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On a September night in 2011, 39 students from D.C. colleges clustered around the steps to Georgetown University’s White Gravenor Hall. From about 9 to 9:50 p.m., they watched a cappella groups and slam poets perform, making about as much noise as three dozen undergraduates can muster without the aid of a pep band or keg stand.
The event, a “noise concert” organized by the student advocacy organization D.C. Students Speak, was intended to protest the recent passage by the D.C. Council of the Disorderly Conduct Amendment Act of 2010, which increased penalties for noise violations. But the sparsely attended concert, like so many student advocacy efforts, wasn’t heard by the audience that mattered most—the D.C. government.
Students in D.C. have long struggled to make themselves heard over the din of town-gown relations. In recent years, they’ve watched their universities make concessions in campus plan negotiations, like Georgetown’s restrictions on who can live off campus and American University’s scaled-back dorm proposals, which entail cramming students into smaller spaces. They’ve also seen the D.C. government enact laws that seem to target students unfairly, such as the 2010 noise ordinance and the 2012 Residential Parking Protection Act, which prohibits students from applying for parking permits. Since many aren’t voters, college students lack sway with councilmembers and the mayor’s office. At the same time, universities often fail to look out for student interests, too. In the realm of D.C. politics, transient, poorly organized, and often insulated college students have rarely been adept at asserting an agenda.
This year, students at American, Georgetown, and George Washington University—the three D.C. schools with, arguably, the most fraught neighborhood relations—are hoping to increase their Wilson Building muscle. Galvanized by disappointing new laws and school policies and buoyed by recent victories in Advisory Neighborhood Commission elections (D.C. now has an all-time high of nine student ANC commissioners), they believe the city is nearing a tipping point: Students now have sufficient motivation and representation to become a political force.
“It’s all about reformatting the way students interact with the city, where they’re at the table separately from their administrations,” says Rory Slatko, a rising junior at American University and an ANC3D commissioner.
Slatko has been working with Mayor Vince Gray’s office to establish a new student task force, which could include representatives from any D.C. school—not just American, Georgetown (where I’m a student), and George Washington, but also Howard, Catholic, Gallaudet, the University of the District of Columbia, Trinity, or the Corcoran—and would propose policy solutions to issues facing college students in the District. The task force is still under consideration by the mayor’s office, so it has no agenda. But Slatko has a few ideas in mind, including discounted Metro fares for college students and the reconsideration of the Residential Parking Protection Act.
Slatko’s not the only student working to engage with the city on his own terms. Georgetown seniors Alyssa Peterson and Nate Tisa established the Georgetown Student Tenants Association, a new registered nonprofit that plans to work with D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs independent of the university.
According to Tisa, who is also student body president, the idea for the tenants association stemmed from the realization that school administrators are worse housing advocates than the students themselves. He and Peterson aim to address some of the perennial problems faced by students who are looking to rent off campus, including exploitative leases, absentee landlords, and the fact that there are, according to Peterson, 211 landlords in Georgetown leasing property without basic business licenses—issues that D.C. Chief Tenant Advocate Johanna Shreve says “hadn’t been brought to us in a strong way” until Peterson reached out. When students return this fall, the group plans to help them review leases and file landlord complaints, which the University can’t do.
But the Georgetown Student Tenants Association is about more than housing. Peterson sees it as a springboard for getting students involved in city politics in a bigger and broader way. “We’ve been forming relationships with D.C. government officials so they can see students not as students but as participating members of the community,” she says. “I think, with the mayoral race coming up, student votes can be decisive.”
It’s an ambitious, perhaps even far-fetched vision, considering that at most a few thousand of D.C.’s 84,000 college students are even registered to vote in the city. But Peterson’s not the only person who’s talking a big electoral game. According to Slatko, initiatives like the task force and Georgetown’s tenant association put students on an equal playing field with neighborhood groups that have long wielded influence with councilmembers and ANC commissioners. And he’s optimistic about the impact these groups might have.
“If we’ve got this pressure from students rising at the same time a new mayor is being elected,” Slatko says, “that mayor comes in formed by that pressure.”
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D.C. Students Speak has already been fighting the good fight longer than most movements to buttress student political representation: a whopping four years. The group, which organized the beleaguered noise concert two years ago, is also gearing up for the April primary. The organization has plans for a voter registration drive in January—District Chair Jackson Carnes (he’s also an ANC2A commissioner representing part of GW) estimates that between 1,000 and 1,500 students were registered before the 2012 general elections.
At Georgetown, the registration effort is already in motion. Georgetown’s student association is in the process of signing a contract with TurboVote, which provides software that allows students to register to vote online. Once school starts, members of the student association, along with College Democrats, College Republicans, and the campus chapter of DCSS will go door to door in dorms with the software helping students to register.
“The mayoral election is a place where students can express their dissatisfaction with the way things have been going so far,” says DCSS’s Georgetown chair, Trevor Tezel. “If we are able to show good registration results early, we can point to that and expect campaign platforms that are cognizant of student concerns.”
