A shared drive for political change led Alex ’22 and Ayla ’22 into dialogues they never expected in their time at Commonwealth. They took part in cross-state voter outreach, explained the national census over the phone, and struck up conversations with neighbors during election season. The seniors coordinated several of these efforts through the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter they jointly founded here at Commonwealth. Learn more about Alex and Ayla's involvement with local and national politics, and their advice for young people new to activism.
Answering a Call for Change
Wednesday meetings of Commonwealth's ACLU chapter bring a hum of activity into the computer lab, where members are often found with heads bent over a writing project. Perhaps they're addressing postcards to voters encouraging them to head to the polls, as they did for Georgia's special election for the United States Senate in 2021. Or they could be composing letters to incarcerated pen pals through a collaboration Alex fostered with the group Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement.
Some ACLU events extend beyond the walls of Commonwealth, like this spring's Coded Bias watch party: Massachusetts high school chapters gathered virtually for a film screening on artificial intelligence and discrimination, followed by contacting local legislators about the threat of invasive police surveillance practices.
Neither senior viewed themselves as an activist two years ago, though previous experiences had piqued their interest. Through Commonwealth's Gender and Sexuality Alliance, both Alex and Ayla took part in phone banking and on-the-street interviews as they advocated for a bill that would protect antidiscrimination laws in public spaces in Massachusetts.
But in the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd and the resulting outcry for racial justice struck both students. Alex wanted to get involved immediately in what he calls "this great national reckoning around issues relating to social justice."
"The ACLU is famous for a lot of its cases, like Loving v. Virginia, setting national precedents," Alex says, referring to the Supreme Court case that declared legal restrictions on interracial marriage unconstitutional. "I thought that would be a really good place to get started."
He approached Ayla—who, thinking Alex's idea was "really interesting," signed on. "I really wanted to have a more active way of helping than just signing one of those petitions, going to protests, and things like that," Ayla remembers. Now, both seniors are pursuing political action through the chapter and as individual campaign volunteers.
Continuing the Conversation
Much of the ACLU's computer lab outreach takes place through texts and letter writing. When members leave that space and communicate in real time, the conversational playing field shifts. They encounter challenges in how listeners engage, if they engage at all.
"In phone banking, as people will tell you, you spend two hours calling sixty people, and most of them won't pick up," says Alex. "The few that do either tell you to go away or that they don't have time."
"I've had people screaming their heads off," Ayla adds.
But rewarding moments stand out. "I called asking a woman about the census, and she just did not know what it was," Alex remembers. She continually said to him, "Why is this important? Stop asking me questions." But Alex says he "explained to her that the census is really important because it helps the government decide how much funding to give communities"—a chance for education in real time from another person, rather than a text or flier.
Related: Learn More About Alex
Canvassing is another staple of the work—one that, by its nature, can have greater conversational potential than phone banking. In summer 2021, Ayla went door-to-door for Sumbul Siddiqui, the current mayor of Cambridge. "It's a very different experience because you're meeting face to face with people in your neighborhood," she reflects, "and they're usually a lot more receptive to talking a little bit than people on the phone."
Alex had a similar experience while door-knocking during Michelle Wu's Boston mayoral campaign later that fall, struck by how many neighbors were ready to discuss topical issues. "People asked a lot of questions about [Boston's] exam schools and what [Wu] would do about those," he remembers.
The seniors strove to apply that spirit of dialogue to their activities during the pandemic, including through an attempted phone bank partnership with an Atlanta, Georgia, high school for that state's voters. The project didn't work out, but, "it was cool" to try, Alex says. He is eager to learn from voters in other states, "because the political climate is different, too."
"Just Jump In"
The structure of the ACLU, with leadership at the local and national levels, helped Alex and Ayla continue to take chances and explore political advocacy. They've learned to bring their experience not only to nonpartisan activism for civil liberties but to individual work for the candidates they support.
"We can set up [as the Commonwealth ACLU] and say 'let's do this on Wednesday at lunch,' and then also have these connections with people who are organizing bigger things," says Ayla. "We had built up this way of knowing how to run phone banks and stuff because of the ACLU, but then got to apply those skills and things we've learned to other causes."
"It's been a process," Alex says. "You don't suddenly wake up one day and think 'Yes, this is what I know is out there.'"
That's the number-one thing the seniors want other young people interested in social activism and politics to remember: They don't need to be experts when they begin. Rather, they should be willing to dive in and learn.
"You don't really need to know anything or have phonebanked before," Ayla says. "We were both new to this at some point, too. You can just come and do something for a couple hours. And if there's a cause or something you're working on, it's easy to just jump in and learn."
"If you deeply care about something," Alex agrees, "there's always ways to get involved in it."