Diversity and Democracy

The Power to Influence Positive Change: A Student’s Perspective

In 2008, the country was on the cusp of a truly historic moment, with Barack Obama on his way to becoming the first African American president of the United States. On Election Day, a powerful energy emanated from the streets as people waved flags and chanted “USA.” We were a nation filled with pride! I was imbued with a great sense of optimism, hopeful that a much needed change was in the wind. But somehow, I managed to skip casting my vote. I understood so little about how the government worked, and even less about the electoral process.

All that would change before the next presidential election. In 2011, I began my academic career at the University of Houston–Downtown (UHD). I was wholly unprepared for the college experience, having taken only a few courses at a junior college after receiving my GED. I could never have guessed that I would encounter other students at UHD who would completely change the way I viewed the world.

In my first semester, I took a class where I met and became friends with a fellow student, Vasooda Kumar. She shared a story with me that inaugurated my journey into civic engagement. Vasooda told me that on her birthday, she encouraged her friends and family members to accompany her into the streets of her home municipality in Canada to share food with the local homeless population, a practice she called Sandwich Runs. Finding this selfless act truly inspiring, I suggested doing something similar in the community surrounding UHD, where homelessness is a major issue, and Vasooda agreed.

As Vasooda and I looked for ways to launch our UHD Sandwich Runs, a mutual friend suggested that I contact our school’s Student Government Association (SGA) for help. In the SGA offices, I met Ivan Sanchez, who was then UHD’s student body president and who became another inspirational friend. With Ivan’s support, SGA created a committee to organize the Sandwich Runs as a volunteer project. Things seemed to be going well, until our research revealed a recently passed Houston ordinance that made it illegal to feed more than five people in one setting without permission from the city. Discouraged, but not beaten, we contacted a local nonprofit organization, Food Not Bombs (FNB), which was already fighting the ordinance. Although the ordinance remains in effect, FNB obtained special permission for UHD’s volunteers to hold the Sandwich Runs.

This experience helped me become conscious of how local government affects me and my community. I became increasingly involved in SGA, working with a planning committee to launch the first annual Walk2Vote Initiative. This three-tiered initiative begins with a deputation drive to recruit students as registrars who then campaign to register as many student voters as possible. The initiative concludes with the Walk2Vote event, where students march together to vote en masse following speeches from prominent members of local government (including, in the initiative’s first year, mayor Annise Parker).

The first Walk2Vote event shone a light on the power students have to influence positive change in our government and led me to become even more passionately involved. I have since written several research papers on homelessness in Houston, led endorsement campaigns during city elections, assisted in spearheading a statewide SGA, and collaborated with state officials and members of the White House staff in an effort to make higher education more affordable. I have also participated in public deliberations held by the UHD Center for Public Deliberations, where I learned how valuable and influential my peers’ opinions could be. I went on to be elected to two successive terms as UHD student body president, and am currently in the infancy of my second term.

A long and winding road has led me toward becoming the active citizen I am continually attempting to be. This road was built on motivational friendships, the empowerment offered by a first-rate university, and an education that ignited a fire inside of me. I am certain that there are many paths to civic responsibility, and I sincerely hope that my tale inspires others on their journeys. The route, however, isn’t nearly as important as the destination.

John Locke is a student at the University of Houston–Downtown.

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