A voting bloc in next April’s Democratic mayoral primary won’t need to include any College Republicans, but coalescing behind one candidate may still be a stretch for registered students. Many are wary of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who supported both the noise ordinance and the Residential Parking Protection Act and was a strong opponent of Georgetown’s initial campus plan proposal (which was seen as more student-friendly than the final version). Tezel wrote an op-ed in Georgetown’s The Hoya newspaper warning students to “think twice” before voting for Evans, while Georgetown senior and ANC2E commissioner Peter Prindiville says Evans’ presence in the mayoral race is a “pressing concern.” But Evans aside, there’s still no clear “student candidate.” In fact, most of the groups trying to rally the student vote couldn’t endorse a candidate if they wanted to, either because they’re nonprofits or because they’re associated with nonprofit universities. So while the registration drives are notable, it’s unclear what end their organizers hope to achieve.
While universities might have good reason to be wary of students entering the fray every 10 years when they negotiate campus plans with the city, they’re supportive of less disruptive efforts, like voter drives and tenant associations. Cory Peterson, Georgetown’s Director of Neighborhood Life, praises the Georgetown Student Tenants Association for “representing students through the process with the government where the University can’t,” and says he’s excited to see students getting more engaged with the city.
For a movement that’s only getting started, students activists are already prone to blood-boiling pronouncements. Alyssa Peterson argues that the city “can’t take our money and treat us like second-class citizens.” Patrick Kennedy, one of GW’s three student ANC commissioners, claims that students can “absolutely be a kingmaking demographic in this election.” The attitude seems to be that if they can just convince students they have a vested interest in the outcome of next year’s election, the rest of the puzzle will fall into place: Students will register to vote, candidates’ platforms will be more pro-student, laws that students have long complained about will be amended or tossed out entirely.
There’s a lot riding on that “if.” And the history of student advocacy in D.C. is littered with efforts that petered out before they could accomplish much. DCSS tried and failed to fight both the noise ordinance and the Residential Parking Protection Amendment Act. Georgetown and AU students who testified at Zoning Commission hearings on behalf of their schools’ campus plans—where they were nearly always outnumbered by disgruntled neighbors—were similarly disappointed.
Groups like DCSS face the same problem as any campus club: Every four years, they have almost total turnover.
That constant shifting has an impact on voter registration efforts, as well. Students are constantly moving dorms and switching ANC districts, meaning they have to update their registration every year. The students who are most affected by the day-to-day drama of parking permits and zoning regulations are off-campus upperclassmen, and they’re often reluctant to give up their home-state votes for senators and congressmen when they could be leaving the District soon anyway.
It shows on election day. It’s typical for ANC commissioners representing student districts to be elected with just a few dozen votes, despite the fact that their districts comprise roughly 2,000 residents each. And even though 2012 was a banner year for the election of student commissioners, Kennedy estimates that fewer than 600 college students voted in last year’s elections—hardly enough to make them a “kingmaking demographic” come April.
And then there’s the reality that activists like Slatko, Tezel, and Carnes don’t represent all college students in D.C. While students at American, George Washington, and Georgetown may have been prodded into action by frustrating town-gown spats, interest in advocating for student rights is weaker where neighborhood relations are less tense. Howard’s chapter of DCSS, according to Carnes, “has never really taken off.” Meanwhile, Gregory Matz, a rising junior at Catholic University who is involved in another cross-campus advocacy group called DC Student Leaders, says he can’t imagine many students at his school registering in D.C. or becoming involved at the upcoming election.
This skepticism is shared even at schools where advocacy efforts have already started. Georgetown student Danny Funt, who helped pen an editorial in The Hoya last year arguing that students shouldn’t vote in D.C. (he’s now The Hoya’s editor-in-chief), doubts that a significant get-out-the-vote effort can be organized before next year’s election. The unfortunate reality, he says, is that students just don’t know or care enough about District politics. There may be a point when that changes, he says, but this year is not it.
According to Funt, “there’s a cynical way of looking at this and an idealistic way,” and students who think that they can become a deciding factor in the mayoral campaign are guilty of the latter view. “They just aren’t really appreciative of the sad truth of student voting beyond their circle of highly involved friends,” he says.
But Slatko insists that he and the students he’s been working do appreciate that truth. He’s willing to admit that his ambitions are idealistic. A planned voter registration drive is not the same thing as a bloc of registered student voters. A proposed mayor’s student task force is not the same thing as an actual task force with an actual agenda.
“There are plenty of groups out there that go in to do this work … and for one reason or another find themselves limited,” Slatko says. “We can’t be planning things just to talk about them.”
Ideally, Slatko says, it’s not just talk. Ideally, students will register to vote and volunteer on campaigns. Ideally, his proposed mayor’s task force will be able to have a concrete impact. He believes that students, with their youthful zeal and ample free time, can be “a particularly productive group when it comes to accomplishing change.”
Slatko’s got until April 1 to make his ideal world a reality.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery