Just Politics: Hey Y.A.L.L., let’s save democracy

On this episode of the podcast, the hosts are joined by two of the voices behind NETWORK’s Young Advocates Leadership Lab (Y.A.L.L.) to talk about building momentum for the 2024 election.

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College students today have grown up through a recession, a pandemic, and an unprecedented era of digitalization and political upheaval. They are also now part of the largest voting bloc in the country, composed of Millennial and Gen Z voters.  

Young people have tremendous electoral power, but are often unequipped to engage in our democratic processes. In an era awash in information (and disinformation), how can young people channel their energy around justice into actionable change?  

That’s where NETWORK’s new Young Advocates Leadership Lab (Y.A.L.L.) comes in.  

This week on the Just Politics podcast, our hosts are joined by Chelsea Puckett, NETWORK’s Grassroots Mobilization Outreach and Education Specialist. Chelsea is leading the inaugural year of Y.A.L.L., working to equip college students with the tools they need to be multi-issue voters, to energize and register their classmates to vote, and to speak about the issues they care about.   

One of those students in the inaugural cohort, Baylee Fingerhut, joins us this week as well. A student at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Fingerhut became committed to advocating for a more equitable health care system after her father’s cancer diagnosis and will vote in a presidential election for the first time this year. About young voters like herself, she says, “I think we’re all we’re sparked up, we’re fired up… we finally want to use our voices and use our ability to vote to uphold the things that we see are important.”  

Check out episode four of Just Politics to learn more about what college students are doing to build momentum for multi-issue voting ahead of the 2024 election (spoiler alert: it involves goats).  

As you listen, please be aware that NETWORK Advocates is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to advancing the principles of Catholic social justice and does not endorse or oppose any candidate or party in the upcoming election.

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The following is a transcript of this episode of Just Politics:

Joan Neal: Hi everyone, this is Joan, coming to you the morning after the first presidential debate. I’m sure there may be lots of complicated feelings that have come up. But let’s remember that this election year is ultimately about our commitment to democracy, the promise it holds, and the freedom it offers to all people. And the good news is that we the people have the power to safeguard our freedoms. That’s why it’s crucial that we all participate in our political process and use our vote to ensure these freedoms endure.

In today’s episode, we speak with some amazing young people who are doing just that. And hopefully, their story is just what we need to get to work.

Eilis McCulloh: Welcome back to Season 4 of Just Politics, a podcast collaboration between NETWORK and U.S. Catholic, where we discuss the intersection of faith and politics. I’m Sister Eilis McCulloh.

Colin Martinez Longmore: I’m Colin Martinez Longmore.  

Joan: And I’m Joan Neal. This season of Just Politics will highlight the freedoms we hold dear in this country, freedoms NETWORK articulates in our Equally Sacred Checklist – our main election education resource.

Colin: In the last few election cycles, one factor has made a critical difference.

Eilis: The dark money?

Colin: Well… yes. But what I’m talking about is the turnout of young people. Younger millennials and Gen Z in particular, turning out in massive numbers to vote.

Joan: That’s right, Colin. As our country faces major demographic transitions, young adults are making their mark. And we at NETWORK realize that we have a responsibility to reach out and engage them.

Eilis: This past spring, our colleague Chelsea Puckett launched the Young Advocates Leadership Lab – or Y.A.L.L. – on college campuses across the country.

Ten Y.A.L.L. leaders were selected from faith-based universities in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, California, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to provide nonpartisan electoral education and engagement opportunities for their peers.  To learn more about the program, listen to my conversation with Chelsea and Y.A.L.L. student leader Baylee Fingerhut from St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Eilis: Hey, Chelsea and Baylee. Thank you so much for joining us today on Just Politics. I know that I’m excited that we are highlighting NETWORK’s Y.A.L.L. program on this season. But before we begin, I’m wondering if you, Chelsea, can tell us a little bit more about Y.A.L.L.

