Salem State: American Identities and Voter Empowerment

The American Studies program at Salem State University and the Northshore Community Development Coalition (CDC) have partnered since 2012 to launch and sustain a voter registration and election monitoring program in The Point, a low-income and primarily immigrant neighborhood in Salem, MA. While supporting a community democracy effort, this service-learning program provides students with an opportunity to engage with issues of race, ethnicity, and social justice and to apply the questions and methods of American Studies scholars to social change.

This project is designed to assist the CDC with its ongoing work to ensure fair and legal elections in Salem and to increase civic education and voter empowerment in The Point, which has been historically underrepresented in elections. The program also aims to educate students about the complex historical and structural factors that have led to voter disenfranchisement. The community experience serves as a critical text in the course and is used with other texts to explore civic and personal American narratives such as belonging and opportunity.

Most recently, 40 students enrolled in the fall 2016 American Identities course worked with CDC staff to assist in voter education and registration activities in The Point and served as volunteer non-partisan poll observers. Students provided over 250 hours of volunteer work over the course of the semester, including door-to-door outreach, help with voter education workshops, get-out-the vote efforts, and poll monitoring.

Students’ service, fueled by CDC training during the term, brought more than 900 people to the polls and allowed full-day monitoring of all polling locations throughout the city. The students learned valuable skills in civic participation and the workings of grassroots and electoral politics while deepening their understanding of key course concepts relating to American identity and values. The CDC had its most successful voter registration and voting initiative of the past decade. In addition, the group gathered detailed data on more than 45 possible incidents of voter suppression or irregularities in the application of voting laws.

For another civic engagement project at Salem State, see Salem State University Civic Media Project. You can also see more of their current work at the university’s Center for Civic Engagement.

For additional programs from MACC member campuses, see our Member Spotlight section.