The following is a written version of the interview with UConnPIRG Chapter Chair Walter Dodson and Vice Chair Emily O’Hara.
Transcribed by Stephanie Reyes
DANIELA: Hi Walter, Emily, Welcome to WHUS. How are you guys doing?
EMILY: Doing well, thanks.
WALTER: It was a wet day though, so…
DANIELA: I know, that storm came out of nowhere.
WALTER: Oh my god.
DANIELA: So, of course you are the president, Walter, and vice president of UConnPIRG. I kind of – out of curiosity I just kind of want to ask you – what does a PIRG packed, typical day look like for the president and vice president?
WALTER: Well, I have been – so we actually go by chair and chapter chair.
WALTER: I’ve been saying president recently because to me it’s easier to convey what I do more –
DANIELA: Yea, definitely.
WALTER: But for the first two and a half weeks of the semester, every January and every September we run our recruitment drive. Which is similar to Greeks when they rush, right?
WALTER: But we are two and a half weeks and so for the first two and a half weeks, Emily and I are answering emails, phone calls, getting up doing class reps, a lot of campus relation stuff. So, I have been reaching out to tier threes in the last two weeks and Emily has been doing the same for administrators. Once we start to get going, in my official capacity as chapter chair, I handle all the business stuff with Sam, who’s our treasurer, and – let’s see, oh yea – and I run our weekly chapter meetings, which we call core.
WALTER: And then I consider my role to be one where if anybody in the chapter needs anything I am here to help. If they want to know who they should talk to for X, Y, and Z or where the best tabling spot is. I think that in years past this role has been kind of odd and, you know, not as complete as it could be. So I figure that the best use of my time and for the chapter is to be a resource for everyone in the chapter and to be like a contact –
WALTER: – person. And to kind of sell the organization to as many people as I can.
DANIELA: And like you mentioned earlier it’s probably easier for a lot of students who don’t know much about UConn PIRG. It is probably easier to understand like president and vice president versus your official titles.
DANIELA: Yea, so undergraduate students pay five dollars per semester to help UConn PIRG and help fund it. But students do have the option to actually waive these five dollars, so I really want both of your answers in knowing: why should students knowingly contribute to UConn PIRG financially?
EMILY: Well, we function as an advocacy resource for students and the way we work is we run campaigns that we believe the majority of students would care about and would agree with. So that includes hunger and homelessness, protecting our democracy, trying to clean up and protect the environment, and all of these campaigns – oh, and affordable textbooks of course, can’t forget that one – but there’s so many and as long as it kind of fits within the PIRG mission, students can really propose or change or run any campaign they want. As far as the fee goes, we believe that we have a really positive impact on the campus because we’re functioning to serve the campus community and the community at large and provide students with the resource that they normally wouldn’t have until after graduation. I mean, not many students can say that they started lobbying when they were freshmen in college. But, this is something that both Walter and I had the experience to do and honestly I think its made me grow as a leader and when you see the people coming out of this chapter doing things in PIRG and also outside of PIRG and other organizations it’s so clear that they are passionate individuals who have just developed these incredible leadership skills.
WALTER: In addition to the fee being waivable, we run a self-imposed, reaffirmation drive every three years. So every student on this campus, if they are here for all four years of their undergraduate life, they will have the chance to voice their opinion. And we think that in that sense our fee is incredibly democratic. On top of that, we are – I don’t want to say the only one, because I’m not sure – but I know that we are one of the few tier three fees that are shown on your bill. So it’s right there, and even if you vote no and we still win, right, you can waive it. So in that sense we think it is doubly democratic. And like Emily said, we run campaigns that eighty percent of students agree with and we are a beneficial force because also, like what Emily said, if students are upset with the fact that there aren’t enough food pantries on campus right now. There are not and we had a student in the spring come talk to our professional organizer who said “Oh, alright, let’s go.” and they’ve been working really hard to get that done. So I also like the lobbying thing is unbelievable. I was fortunate enough, I had the chance to, in February, go down to Washington and myself, my colleague Julia Seremba from MASSPIRG and my other colleague April Nicklaus from NJPIRG and our US PIRG advocate Kaitlyn Vitez, we had meetings with Johnny Isakson, who is a senator, this senate president pro-temp Orrin Hatch and the senate education chairman, Roy Blunt. And in those three meetings we sold the work that we’ve done here at UConn in 2014 to get a 100,000 dollar grant pass in the Connecticut general assembly.
