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In pandemic, College Democrats adapt, stay active

Last year challenged all Americans, not least among them college students. The pandemic threw their college plans and coursework into disarray. Many found studying online a challenge without the in-person camaraderie of classmates and professors. Some report feelings of depression, and others are choosing to delay graduations.

Naturally, the pandemic also affected Sacramento-area young Democratic clubs. This included at Sacramento State University and the University of California at Davis where most learning shifted to remote online platforms.

“The pandemic has absolutely been a challenge,” said Aurora Schünemann, a junior at UC Davis and president of the Davis College Democrats. “Attendance at our online meetings is much lower than when we could meet in person. Also, alumni of our club had raised funds to fly some of us this fall to Arizona to knock on doors in different Congressional districts. But that had to be canceled.”

This was extra disappointing for the Davis College Democrats, who were named the 2019 Chapter of the Year by the California College Democrats. During the 2018 midterms, Schünemann said the group knocked on more than 3,000 doors. This included for Josh Harder’s winning Congressional race in CA-10 to helping flip Congressional seats in Orange County to even canvassing for Jackie Rosen’s successful Senate bid in Nevada.

That activism continued in 2020, but required a switch to mostly phone canvassing. This included work for different local county and municipal campaigns, and phone banking for the current Georgia Senate runoff contests.

Mousa Musallam, vice president of communications with the Sacramento State Democrats, reported his group’s Zoom meetings have generally attracted about half the attendees of their pre-pandemic in-person meetings.

The Sac State senior said his group has tried adjusting by focusing less on organizational issues and more on using weekly meetings to provide a forum for students to learn about big topics from guest experts and then discuss them. This appears to have worked as topics like defund/reform the police and Medicare for All attracted larger participation than normal, including from members from other campus clubs.

“The topic people discussed the most was defund the police. That lasted more than two hours and thirty minutes,” Musallam said. “I noticed some people changed their perspective on what we should reimagine police doing such as with mental health calls and dealing with homelessness. In the end, I think the majority came down on the side of defund and reallocate.”

Schünemann said her group regularly features incumbent politicians and staffers on their video calls and spotlight opportunities for remote campaign work. But to retain the fun club spirit online, they also play political versions of the games Kahoots and Love It or Leave It.

She and Musallam have been long involved in politics. Musallam currently interns with new Sacramento City Council Member Katie Valenzuela, and Schünemann interns with State Assembly Member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry. They both thought the pandemic and civil protests of the last year could be as formative for their generation as 9/11 was for their college counterparts 20 years ago or the Vietnam War was 50-plus years ago.

“It is beginning to look like that,” Musallam said. “A lot of people attribute the protests mainly to George Floyd’s killing, but we have to realize the many other people who were pretty much murdered in plain sight by police. Like Michael Brown [in Ferguson, Mo.], like Stephon Clark in Sacramento. Once George Floyd happened and it was caught on camera, it wasn’t a new thing for African Americans, but for many other people, they began to think how many other murders like Floyd’s weren’t caught on camera.”

But aside from calls for police reform, Schünemann cautioned against assuming most students share the same attitudes on other issues.

“There’s a misunderstanding about how varied this generation is. We are the most diverse generation in American history. So the idea we can all be categorized as a single thing is kind of ridiculous,” she said.

Both students said they’ve observed the same factional differences within their club membership as seen nationally between moderate Democrats and Progressives.

“Overall, we are all happy that Joe Biden won. That was the primary goal since Trump won in 2016,” she said. “But our club definitely embodies the spectrum of the Democratic Party. The primaries were interesting. We had a lot of Warren supporters. I was a Warren supporter. We also had Bernie supporters and even had some people who supported Amy Klobuchar.”

Another stereotype she disputes is that her generation is “apathetic.”

“I generally don’t think young people are apathetic at all. There is a deep frustration with the structure of institutions globally and how limiting they are," she said.

“But with the mass protests this summer, we saw young people and people of color at the forefront. However, the real challenge always comes to translating that action into votes. I and my club members believe that is the only way to make real change.”

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