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How CUNY students impacted the 2020 election cycle

The civic engagement this election cycle was unlike any other. With the City University of New York’s (CUNY) student body being some of the most vulnerable people to the consequences of public policy, it’s no surprise that student advocates took to organizing this year. 

The Knight News spoke to Navjot Pal Kaur, a CUNY Baruch College graduate in political science who was extremely active this election cycle. Kaur is described as an “organizer by trade” by Smitha Varghese, former legislative director of the University Student Senate. Kaur talked about the various ways she went out to encourage people to vote, from calling citizens in her local district to directly knocking on doors while campaigning on behalf of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid. She also started a blog called “Kaur Republic.” As she puts it, “A lot of our politics aren’t being represented the way they should be. … A lot of gatekeepers in our community continue to sell out to the highest bidder. That blog serves as a push back against the establishment forces and serves as a vehicle for young Sikh individuals.”

She reflected on Hillary Clinton’s race in 2016, and her loss of the popular vote in Michigan by 10,000 votes. Kaur views the situation as 10,000 people deciding it wasn’t worth going to polling sites to cast their ballot. When Kaur went out organizing this year, she said, “I really emphasize the fact that people have their own political power…[and that] accountability doesn’t just stop at the ballot box, it continues into the legislative session.”

Kaur’s message is one that resonates strongly with Yisroel Goldberg, a sophomore political science major at Queens College. Goldberg recently campaigned for president-elect Joe Biden in Florida, a “swing” state (one that isn’t definitively associated with one political party). When asked why he would campaign during these tumultuous times, Goldberg cited the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, where far-right supporters harmed civilians protesting the rally. Biden noted that President Donald Trump’s response to the incident (“There were very fine people on both sides”) prompted him to run.
“Biden stood against anti-Semitism [and white supremacy],” Goldberg said, explaining that this strongly resonated with him and eventually led him to campaign for Biden as a field organizer in the Orlando region. 

Goldberg reflected on CUNY’s impact on his motivation to get involved. “Because of how diverse CUNY is, it definitely opened me up. Coming from a monorothodox Jewish community…and being in a more diverse school…seeing the fear and what another 4 years would’ve meant to my peers, it was incumbent upon me to take a stand and do as much as I possibly could.” 

Whereas Goldberg and Kaur were able to be actively involved, the reality for many CUNY students has dramatically shifted. Senior political science major and student activist Enrique Peña spent his time helping out behind the scenes, using his bilingual skills in Spanish and English to translate the messages of various candidates, notably assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, to help convey their messages to the Latino community. Peña explained that during the pandemic, his circumstances drastically changed, as was the case with the majority of CUNY students. Peña, who’s now working full-time while attending Queens College as a full-time student, lamented the pandemic’s restraint on his ability to campaign to a larger extent. Nonetheless, he hopes that his contributions were worthwhile and that they helped those looking to understand the candidates’ values.

Goldberg shared his hope for what civilians, particularly the younger generation, take away from this election. “ I hope that, because of the success of this election, young people can now understand that on a local or national level you can make a huge difference by getting involved and organizing with some of your friends, as I witnessed it firsthand in this election.” 

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