Chelsea Puckett: Y.A.L.L. stands for Young Advocates Leadership Lab. We have a cohort of students from Catholic and Christian schools across the country. And we meet every week to fuse together training and civic engagement and education. We’re able to work with students and share resources on things like learning how to structure Get Out the Vote work on their campuses and how to use social media as a modern-day advocate. It’s both hands-on work and work that helps students build skills for their future.

Eilis: Excellent. And this is the first year for Y.A.L.L., correct?

Chelsea: Yes, this is our pilot year.

Eilis: Excellent. And we have with us today Baylee, who’s one of our Y.A.L.L. students. Baylee, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Baylee Fingerhut: Yeah, hi, my name is Baylee Fingerhut. I am going into my junior year at St. Joseph’s University. And at St. Joe’s, I study public policy and I’m getting a minor in business intelligence and analytics, just because I feel like data’s everywhere right now.

Eilis: Very true! How did you find out about the Y.A.L.L. program?

Baylee: Yeah, so I knew that my sophomore year I wanted to kind of do something beyond what I was doing on campus, to really put together and put to use the skills that I was learning in the classroom, with my liberal arts background and also for my major-specific classes. So I was looking on Handshake, which is the website that we have at school that will do like job postings and internship postings, and I knew that I wanted something part-time and I knew that I wanted to actually take on something that would put a lot of my skills to use and build them up.

So I saw the posting for the Y.A.L.L. cohort and that it was its inaugural year, and I saw that it really focused on Get Out The Vote work and peer civic engagement and government. And I was like, this is literally perfect, I want this so bad! So I filled out the application right then and there. I went to the career center. I was like, please look at my resume so I can literally submit this right now. And then I submitted it and I met with Chelsea. In our first conversation, I knew that this was something I was really interested in. Like it made me want it even more. And I went through the interview process and all of that. And here I am.

Eilis: Excellent. We’re so excited to have you on board and I think your excitement about Y.A.L.L. is really contagious.

I’m wondering with both of you, can you talk about some of the activities that you’ve been doing on campus at St. Joe’s and then also maybe a little bit more about the cohort and the things that you’re learning each week?

Baylee: I can talk about the St. Joe’s stuff if Chelsea wants to talk about like the more cohort-specific stuff. But at St. Joe’s, we have successfully put on one voter registration event so far. So our cohort started in March and all of March was trainings with Chelsea and different NETWORK staff members. And like Chelsea had kind of said before, a lot of the trainings were, you know, like learning what Get Out the Vote means, learning how to talk to students, learning how to have conversations and not arguments if, you know, there is a difference of opinion or whatever it might be.

So, in April I had my first campus event and we had a little table set up outside, and we got Krispy Kreme donuts to, you know, of course bribe students to come over. And we had really great conversations with students about multi-issue voting and getting them registered and ready to vote. And I think, I mean at least from my end as a St. Joe’s student, I would say it was a very successful event. We had a lot of foot traffic. We had a lot of students stop. They used the iPad to check their registration or to register in general. And in the fall, we’re looking to have more, you know, Get Out The Vote voter registration-style events.

Eilis: Excellent. And what are some of the different areas that have been covered during the cohort trainings each week?

Chelsea: Yeah, so we know that young people have not received adequate civic education in their K through 12 education. So this is a space that we can step into and use as a place to do some learning.

So we started the program by talking about Catholic Social Justice and where that stems from in Catholic Social Teaching. We’ve worked on what it means to be a multi-issue voter, and how do you have a conversation with someone who’s never heard about that before. We have spent a lot of time learning how to have a hard conversation with someone who does not maybe have the same perspective as you do. We have learned how to be deep canvassers on campus in the fall. We have covered issue-specific topics from, you know, health care equity, to housing, to food security, trying to think of what else… We’ve been together for 13 weeks. So, it’s been a lot of time this spring. And we just wrapped up with training on how to talk to young peers through social media posts that are typically short-form videos.