WALTER: And we told those three very important senators all about that work and that resulted directly in a five million dollar grant for open educational resources across the country.
DANIELA: That’s incredible.
WALTER: Oh yea, like that is a direct investment in students. And I’d like to give credit where credit is due, so with the paper straws now on campus, we applaud dining services for taking this initiative, but that was all them. We were not involved in that what so ever. But, you know, it’s a positive step because now we’re reducing our plastic waste and we think it was a great move. But –
EMILY: It wasn’t us.
DANIELA: It’s all them.
WALTER: Yea, well yea and we think it’s great but we didn’t do any of that work.
DANIELA: Well I think that’s really great that you guys say that. Especially because I’m sure many people probably think that you had something to do with that.
WALTER: Oh yea.
EMILY: Oh, absolutely.
DANIELA: Oh wow.
DANIELA: So you talked – both of you talked about earlier about the campaigns that you run, especially you Emily, you named all of them essentially. I kind of want to ask, what do you consider yourself, you’ve been a part of UConn PIRG for so long, what would you consider a personal success in your time with UConn PIRG? And when I say personal, I mean something like good memory of yours that really sticks with you that says “I’m so glad I was apart of UConn PIRG.”
EMILY: Oh, okay, there’s a lot of them. Yeah, I have to think for a second. You know, I really in my heart want to say it was something from new voters project from when I was a freshman working on it in 2016. But I was still learning so much that I didn’t understand the full capacity of the organization and the network that it exists in. Only when I was in my second semester in 2017, in the spring, did I really understand the organization. At that point I had decided to campaign – or coordinate the campaign – save the bees and it was one that hadn’t been run at least a semester at UConn. I decided to run it because it seemed like something the students would care about as an environmental campaign and it just seemed like a lot of fun. By the end of that semester we had gotten UConn designated as a bee friendly campus, which is a national certification. The thing that I admire most about that is not only the fact that we got the certification, but it’s been a beacon of longevity for that campaign because since then, not only has the campaign existed, but from it we have found our new treasurer who works really hard. He ran the campaign when I left to go abroad, because I ran it for a full calendar year, and we’ve seen so many new leaders come from the campaign. And to be able to not only watch that happen but actually physically leave the chapter and watch people continue to run the campaign with the fervor that it started with was so gratifying. I was so excited, it brought me to tears on more than one occasion, I think Walter can testify to that.
WALTER: She cries a lot. Emily and I both came in to this organization Fall 2016, we were both freshmen, and I think the reason why we’re sitting across from you as chair and vice chair is that the way that we ran – Emily ran bees for a full calendar year and I ran one hundred percent for a full calendar year – and one of my former interns is now our secretary and one of Emily’s former interns is now our treasurer. So, I don’t know, I’m super proud of the leaders that we’ve been able to build up and I think that once again speaks to what this organization can do. You come in as a freshman and then in the following spring you can run for the e-board, we both did and we both got spots. So, it just goes to show that if you really, really care and you are passionate about issues, join PIRG. That would make me feel like you would do a great job. There are plenty of opportunities to grow and I think that it’s just a testament to what can be done.
DANIELA: That’s incredible, I love hearing those kinds of stories because I think it adds so much character to the actual organization for sure. We are talking here today because of a big project that you guys are starting this semester which is the New Voters Project and, of course, this is very important with the midterm elections coming up. In 2016, UConn PIRG was able to register over 2,000 students, which bumped up the voter turnout to 23 percent in Mansfield and your goal this year is 2,500, is that correct?
EMILY: That is correct.
DANIELA: So, what do you think worked so well in 2016 when working on the new voters project then?
