By Michelle Shim
My name is Michelle Shim, and I’m a rising second year at the University of Chicago. This summer, I had the chance to meet peers from all over the country with interests as diverse as our geographical backgrounds; five of us served as TurboVote Summer Associates in the Democracy Works office in Brooklyn, NY. Alex from the University of Kansas was the climate change warrior, and Brian hailing from Duke was our comp-sci tech guy; Prince from Texas State knew the lyrics to every pop song we could name, and Eloise from Harvard proved her extensive historical knowledge by dominating in Chronology every game night. “No,” she would drawl, exasperated. “That happened a decade after the Civil War, my friend.”
For most of the summer associates, this was our first taste of the inner workings of a nonprofit organization, and we were ready to dive into whatever work was available. Little did we know that countless projects had already been meticulously planned to ensure our summer would be as productive and rewarding as possible. And so began 10 fulfilling weeks spanning everything from public policy research on voting laws to a complete overhaul of the TurboVote Toolkit website, from outreach projects on potential new partners to the creation of helpful materials for our current ones. We even brainstormed innovative implementation strategies for both our higher education and corporate partners.
One such brainstorm session brought a staff member, Sofia, from a major social media network to our office on a rainy Monday. Over lunch, we offered ideas on how, with a foothold in the political sphere, they could bolster voter education and engagement in the coming years. The associates chatted with Sofia about potential new features, our everyday experiences with the platform fueling the conversation. Laughter about some particularly outrageous, but perhaps not entirely crazy, ideas drove away the low clouds. Even outside of enhancing voter participation, scouting out potential partnerships, and learning about various other sides to Democracy Works such as the Voting Information Project, we associates found ourselves forming new skillsets. We learned to document meticulously for any project, to hold ourselves accountable to self-prescribed deadlines, and to clearly and concisely communicate with fellow associates and our superiors. We grew increasingly cognizant of the footprints we were leaving on whatever we touched.
Occasionally, we were also entrusted with extremely imperative tasks that would take priority over all else, like creating a grocery list for our summer BBQ—was it to be guacamole or salsa? Spicy black bean burgers or standard veggie ones? Oh, the possibilities! We even led brown bag presentations (informal talks over lunch) for the entire Democracy Works family on topics of our interest. I flaunted a website I created about democratic architecture, Eloise advised us on how to predict the weather, and Brian discussed the potential benefits of legalizing the organ market, while Alex delved into his passion for the banjo. Prince taught the staff on how to use Snapchat with fluid expertise, especially stressing the cultural importance of a “streak.”
The fact that we were in the DUMBO district of Brooklyn was not lost on us, and we took advantage of our perfect proximity to NYC—close enough in terms of accessibility, and distant enough for refuge from the often overwhelming bustle of the city. The associates spent their lunch breaks gazing out at the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges from Pebble Beach, the city skyline in the background. A few times after work, I would cross either bridge on foot to meet friends for dinner in Chinatown, dessert in Little Italy, and some window shopping in SoHo. I even took a leap of faith to get my ears pierced, dragging Prince with me for moral support.
With fuller minds (and somewhat fuller bodies from all those food trucks), the 2017 TurboVote Associates are heading back to college with a better understanding of the terrains of ourselves. Where our faults lie and where our peaks are, which old passions are running dry and which new ones are springing up. The steep slopes of the many challenges ahead, but also the deep reservoirs of our own determination, tenacity, and grit.
We trusted traffic signals with our lives when crossing the street, scowled at tourists, avoided Times Square at all costs, and numbed our noses to occasional whiffs of rancid garbage. We called the “metro” the “train,” knew the best dollar pizza stores, and discovered the importance of a hardy attitude and even hardier shoes. “We’re basically New Yorkers now,” we’d jokingly say. Eloise, a native New Yorker, rolled her eyes but smiled.