Election Helps Community College Kids Find Their Voice

INTRO: For many New Yorkers the presidential election is in the rear view mirror, but for a group of first-time voters at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the revelations from that day keep on coming. WNYC’s Siddhartha Mitter reports.

SUZANNE: Freedom from your parents...religious freedom...what else...

REPORTER: Every morning at eight the 15 or so students in Suzanne Guillette’s class at BMCC do a free writing exercise. With their desks arranged in a circle in the small, spare classroom, they loosen up by thinking out loud about the day’s topic.

SUZANNE: We’ll take about seven minutes and I want you to write on the topic of free...whatever you think of when you think about free...

REPORTER: As per its custom, the class did an exercise just like this one on the morning after the presidential election. The topic that day was obvious. And although this class is Remedial English -- the spontaneous essays they produced about their Election Day experience were full of expression.

JOEMY: Joemy Rodriguez, now 19 but when I voted I was 18, and I live in Brooklyn.

SADIE: Sadie Hill, Bronx, New York, age 19.

MARKYN: I’m Markyn Gonzalez, I live in Prospect in the Bronx, I’m 20 years old.

JOEMY: My aunt and I were walking to the store to get milk, the streets were quiet. When we reached the store all of a sudden all everyone heard was “Obama! Obama won!”

SADIE: At that moment, I remembered the struggle my parents went through, just like many, to come to America and obtain citizenship.

MARKYN: … As soon as he got that 270th vote, it was like an earthquake hit Prospect Avenue. All you could hear were sirens from the fire station and horns from cars, people outside yelling, and fire crackers popping…

JOEMY: … Even though this was a happy event we knew we had to hurry home because some idiot was about to start shooting. I heard the victory speech by Obama and I almost cried. I was making egg sandwiches at about midnight listening to the speech, every so often I would yell a little, I believe! I believe and start laughing all by myself…

SADIE: I can finally say now that I am proud to be an American, and cannot wait to share my experience with the next generation.

REPORTER: And just how to share their stories – for maximum impact – was the topic in class one recent morning…..The students had compiled their essays into a collection, and now they were trying to write an introduction.

SUZANNE: What do you think? How does it read?

JOEMY: I like the last one, and the second one…

REPORTER: They didn’t just want this to be a writing exercise, like others they’d done about their favorite food, or someone in their family. They felt like they had something to tell the world.

REPORTER: As they went along, the students kept coming back to why they wanted to broadcast their feelings. Arkeithsha [Ar-kee-sha] Fraser-Age put it this way:

ARKEITHSHA: We can influence somebody else’s life whenever they vote, when they read how our experience was, the next time they’re going to decide, I’m gonna vote.

REPORTER: This was the first time these young people had the chance to vote – but not all of them took advantage. Like Charmaine Worrell. She saw the long lines in East New York and she just didn’t have the patience:

REPORTER: Do you regret it?


REPORTER: Why not?

CHARMAINE: No, I’m just playing, I do regret it, can’t you see I’m about to cry?? I wanna be a part of it too. I think I would have felt different… I would have been way more excited, I’m not even that excited, because I feel like I didn’t do nothing to help.

REPORTER: The class discussion was therapeutic. Charmaine thought she was the only one who didn’t vote. but neither had Markyn, nor Felipe…

FELIPE: The whole time I was watching the election the word ‘Dammit’ kept floating around in my head. The next time a presidential election comes around, I will definitely vote. No more regrets.

REPORTER: By the end of the class the students had agreed on their intro – and were enthusiastic about getting their stories out. They planned to hand out the collection at the college, and hopefully put it up on a website. Joemy was dreaming big:

JOEMY: I want it to go far, I want it to be on TV, radio, international, because I think it’s great that we share our experiences, and I think it would be good if everybody else did the same thing, because everybody has their own unique story…

REPORTER: Because, they said, they found out two things this year. Every vote counts – and so does every voice.

REPORTER: For WNYC I’m Siddhartha Mitter