EMILY: I want to start by saying that the fact that it’s a nonpartisan campaign, which is something that we stress, allows us to go to every student and say – I mean every student I should say is that a legal U.S. citizen and will be 18 on election day – because we get a lot of international students saying “I’m foreign” and I’m like “I’m sorry, I would register you if I could.”
DANIELA: Important distinction.
EMILY: Important distinction.
WALTER: Important legal distinction.
EMILY: Yea, but I think it’s the nonpartisan nature of the campaign and the fact that we did grassroots organizing at its finest, which means on the ground work, working with every single student that we could. It wasn’t so much of the – I don’t know, sometimes you see the way other campaigns could break down, not saying with PIRG, but in general – they might not focus so much on on-the-ground volunteers, they might just be a base managed by somebody else. I like to think that in 2016 every single volunteer felt like they mattered and we were one big MVP family. I didn’t want to leave the office afterwards and I think that it showed and I think that people wanted to be apart of it, be apart of the crazy vote people.
WALTER: I would agree, all the interns on that – well, the campaign was coordinated by our current state board chair Kharl Reynado who is a senior and she was the campaign coordinator and at the time she was also our chapter chair – and the camaraderie that was built between the interns, who all were tactical coordinators is what we call them, I was the tactical coordinator for dorm storming.
EMILY: I was the tactical coordinator for class raps or class announcements as most people know them.
WALTER: Right. Yea, and the camaraderie that was built, like Emily and I got really close, I got close with Kharl, it was a family. I think a lot of it was because of that fact that we all felt extremely passionate about, you know it’s our voice, it was the first election that I could vote in and same for Emily. It was like “Oh my god, of course I want to vote, why would I not? Wait a minute, you’re not registered?”
WALTER: Let me make it as easy as possible. And I think that also had a lot to do with it too.
EMILY: Yea, especially being – like I said, I’m gonna keep stressing the non partisan thing – but, like in a year where you don’t want to create divisions where you don’t need to and I think being non partisan made it possible for us to develop a different dialogue.
WALTER: Yea and I think that dialogue is centered around and displays very much into our mission statement too, we want every student to have a voice. When it comes to MVP, your voice is your constitutionally given right to vote. So making sure that everyone at least had the ability to use that right is super neat and because we are nonpartisan we can let everyone use their voice and not just a few.
DANIELA: Yea and I feel like you’re speaking about the nonpartisan thing and you’re stressing it very much and I wonder how we – at least us in this room – saw how tense the political climate got, especially during the 2016 elections and how they still are now with the midterm elections coming up. So with the idea of keeping this idea of being nonpartisan but still understanding that there is this kind of mentality in society and on this campus right now of there’s kind of two sides, how do you manage that – how do you kind of make sure – how do you speak to people and telling them you should go out to vote with this mentality that you know is present?
EMILY: It’s taken a lot of planning. This campaign has been planning and having planning calls since I’d say May, April or May of this past year.
WALTER: She started to plan it in London.
EMILY: Yea, I was studying abroad and I was planning this campaign, which was fun but getting back we got right into our planning calls and I think one of the first conversations I had with Kharl, who was working on the campaign when it was a project to get us a certain certification as a campus politically was, we were talking about the idea of UConn having an identity. Like “Who am I as a voter?” and it ended up developing to be “I am a Husky and I am a voter.” And then we worked on it further and thought, is everybody a husky? Does everybody have – what if you’re a woman? I’m a woman and I’m a voter, or I’m a poli-sci major and I’m a voter. And that’s something that everyone has in common, regardless of who they are in their heart, in their mind, in their soul, whatever they want to identify as fundamentally as like a citizen of the United States, you are a voter. I think that reclaiming that right and reclaiming that identity is the way that, this semester at least, we are going to encourage students to grab that right to vote and be excited and want to vote and have their voices be heard. Otherwise, I do worry about tension and creating an environment that isn’t conducive to positive dialogue, but the idea of students being able to say “I am a voter” and probably say that is what is driving this campaign.
DANIELA: That’s great. So, obviously, your goal is higher than what your goal was, or what you were able to succeed in 2016. Are you trying any new methods and ways to reach that goal?
