Smith, UMass students hustle to spread Bernie Sanders’ message and mobilize voters

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  • Giselle Nevarez, right, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie, stops Van Forsman and Elizabeth Webb of Greenfield while canvassing for Sanders in Northampton on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Giselle Nevarez, left, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie, waits for Sanders campaign volunteer Jenn Moore to assign her a neighborhood to canvass on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, at the Sanders Northampton headquarters. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Giselle Nevarez, right, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie, gets canvassing instructions from Sanders campaign volunteer Jenn Moore before heading out from the Northampton campaign headquarters on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Giselle Nevarez, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie, walks along Main Street in Northampton while canvassing for Bernie Sanders on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Giselle Nevarez, center, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie, talks with Elizabeth Webb, left, and Van Forsman of Greenfield while canvassing for Sanders in Northampton on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer Jenn Moore, left, advises canvasser Kyra Jean Wilk of Florence before she heads out from the Northampton campaign headquarters on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jenn Moore, second from right, campaign volunteer for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and canvass coordinator Patty Healey, background second from left, help first-time canvassers get going from the campaign headquarters in Northampton on Saturday. The canvassers are Kyra Jean Wilk, left, of Florence, University of Massachusetts graduate student Giselle Nevarez, center, and Morgan O’Connor, right, of Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 2/23/2020 11:44:54 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Cordelia Bellinson, an organizer of Smithies for Bernie, started the year with a plan to head Smithies for Warren.

“I was originally a Warren supporter — die-hard,” referring to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I wanted a woman in office,” Bellinson said, adding that her parents liked Warren. “Then I found that policy is really a lot more important than reproductive organs.”

So she switched her allegiance to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Bernie is the only candidate I’ve seen so far who has kind of the issues appeal, the ‘I’m watching out for the next generation’ appeal that young people are so desperately craving, and the personality appeal.”

The Vermont independent scored a convincing win in the Nevada caucus Saturday night, gaining just shy of 50% of the vote in the crowded Democratic primary field.

In the New Hampshire primary, Sanders got 51% of the votes cast by voters ages 18 to 29. Even in the Iowa caucus, in which Sanders came in second to Pete Buttigieg, entrance polls indicate he was the chosen candidate for almost half of the voters under 30.

Sanders found popularity with college-age voters in the 2016 primary, which sparked College Students for Bernie. While this larger group has split into Young Democratic Socialists and Young Progressives Demanding Action, individual chapters have started back up for the 2020 primary season.

A number of supporters turned out Saturday to do some fieldwork for their favored candidate.

As voters in Nevada got ready to caucus, a handful of local college students showed up at the Sanders campaign headquarters in Northampton ready to knock on doors.

Nancy Stenberg, one of the canvassing coordinators, said that about 35 Sanders volunteers had bused in that morning from New York and New Jersey to help knock on doors for the campaign over the weekend. With so many volunteers, the office was already running low on literature Saturday afternoon.

“It’s nuts,” Stenberg said with a smile. “I get goosebumps.”

First-year Smith College student Leela de Paula was one of those who turned out to the headquarters Saturday together with other Smithies. So many others had shown up to knock on doors, however, that de Paula and her Smith cohort couldn’t find any neighborhoods that hadn’t already been canvassed. But de Paula, a strong supporter of Sanders, wasn’t going to complain about that.

“It was an amazing feeling,” she said. “Even though they technically took our jobs.”

Giselle Nevarez, a graduate student studying labor and a member of UMass Amherst for Bernie who also came out to canvass Saturday, believes that Sanders appeals to students because he offers a lot of “solutions to major underlying social problems.” Her group, which has collaborated with unions in the Amherst area, seeks to canvass in rural Massachusetts, as college towns are already politically engaged. She thinks Sanders will ignite an “ideological revolution.”

Amherst College’s Mammoths for Bernie are also campaigning for Super Tuesday — March 3 — after canvassing in New Hampshire. They regularly table in Amherst’s dining halls.

Meenakshi Jani, a member of Mammoths for Bernie, said their goal is to help reach the approximately 90 million people in the United States who are not voting. She believes that Sanders’ message reaches those who grew up in the shadow of debt and climate change. And with the rise of school shootings, many students received their high school education while not feeling safe.

“We don’t think the government has been doing things for us,” Jani said.

Sanders’ policy on student debt is one of the main reasons he is popular with college-age students. He plans to cancel student debt and make public universities free to attend. “There’s very little that’s more relevant to Smith campus,” said Bellinson, of Smithies for Bernie.

Five college coordination

Smithies for Bernie is not an official Smith College organization, but is an official branch of the Sanders campaign. Due to rules surrounding federal funding, Smith and other colleges are not permitted to officially sponsor candidate groups. 

On campus, the group has partnered with other organizations with similar interests. For example, they have discussed Sanders’ environmental policy with the Sunrise Movement, an environmental action group. With Smith Debate, they have hosted debate watch parties, and they have collaborated with Smith Votes to get students registered.

“Candidate groups are kind of hard to do at college,” Bellison said, “unless you have this fiery little group of students that are willing to put their own money and time on the line.”

The Sanders supporters at Smith canvass in Northampton. Bellinson explained her plans to work with the other members of the Five College Consortium to prepare for Super Tuesday: canvass, phone bank, register and inform. “We’re working with them to kind of bring all the five college Bernie supporters together,” she said.

Nevarez runs the Facebook group UMass Amherst for Bernie, which she created as a receptacle for all of the work being done on the UMass campus. She referred to it as a place “to express an interest in a political candidate without crossing red tape.”

UMass Amherst for Bernie uses relational organizing — using personal networks for political action.

“We have this opportunity to reach out and not overlook any part of Mass.,” she said.

Undergraduate and graduate students phone bank at UMass. They got together to drive to New Hampshire for the primary there.

“Life of a college student is immersed in dialogue,” Nevarez said. “We are in a community.”

Smithies for Bernie have had the greatest success with their social media presence. “It’s kind of the new everything,” Bellinson said, noting that their Instagram is followed by a tenth of the student body. “We actually have someone running it who runs a famous toy unboxing thing, so she knows the tricks of the trade and is very adept.”

Their collaborations with other groups have emerged through social media discussions. It’s also where they have earned most of their members. Their Facebook advertises upcoming phone banks and collaborations with the wider Sanders campaign.

Bellinson believes Smithies do not know enough about Sanders’ policies, and that if they did, their votes would follow.

“Because his policies are not about Bernie — his polices are about issues,” she said.

Nevarez was drawn to Sanders because of his consistency and integrity over decades of public service. “He cares so deeply for the truth and inspires me to live a life where I speak my truth,” she said.

Staff writer Dusty Christensen contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Smith College policy on student clubs forming for  partisan or political purposes. Students are allowed to form such groups  so long as they comply with college rules, don’t fundraise or do political organizing on campus, do not use school resources to fundraise or organize, or donate college resources to a campaign. The groups must also include a disclaimer on their materials.

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