For many UChicago students, the political world can feel hopelessly distant, offering few opportunities for input or meaningful engagement. One Recognized Student Organization (RSO) is working towards ridding UChicago of this prevalent mentality, by studying politics, engaging potential voters, and making democratic participation easier.
“The University of Chicago Democracy Initiative is a nonpartisan, student-led organization that works to increase civic engagement, voter education, and general participation in democracy, both on the UChicago campus as well as the Southside of Chicago,” said Ian Henson, a third-year and the Executive Director of UCDI.
Founded two years ago by now fourth-year Adam Reynolds, UCDI received official RSO recognition last year. The current executive team consists of Henson, Reynolds, and four project managers, who oversee projects relating to UCDI’s core priorities.
UCDI now holds meetings in Harper 130 at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. The RSO hopes to engage more and more students, even those who don’t feel politically inclined.
“Another thing we wanted to be is a space on campus that was engaging students who wouldn’t normally think about politics. So we wanted to be going out into the community, tabling, talking to people, reaching out to people, convincing them to sign up for newsletters,” Reynolds said.
When UCDI first launched, its goal was simple: improve voter turnout on campus. This involves running buses to polls, tabling across campus and on move-in days to register potential voters in person, and helping the IOP run Turbovote, an application that partners with colleges across the country and sends updates about elections and registration deadlines.
“We founded the UCDI because we felt that students on campus weren’t engaging enough with the political process in a lot of ways. The voting rates, for example, were not only significantly below the national average for voters but significantly below people in our age group and other universities similar to ours. We saw a huge gap in that,” Reynolds said.
While continuing these voter registration efforts, the group has taken on new tasks as well. One recent project involves a campaign to bring a polling site on campus. UCDI settled on McCormick Tribune Lounge as an ideal location, even garnering University approval for designating the lounge as a voting site for the 2018 midterm elections. Unfortunately, a sinkhole at a neighboring intersection and broken sidewalks made the location potentially noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
UCDI, hardly deterred, organized a letter-writing campaign earlier this quarter, requesting that Hyde Park’s Alderman Leslie Hairston fix the roads to ensure that the lounge is compliant with regulations. While a response from the group’s letters is pending, Henson is “optimistic that she will engage with her constituents on this very important civic issue.”
Consistent across UCDI’s varied efforts to enhance democracy is the value the group places on engaging local representatives. Their weekly Citizen Bulletin newsletter, for instance, educates subscribers about the actions of their local elected officials, from city hall to the Cook County Board to state government all the way up to national representatives.
“Nobody really remembers all the time that they have an alderman or a state senator, but those are the people you can actually engage more with on a closer level… That’s the goal of local government: it’s there for citizens. Citizens can easily engage,” Henson said.
The Paul Douglas Institute, UCDI’s newest endeavor, fulfills a similar goal: giving students an opportunity to research issues relevant to local and regional politics. Reynolds envisions the UCDI-led Paul Douglas Institute serving as “a think tank that tries to focus students’ energy on opportunities to work organizations they maybe wouldn’t have been able to have research done for them otherwise.”
Named after a former UChicago economics professor turned longtime Illinois Senator, the Paul Douglas Institute gives students the chance to conduct original research in the hopes of inspiring policy change across the region. Some long-term projects involve researching the impacts of a cap-and-trade bill on the Midwest, studying options for statewide campaign finance reform, and partnering with the mayor of Gary, Indiana to investigate the influence of food deserts.
Looking forward, Reynolds and Henson envision UCDI conducting more research, surveying more students, and mobilizing more voters both on and off campus. But more abstractly, they see UCDI as an “incubator” to develop broad student ideas into tangible research or public engagement projects.
“If people have ideas and have projects with democracy and civic engagement that are of particular interest to them, if they come to us we can develop a plan to go out and execute it,” Henson said.
Ultimately, both Henson and Reynolds are hopeful about the RSO’s future.
“I’d like to come back in 20 years and see that the UChicago Democracy Initiative is still out there, registering people to vote, getting them out to vote and that UChicago is a leading school in the country in terms of that kind of participation,” Reynolds said.