During elections it’s not uncommon to see young people out canvassing for candidates and working for campaigns, though not many of them are British. The students from Act Inspired U.S, an organization founded to encourage disadvantaged English youth to become active in their communities, spent the last week of the American election campaigning for both the Obama and Romney camps, as well as local candidates in Tampa and Orlando.
The students attend academies similar to charter schools here in the states; these academies are meant to give underprivileged children opportunities to gain a leg up that they might not normally receive. This particular venture is a combined effort between E-Act, an academy sponsor similar to charter schools, and the Transformation Trust, which provides funding for activities such as this.
The program in the United States is made up only of the best students in these schools as a chance to show them how the U.S. political process works. While most Americans are already sick of the non-stop campaigning months before the actual election, the students were impressed by just how much effort is put into a race.
Jamiah Okoye was part of the contingent. Like many of her fellow students was surprised by just how involved in the election most Americans were. Okoye, a student at Clapton Girls Academy in Hackney, England says that in the U.K. an election can pass off almost unnoticed, something that obviously doesn't happen in the States.
“The elections have been on such a large scale compared to how it is in England. In England it’s much more reserved, but here everyone get’s involved. Everyone is enthusiastic, everyone with signs, T-shirts and badges, everyone’s talking about it, it’s something that everyone is getting involved with it. You can’t live in America and not know that there’s an election going on..you can live in England and not know that they’re going on."
Some of the students were shocked by the absolute saturation of campaigns, at least in their areas British elections come and go. Gaige Corvo, a student at the E-Act Leeds West Academy, noted that U.S. elections are completely inescapable and just how “massive” the turnouts are across the nation.
“Wherever you go, if you’re in the car, in your living room, if your on the streets, the election just seems to take over.”
The students were divided into two groups, one Democrat and one Republican, with each group working for their respective party and candidates. Both worked primarily with a local candidate. In the case of the Republican group, they volunteered for Tampa Representative Gus Bilirakis, while the Democrats worked for former Orlando Police Chief and Democratic candidate for Congress Val Demings. Being located in the much-talked about “I-4 corridor” allowed them to see one of the most contested areas of the election and all the attention both presidential campaigns dedicated to the area.
This election season was notable for the sheer amount of money poured in by candidates and outside groups, and the students were shocked by the sheer amount of negative advertising this cycle. Okoyoe in particular was dismayed by the constant attacks by candidates and SuperPACs, noting that it makes the campaigns involved seem less honest.
“I’ve noticed that the TV ads in particular are quite negative of the other candidate, in England we don’t get many ads. It was quite a surprise coming over here and seeing how the candidates attack each other, it’s quite vicious the election. It shows the totality in their ruthlessness towards them (the candidates) in the presidency.”
The “Red Team,” or students who worked with the Republican candidates, had some of their preconceived notions about the party and it’s members changed while working with them. They originally were apprehensive about working with them, citing the fact that they seemed more “right wing” than conservatives in the U.K. After working with Bilarakis and the Romney campaign they came off with a better appreciation of the Republican Party, especially in terms of economic plans. Corvo admits he was a little anxious about working with the Republicans, especially their stances on social issues but was surprised to see that the economy was the main talking point.
“Coming over I had stereotypes in my head about what a stereotypical Republican is like. Obviously being at the rallies and working with the congressman you get to talk to the people who believe in these things. I had these notions it was going to be on social issues, which is obviously a lot different from our views.”
Members of both “teams” were the most impressed with their respective local candidates. Ben Ladley, from the Winsford E-Act Academy and Rianna Li-Bailey from Prendergast-Ladywell Fields College in London spoke highly of Val Demmings and saw the upside of American politics in her campaign (though she went on to lose a narrow race for her potential seat).
“Val Demmings… when she spoke, she spoke so well for herself. I think she can represent the main demographics of people, she can represent women, she can represent ethnic minorities. She shows that people can achieve anything, that the American dream is possible.” Li-Bailey said.
Ladley seemed surprised at just how involved the average American was in the election, both in terms of campaign volunteers and people he encountered while working on the campaign. He says that many people were supportive of the fact that he was taking an in-depth look into the American political scene.
“I actually had one person stop me, and spoke to me because they mentioned the accent. It was nice that people actually noticed.”
Aside from the local candidates’ campaigns, they also canvassed and went door-to-door for the presidential candidates as well as attending speeches by Governor Romney, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.
The main focus of the program isn't just to key these students into the American political process, but also give them the chance to start their own campaigns back in their hometowns using the campaigning skills they gained here.
Esme Knight is the marketing and communications manager for the E-ACT program and helped lead the students through the week. Knight says one of the main goals is to provide the students with the skills to apply to their campaigns back home, especially what happens behind the scenes in terms of fund-raising, outreach and crisis control.
“What it’s really about is who could we give these skills to that could take this back and actually share, we wanted this project to be one from the roots up.”
The students might not normally receive the chance to experience something on this scale and Knight feels it’s a chance to invest in positive change back in England.
“It’s been really amazing seeing it through their eyes. Some of them have never left the country, let alone America. Every aspect has been new for them.”
Knight has experience in American campaign world, serving as a press officer for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s 2010 campaign.The aim is to instill some of the same kind of passion that young Americans have in the campaign process and to apply it to their respective movements.
“I think the biggest thing that’s dawned on me…has been the amount of volunteers involved, you just wouldn’t get it in England. If you’re an 18 year-old and your mate walked up to you and said 'Saturday let’s spend 6-hours door knocking' you just wouldn’t have it. I think that’s what’s really amazed them, there’s been people who have deferred college for a year to carry on being able to work for campaigns and that I really hope is the message they’ll take back. That it’s actually so important to be involved and that it can be really fun.”
Act Inspired U.S. ended their trip with a visit to Washington D.C. where they toured the sites and met with political figures and academics.