EMILY: Absolutely, absolutely. So like I said before, we focus mainly on grassroots tactics – excuse me – in 2016. This year we’ve grown a little bit more and we have other – I’m gonna call them little tiers – so one tier is the grassroots product that we are so known for and that we are so good at as an organization is getting out and just tabling, going to classes, clip-boarding and asking people to register. In addition to that, we’re gonna be having some really big events, we’re aiming to have a party at the polls which is literally going to be like a community event. The election day was historically a day of a community, a festivity. It was really a time for people to gather and we want to recreate that for people and give them something to enjoy in addition to just going to vote, which I personally enjoy on its own, but I’m unique. Beyond that, we’re going to be having some really big events leading up to that date where we want to have a more similar events where students can get excited about the idea of democracy. And we’re going to be working with different groups across campus. I was so excited at the involvement fair, getting to see all these groups and we’ve already been in contact with so many of them about different ways that we can just work with them. Volunteer together, register people together and I think that’s been really crucial and working with so many willing faculty and administrators who want to see students be civically engaged. We’ve been so blessed this semester with people that want to – that are excited to work with us. They’ve been promoting our websites, studentvote.org, everywhere and that’s been – the semester’s two weeks in, I feel excited to say that.
WALTER: A lot of it, I think that one of the most crucial parts about the campaign especially now, especially in this election, but I think it also applies to 2016 and other very contentious cycles, is that especially now, and like I said this was only true, this only started to be true in 2016, but our age group, the millennials, born I think its ‘88 through 2000, is the rough –
DANIELA: More or less, yea.
EMILY: I think we’re gen x, but its fine.
WALTER: I think that the unofficial is if you remember the 90’s which is like, whatever, but anyways, we are the largest voting demographic in the country. We have now surpassed baby boomers and the generation right after that, which I forget, but we are the largest voting demographic in the country.
WALTER: But we turn out at the smallest amount. And we as students, as a generation, we are upset with the way that politics is working.
WALTER: We don’t think that we’re listened to nearly enough; if we did we would have low to know cost textbooks, college would be far more affordable, taking out a loan wouldn’t mean “I’m going to be stuck with this loan until I’m 65.” The way those things are going to change is if we use our voice, our right to vote, if we turn out we can sway an election for the politicians who are going to take students needs and students wants into account and if we want things to change we have to vote and that’s what this campaign – that is what is at our core. I have the utmost confidence and faith that Emily will not only be able to reach her goal, but break it.
EMILY: Thank you.
WALTER: Yea, it’s gonna be great, this campaign is gonna be unbelievable.
DANIELA: I’m very excited to see all these events that are definitely coming up. So, Walter, you were quoted by the Daily Campus saying, “UConn PIRG wants incoming students to know that UConn students take civic responsibilities seriously.”
DANIELA: Though the political climate today has helped in getting students to care about what’s happening politics-wise, there are students on campus who are just not politically active. So, what would you, or what do you say to a student on this campus who has absolutely no interest in registering to vote because they simply don’t care?
WALTER: I would say to look to one year ago when this university came under a budget cut of 315 million dollars and that was because there were legislators in Hartford that didn’t take our needs and our wants into account. To that student or those students, if their college, if their satellite university got shut down because of those budget cuts, then I would say, “When are you going to care?” Because that’s the simple fact. The only thing is that, contrary to some folks’ opinion, politics has to do with almost every part of your life. what we’re doing right now is regulated by the FCC; that is a government agency. The roads that we drive on, that is usually government made and maintained. This university that we’re all at, at the moment is run by the state. These are institutions and parts of our everyday lives that are just so affected and if we want to see – there’s this great quote that I saw a few weeks ago that’s on the back of some shirts of a group that’s registering people to vote, the name of the group is escaping me, but the quote is, “We’re the change we’ve been waiting for.” That to me is just the pinnacle of what I was talking about, especially in that quote, the university has been unbelievable in assisting us in making – we wanted to institutionalize voter registration. We want to make it just such a normal thing. “Oh you go to UConn, oh, of course, you’re gonna turn out and vote.” My goal would be to have 100 percent eligible voters on this campus vote whether that be in Mansfield, your hometown – I vote absentee, I’m from upstate – I’m going to vote. That’s what I was talking about. It comes back to if you want your needs and your wants to be listened to, you better vote.
