean, they're failing. 


Theresa Kouo: It's not like B failing, right?


Purvi Patel: No, like failing failing. Peter Auntie will tell you that you're failing. But something that I think about a lot is actually those communities are very politically engaged. The thing that I was talking about earlier about the deep skepticism. I think your strategies around engagement and your interventions with communities of color have to engage with how systems are not actually meeting your needs. Because I think to say that, like students of color are not politically engaged on campus, the last 10 years have been our litmus test, but that is absolutely not true! Right. Like the fact that Princeton's Board of Trustees finally dropped the Woodrow Wilson name that took years and years of black student organizing. They're meeting this moment now, but after quite a lot of student pain, and that narrative is true on many different campuses.


Alex: They're completely right. And really, this limits the extent to which these institutions can reach out to communities of color and really make an impact there. Theresa and Purvi go on to really mention how much of an impact this truly has, and what needs to be done in order to mitigate this.


Theresa Kouo: So my former work was around engaging Asian Americans in voting. Purvi, have you met any other Asian Americans who do the work that we do on college campuses? I think we would be like the ONLY two in the country.


Purvi Patel: The only two maybe there's like a couple more. But like, it's like less than five.


Helen: I assume coastal cities have more. 


Purvi Patel: But to be honest, like in the university space, I just was on a text message with Theresa, where I talked about this in a university space, civic engagement spaces are very white. It's like oppressively white, annoyingly white. So there's not a lot of representation of any communities of color and of those that are communities of color, there's not a lot of Asian American representation. 


Theresa Kouo: And so like one of the things that I think about is that we operate in institutions of whiteness, in spaces of whiteness. In terms of like civic learning in democratic engagement, it's largely white. And despite doing this work in an Asian American context before coming to this university, I find it really challenging to engage Asian American students. The years of civic engagement work leading up to this moment have largely been on how do we just engage broadly, the masses, but we're coming to a point now where we have to be smarter and more nuanced, so that we can engage students who are in the margins. And so I think people are trying to figure out how to do that while working in a system of whiteness.


Purvi Patel: I was on a national call where there were people that were from all over, and I think in particular, someone that was working in Louisville, Kentucky was like, I'm concerned about the fall with what's happening in my community. And someone answered as if it was just about COVID. And people were like, no, like black people are dying! Like what don't you understand about it! There's multiple crisises happening right now and where the conversation ended, and this is where I got really frustrated is people are like, well, we've got to be really careful about being nonpartisan. Really, it's like, no, we're seeing people be savvy about how you stay truly multi partisan and non partisan and teach people how they can still have a political voice, but it takes some savviness. Right? It's like the Michelle Obama, what's her organization called? When we all vote? I thought, their calm strategy around teaching people criminal justice reform, if you care about criminal justice reform, what are the like from the National to the Local, who are the people and the players and stakeholders that affect these issues and the Civic literacy that we need to be engaging with around that, to just be hamstrung by being non partisan and not engaging the moment is absolutely idiotic, and it makes you effective! And so of course, you're not engaging those communities. And of course, they don't take you seriously and they don't have any sort of relationship of trust with you. There's a lot of white saviorism. I mean, this field grew out of surface trips, it didn't grow out of culturally responsive political organizing. It grew out of higher education's commitment to thinking about their students as people who do charity work, not as people who are political being who navigate systems and structures and who can leverage and organize their voice to create change. That was never the prevailing assumption. And that's not the roots of this work and I think that's part of what constrains it.


Helen: And that concludes our conversation with Purvi and Teresa. I want to leave you all with some actions that you can concretely take to make an impact when it comes to voter engagement.  One, know the specific situation of your state when it comes to voter registration. There are a lot of resources online, and as they said in the podcast, each state vary so much in terms of timing, age, notaries, who are impartial witnesses and when you sign your documents, and even voter ID laws.  Get to know these things early so you can be prepared for the primaries and the general election during these very uncertain times.  Two, get to know vote by mail policies where you are, and the safety measures to keep you and the people around you safe,  Three, know your voter rights. The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, has a great resource called "Know Your Rights", voting rights, where you can look up what are your rights when you go to vote in person, or by mail, if you're turned away, when you're waiting in line, all of these things to ensure that your vote is counted and your voice is heard. And finally, as Purvi and Theresa said, there's not that many Asian Americans working within this space sometimes. If you're interested, get involved, be that mentor and role model for somebody else. I know that I've been so grateful for my mentors. And thank you all so much for tuning in to our first episode of Fresh off the Vote.


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