Eilis: Wow, I wish this was around when I was in college. That would be fascinating. Baylee, has there been one of the week sessions that have been your favorite or things that you were surprised to learn about?

Baylee: Yeah, I mean, for me, I think it was the second or third week when, I think her name was Dawn came in, and we talked a lot about all of the, like, just boots on the ground, Get Out The Vote stuff. That was probably my favorite week because I learned so much from it.

So that was just like, I think an information bomb, but in the best way possible. And then also, in terms of my future, like post-grad, I know that I’m very interested in either going into lobbying or I want to do campaign work. So I was like eating it up and I was like, this is amazing. I was taking so many notes during it. And it’s been cool to apply some of it to my campus now and also, you know, keep some in the mental file for the future.

Eilis: That’s so interesting. We at NETWORK talk a lot about how Gen Z and Millennial voters are the largest voting bloc this year for the first time ever. And I’m wondering, from your experience on a college campus, your experience with Y.A.L.L. kind of from the inside, why are Gen Z voters or other young adults passionate about ensuring that we keep our democracy and make sure that we have a vibrant democracy going into the future?

Baylee: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a combination of reasons. I think one of them is that a lot of us have grown up in this digital age where we have a lot of unprecedented access to information. So I think constantly being surrounded by just like news updates, whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I think for a lot of people in Gen Z, it’s made us hyper aware of movements and activism going on. So I think there’s a level of inspiration from that, where it’s like now that we have the power to vote, we want to be part of these movements and activisms. And then also I think we see how important it is to like, take that activism and apply it.

 And from the Catholic Social Justice lens, there’s a lot of conversation about something called the lived experience. And I think for a lot of us, we’ve grown up in this really interesting time where we’re on the heels of a global pandemic. There’s unprecedented economic turmoil happening. There’s just so much going on all the time that I think our lived experiences have been that we want to ultimately be change-makers. So I think that’s part of it.

And then I also think that we see the value of democracy. We’ve seen threats to democracy in the past couple of years with certain individuals. And I think we see that it’s important if we want to have things like dignity upheld, equity, equality, justice, we need to participate in democracy. Democracy is like the guardrail for all of that to happen. So I think we’re all sparked up, we’re fired up, and I think we want to see and use our voices in an impactful way for the first time. I mean, I’m a first-time presidential election voter in this election. I think a lot of us are like, we finally want to use our voices and use our ability to vote to uphold the things that we see are important.

Eilis: Wow. I hadn’t really thought about just that constant change that your generation has lived through. Throughout your entire life, it’s always been changing. It’s been COVID. It’s been different threats to democracy, war, violence, et cetera.

You really touched on the multi-issue voter when you were just talking, and our Equally Sacred Checklist. I’m wondering if there are some freedoms in that or some issue areas that you’re most passionate about that you’d like to talk about.

Baylee: Yeah, so for me, health care is a very important topic. It’s always been an area that I’ve cared a lot about. Without getting super into it, my dad was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer when I was 10 years old. Actually the week after my birthday, he had gotten the diagnosis. And I always like to acknowledge my privileges in the world. We obviously had to make sacrifices as a family. He had to stop teaching. He had to commute every other week to Boston for treatment. We live in Albany, New York. Even with good insurance, there are out-of-pocket payments for chemotherapy. So I was kind of witnessing some of the inequities in our health care system firsthand.

And unfortunately, my dad did end up passing away from the colon cancer in November. So he put up a really good fight. They only gave him like three or four months to live and he, you know, doubled that basically. So he put up a really good fight and he was still always present as a father, which is something I really admire because, you know, as I get older, it’s like, wow, he, he always showed up to everything still. And I’m, you know, I’m so touched that he was able to do that, even though he was struggling so much.