DANIELA: I know I directed this question to you, but I want to make sure, Emily, if you have anything to say to be able to say that to that point.
EMILY: I mean I am of the belief that everything is political. Even people who don’t want to participate in politics, I am of the belief that all issues are political and all politics is local, and that’s two quotes that I’ve combined and used for the last three years. But I think that if a student is passionate about anything in their life whether it be their interest, whether it be a hobby, whether it be that something doesn’t even exist yet – I mean look at STEM majors, there are elements of their field that they’re training for that aren’t here yet – you’re voting for your future when you vote today. That’s kind of what I personally feel and also looking back to the one UConn coalition with USG and GSS, I mean that was a campus-wide effort of all students caring about one thing that ties us all together and that inspired me for a lot –
WALTER: Being a husky.
EMILY: Yea, exactly.
EMILY: Being a husky. It comes back to one identity that we all share. Finding that identity and using it, that’s kind of what – that’s what I would say to that student.
DANIELA: Great. So, besides the New Voters Project, or NVP, what other campaign, what other new things can students look forward to from UConn PIRG?
WALTER: So, our Zero Waste campaign, which is being coordinated by Isabel Umland, she is taking her campaign to a pretty wide swath of campus. They are aiming to do a lot of things. But there is a tactical coordinator on that campaign named Kelly Ratherdy and Kelly has been working with the town of Mansfield’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee, it’s literally called SWAC. And the women of SWAC–it is an all-female committee just by coincidence–but the women of SWAC are trying – and they will get this done – they’re trying to get a plastic bag ban passed in the town of Mansfield. Now, little known fact, the University of Connecticut does not have to abide by Mansfield town ordinances. So, with the women of SWAC, are going to get that done and then Kelly is going to act a lot like a liaison between SWAC and the university. One of their larger goals, it’s not by any means their only goal, one of their large goals is going to get a plastic bag ban passed on campus. What we’d like to see is that in lieu of plastic bags, which people use fairly often here, that at orientation, every student would receive a reusable bag. The feasibility of that is over my head, but that to me seems like the best thing because orientation is a mandated activity, they give you little – I don’t know – supply bag.
EMILY: Now, everybody gets a recycling bag too.
WALTER: Excellent, yes. The university has taken massive strides and that’s why we’re number three on the Sierra Club’s Cool School list. The university has been doing a fantastic job, but we think that they can do more in addition.
Let’s see, Zero Waste, our H&H campaign, which is our Hunger and Homelessness campaign is being headed by Abhishek Gupta and he’s phenomenal. He came onto the campaign I believe last year and I believe maybe in the spring. But, he’s taking the campaign to new heights, he’s gonna be fantastic and a lot of his focus is–in the past H&H has had a focus on the local community whereas Besheik wants to focus on the effects of hunger and homelessness and poverty on campus because contrary to popular opinion, there are students on this campus who are not as well off as a lot of us are and bringing attention to them. Saying “Okay, we’ve helped Willimantic, Windham county and Tolland counties, let’s turn our eyes home. Let’s look to here.”
That’s two of them, and then we’re also continuing our work on textbooks. Coming out of the success that we had in February, we are looking to build on top of that even more. We always hear that we are an internationally recognized and admired university, that is so true, and we are a major leader in open educational resources across the country. I talked about it earlier, and so we’re looking to expand that infrastructure even more here. So that was three of them, want to take the rest of them?
EMILY: Sure. I’m so happy to see the Save the Bees is continuing. It’s run by Gabrielle LaTorre, is it Latore?
WALTER: Umm, yes.
EMILY: Okay. Pronunciation of her named escaped me. However, she worked on the campaign last semester and I’m really excited to see her run it because we’ve been hitting our goals with that campaign and her goal is to help get a bee friendly campus-
WALTER: You already got that.
