Karen Aderer has a favorite quote she likes to share with her social work students to illustrate the importance of getting involved, particularly with voting: “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
“As social workers, if we don’t show up and say, ‘Hey, we need these sorts of services, this funding, these agencies that help with these sorts of problems,’ we’re very likely to lose those agencies and that funding,” says Aderer, a lecturer in the Southern Miss School of Social Work. “The reality is that who we elect impacts what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded. Social work as a whole has been putting more and more focus into the idea that part of what we need to be doing is influencing the political realm.”
“The reality is that who we elect impacts what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded.”
That mindset is what’s driving a new grant-funded initiative to increase voter registration and turnout this fall through two human rights classes that Aderer and visiting instructor Sheekey White-Chapman are teaching.
The $2,500 grant is one of four awarded in the state from the nonpartisan Forward Mississippi Fund of the Community Foundation for Mississippi. Aderer says the classes will use standard voter registration forms and resources from the Mississippi Secretary of State website.
Each class – one on the Hattiesburg campus and one at the Gulf Park campus – will get $1,000 to be split among four to five working groups that students will form; each campus will also get $250 for an election-night party.
“What’s cool is that there are funds available,” Aderer says. “They can throw a voter registration party, print out materials or some novel item as a giveaway, or they can use it to travel to another part of the state. We’re asking them to focus on marginalized groups, those less likely to be registered to vote or to turn out to vote and therefore less likely to have a voice in the political system … and to end up being the ones ‘on the menu.’ ”
Students in both classes will form their own groups around target audiences based on characteristics such as faith, communities, schools, workplaces, race and/or geography; they will develop creative ideas for getting new voter registrations and ensure those registrants get to the polls.
Alex Proulx, a Gulf Park student from Waveland, Mississippi, plans to target high schools and the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Neshoba County. Students sometimes don’t realize they can register to vote as 17-year-olds, as long as they are 18 on election day, she says; Native Americans often have to leave the reservation and travel to register and to vote, which can be a deterrent.
“I just think this grant is very important, and we hope we get people to vote – and even students on campus – and get them registered to vote,” says Proulx, who serves as the voting chair for the Gulf Park BSW Club. “I think it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to have members of our class change the way they think about things. Registering to vote is not as easy as people think, and the circumstances behind it can be difficult at times. It will great fun and a learning experience for everyone.”
Rachel Lahasky, a clinical instructor in the School of Social Work and one of the grant principals, says the project goal is not just to increase voter registration but also to increase voter turnout.
“Our students will follow the people they have registered to make sure they actually get to the polls,” she says. “The group that gets the most to the poll will win bragging rights.”
Aderer says voter registration is a natural fit in a class focused on human rights.
“We talk a lot about civil rights, and voting is a civil right,” she says. “We also look at things that have kept people from having equality in the past … a literacy test or voter ID initiatives that are happening, and gerrymandering. These all relate to civil rights that are human rights.”
Social work students, she adds, are more interested in politics than ever before.
“More and more say they hope to one day hold political office, particularly female students. Which I think is wonderful,” she says. “We want to create a campus culture and a school culture where we value voting, that it is part of being a good citizen, part of being a good advocate and a good social worker.”
On-Campus Voter Registration Opportunities
The respective undergraduate BSW clubs on each campus will hold voter registration drives in September:
- Gulf Park: Sept. 12, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Hardy Hall; Sept. 13, 2 to 6 p.m., Fleming Education Center Rotunda
- Hattiesburg: Sept. 25-26, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Shoemaker Square
In addition, Brandon Rue, a communication studies major from Meridian and president of the Southern Miss College Democrats, has been hosting voter registration drives each Tuesday and Thursday on the Hattiesburg campus as part of a fellowship through Common Cause, a national nonpartisan organization dedicated to democracy.
Through Oct 6., registration tables will be in Shoemaker Square and the Thad Cochran Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Mississippi Secretary of State’s office has created an online voter information center, Y’all Vote, with resources for voter registration, military and overseas voting, absentee voting, voter ID, county contacts and more.