But the interesting thing, I think, whenever you go through something like an illness in your family or there’s, you know, a traumatic or upsetting event, you get a community out of it. So on my high school campus, we have something called Relay for Life, which is through the American Cancer Society, which is a 24-hour walk to end cancer and raise money for cancer. And I met so many people at that event, you know, survivors, people who had lost their brothers, sisters, parents, kids even to cancer, and just hearing how everybody was so differently impacted by the healthcare system. Like there were people I met who had no health insurance and were literally unable to pay for treatments. There were people I met who did have health insurance, but then somebody had to have a surgery and that was a whole issue that they had to deal with in their family.

When you’re sick, I believe that things like that shouldn’t be what’s causing you stress if you’re genuinely struggling. So through the American Cancer Society, I started doing volunteer lobbying with them for health care initiatives in New York. And it’s always just been something I’ve been very passionate about. My first year ever, we did something to raise tobacco taxes in New York to help with lung cancer. And there was a bunch of economic reasons for it. And then my second year that I did it, it was colon cancer specific, and it was about trying to lower the age of being able to have insurance cover a colonoscopy in New York state because of how important early detection is.

But health care is always something I’m very passionate about. I love that at Y.A.L.L. I’m able to still kind of talk about it and work on it when I’m talking to students.

Eilis: Wow, what a legacy to and a testament to your father that you live. And it’s so interesting for me to hear, and I’m sure for Chelsea, the amazing work that you’ve already done in terms of advocacy and how you are able to connect your own lived experiences to the work that you’re doing.

Baylee: Yeah, and I think having learned about Catholic Social Justice, not only at St. Joseph’s, but in our cohort, it’s really shown me how important that is. And that’s a big part of the conversations we have with students because it usually is those lived experiences that shape our views on policy, whether it’s good or bad or whatever it is. It’s usually, something happened to my family, something happened in my neighborhood with gun violence, things like that that typically shape how we view it.

So it’s been interesting to also take what’s happened to me and see like why it shapes kind of how I think.

Eilis: I’m wondering if you found at St. Joe’s or in your life or within the cohort that your peers, your fellow students, are connecting that Catholic Social Teaching around the issues that are important to you all in this election year or important to you in general.

Baylee: Yeah, I think that through a lot of my conversations with my peers at St. Joe’s, I’ve seen firsthand through the conversations, like what is riling students up to vote? And I think a lot of people have a commitment to wanting to go to the polls. And I really do think, like I had said, those lived experiences, whether they’re people of faith or not, are what is driving people to vote.

And I think one of the common things that I’ve kind of seen in my conversations with students has also been that there is a lot of overlap if I am talking to a student of faith between why we vote and the reasons we practice faith. So, you know, foundational pillars of Catholic Social Justice include upholding the dignity of each person, and treating each person like an equally valuable member of society, and bridging divisions that rise above us for common good. Those are Catholic Social Justice principles, but those are also things that we see people care about in election cycles.

So I think there’s a lot of overlap and infiltration in the political sphere because people of faith want to see those things carried out and they want to be informed about candidates so that they can figure out which ones are upholding that.

Eilis: Excellent. That gives us hope again for voters to see how Catholic Social Justice really plays out into the public sphere, and how it animates people’s passion around different issues and around voting. 

Baylee, you touched on this at the beginning of the conversation, but I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you’re planning to do on campus in the fall. And then Chelsea, if you can add on just what Y.A.L.L. is going to look like in the fall.

Baylee: Yeah, so in the fall on my campus, I have five events that are basically happening like right when I get back. One of them is we’re doing a sort of like an additional kind of voter registration style tabling event at one of my welcome back events on campus. So we are gonna be hopefully partnering with campus ministry to make that happen and have like a space for us to be able to have more events like this.

And then we’re also doing two film screenings and Chelsea, I apologize, I forgot the title of both of the films right now, but we’re doing two film screenings as well that are about white Christian nationalism and the threats that it has to democracy. And then throughout the rest of the semester, I’m going to be having different voter registration events. I’m hoping to potentially get a goat on campus for one of them… I’ve already started to look into that!