EMILY: I know, we got the bee-friendly campus. Now we’re going for bee-friendly garden on campus so that students can benefit from learning more about the bees and also have a nice space that serves two functions. So we have that campaign, we also have our 100 Percent Renewable
Energy Campaign continuing which started with Walter in the spring of 2017, you’ll have to remind me, who’s running that campaign?
WALTER: Parth Patel.
EMILY: Parth Patel.
WALTER: He’s amazing, I love Parth.
EMILY: Let’s see we’ve got hundred percent, we’ve got save the bees, zero waste…
EMILY: Textbooks, oh NVP of course.
WALTER: And that’s it.
EMILY: And that’s it. Yea, those are the five, I had to make sure.
WALTER: Those are the five that we have confirmed. We’re not sure if we’re doing a sixth one yet.
WALTER: The campaign coordinator is still doesn’t know what direction she wanted to take it in.
WALTER: So, there might be a potential sixth one.
WALTER: Like we said, if students would like to, in any way, if they – there’s this great quote by, I love quotes…
DANIELA: I love quotes too.
WALTER: Okay, perfect. John McCain, the late senator said, “If you find faults with our country, make it a better one.” If students find or have found faults with this campus, come to us, we will help you make this campus a better one.
DANIELA: Great, so you pretty much touched everything, so before we end this interview I really want to ask, is there anything else you’d like to add that we for some reason didn’t touch on?
EMILY: I would like to emphasize Walter’s last point, that if students want to work on anything, they should definitely come to us because I think we’re know as being an advocacy resource that kind of works on the environment and voting and yea, sure okay. And they don’t really know, and that’s fair, we are like a very big and an acronym – we’re a big organization with an acronym that isn’t easily explained until you actually sit down and talk about it – but I think students should know that we are an advocacy resource beyond just the campaigns that we run. So if any student says “Hey, I really want to organize around an issue” we have tool kits, and resources and trainings that can help with really any campaign as long as it’s within our mission–not within our mission–but within the requirements we have to meet like nonpartisan and following guidelines at the university or following guidelines that we as a tier three organization have to follow. We can help and I think that that is something that we should emphasize as a tier three organization and student trustees because we’re here for students. Not all the work I’m going to do in my lifetime and in my college tenure is going to be on voting, I’m going to work on other things, but I’m gonna take the tools I learned from PIRG to do those things.
WALTER: Yea, and even if students want to work on something that is partisan, like we usually don’t do social justice type stuff, but if students want to be able to take or if students want to do that kind of work, come talk to us. We will give you trainings, on trainings, on trainings. We will train you how to lobby, how to table, what a good personal story is. There are a myriad of ways for us to help you without being PIRG, without it being a PIRG campaign. PIRG also stands for “public interest research group.” We’re rebranding.
EMILY: We don’t do much research anymore.
WALTER: No, students don’t, but our professional fellows do like Kaitlyn Vitez who I talked about earlier. She’s been working on textbooks for the better part of 6 years.
DANIELA: Oh wow.
WALTER: There’s your research like she’s in it right there. The one thing that I would want students to take away is another quote.
DANIELA: I love it.
WALTER: This is Dr. Seuss from The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better.” It’s not, and that’s what we do, that’s who we are, and that’s who we strive to be.
DANIELA: Great. Well thank you so, so much for coming in and speaking with me. It was an absolute pleasure having this conversation with you.
WALTER: This was so much fun even though my voice is scratchy as heck.
EMILY: Thank you so much for having us.
DANIELA: This is so great, I definitely would love to talk to you again in the future when either new campaigns coming up or anything.
WALTER: We will make every effort to talk to y’all, we love WHUS.
DANIELA: Great, alright.
DANIELA: Thank you, thank you.
WALTER: Storrs alternative radio.
DANIELA: Listen, listen. You know our brand.
DANIELA: I appreciate that. well thank you once again and thank you to all the listeners who listen to all this information we have to give and yea, I hope everyone has a really good day.