But we’re going to be doing different events up until election day. And then one of the more fun events that I think is so fitting for NETWORK that I’m going to try to do is nun trivia, to get people to come to a more like upbeat event. Because another thing that I realized in my conversations with students on campus, when I get the lovely opportunity to talk about NETWORK, is that no one realizes how important the nuns are and how important they are to NETWORK, but also just for advocacy in general. So I’m hoping to do a nun-style trivia, like ‘do you know your nuns’ or something like that, to get students to come to a more fun event and obviously still register them to vote and have conversations.

Eilis: I love all of those! So exciting. I want to come out for the goat on campus event.

Chelsea: Yeah, you’d have to go to a lot of different campuses for the goats, Eilis. That’s definitely the one that everyone is most excited about. They’re called “vote goats” and it’s, you know, combining a petting zoo with voter registration, and who can resist that? Like, it’s just an incredible idea that our partner at Student PIRGS, Dawn, who Baylee mentioned earlier, shared that with us earlier in the fall and I think everyone really gravitated toward it. I don’t know, I’m just super excited to see the photos that come out of those campuses.

Eilis: Me too.

Chelsea: But in terms of our work in the fall, we know that there are two big barriers for young people to actually make it to the polls. The first one is a lot of them are first-time voters like Baylee is for the presidential election, and the second one is that they have very busy schedules. They’re working full-time, they’re taking classes, they have familial responsibilities, and they may not have easy accessible transportation to the polls.

So the two things that we are going to be doing on campuses in the fall is one running voter registration events every two weeks, from the time students get back on campus up to November 5th, Election Day. And the other thing we’re going to be doing is working with campuses and our partners on campuses, like Campus Ministry at St. Joe’s, to figure out how we can transport students to the polls. So that’s one less thing for them to worry about.

We’re really lucky that we have some amazing campus partners through campus ministry at St. Joe’s as we do on other campuses as well, and we’re super excited to see what happens in the fall.

Eilis: I know I can’t wait. And I think one of the most exciting things about Y.A.L.L. is seeing the excitement, not just from the students, but from everyone that we talked to about the program. Everyone’s curious about what is happening on campuses, how they can get involved, how they can get connected to students. And also a lot of people are really just energized and excited to hear that there are people in the younger generations who are committed to voting and are concerned about democracy, which I think is something that we don’t always hear in the news. So, thank you.

And then one final question that we’re asking folks is, as you kind of take a step back from the election year, from the work, what gives you hope this year? Or where do you find hope to keep doing what you’re doing?

Baylee: I personally find hope, like I had touched on before, through some of my lived experiences, but also just my community of people. I think when you actually talk to students, even just beyond election years, but about like, ‘hey, what do you want to do post-grad?’ Or like, ‘you know, what are you doing this summer?’ You just hear so many different exciting stories or like, ‘this is what I’m doing next year. this is what I’m doing over the summer.’ And I think that always gives me hope because I think in general, specifically my generation, we’re just always putting our best foot forward no matter what cards are dealt to us. So I think even when I’m kind of feeling down about something, whether it be, you know, job-related or whether it be like when I was struggling to find a house to rent next year and all of that, I think just like talking to my friends and talking and leaning on my community that I have at St. Joe’s, that always gives me hope because we all have a good outlook despite what’s been thrown our way.

Eilis:  Thank you so much, Baylee, for being with us, and thank you, Chelsea. We look forward to hearing more about what you’re going to be doing next semester.

Baylee: Thank you.

Chelsea: Thank you.

Joan: Well, if these are the young people that are our future, I am feeling very hopeful about it.

Colin: Agreed. Gen Z is making their presence known! According to Tufts University, in 2022, Gen Z voted at a higher rate in their first midterm election than previous generations.  

Joan: Wow, Colin, they are setting a high bar! It’s clear that they know how high the stakes are and have the tenacity to stand up for their own futures. Very encouraging indeed!