A year ago today, exactly one week after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, the Student PIRGs team launched four new campaigns to contend with the emerging reality of the novel coronavirus.
It has been an incredibly difficult and heartbreaking year in many ways. But when I look back on the work that our team did in what has certainly been one of the longest years of my life, I mostly feel overwhelming pride in what we’ve accomplished in the fight for the public interest despite all of the difficulties presented by the pandemic.
We launched new campaigns to protect the public from COVID-19, helped tens of thousands of young people vote safely, continued to tackle the ongoing challenges of climate change, higher education costs, and more, all while building virtual communities and training the next generation of activists.
Here’s a look back on some of the highlights of our work.
Rapid Response: Leading by Example
On March 5th, 2020, a day before twenty-one people of just 46 tested aboard a cruise ship off the coast of California tested positive, we put a ban on all non-local travel for work.
Less than a week later on March 11th the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic and we instituted an immediate remote working mandate, banning all professional in-person contact with others. We were a week ahead of the first statewide stay-at-home order and months ahead of many of our coalition partners.
Within days of the WHO announcement, our national student and staff leadership team convened a national call and survey of possible COVID-19 campaigns and within a week we launched four new rapid-response campaigns to contend with the new challenges brought about by the pandemic. (You know it was some rapid response work because we didn’t even put out a blog about it. That link is to a Twitter thread.)
- COVID-19: We were the only group organizing young people throughout the entire pandemic to call on our mayors, governors, and the President to listen to public health officials by issuing stay-at-home orders and ramping up testing and contact tracing. Our work in partnership with U.S.PIRG pushed elected officials to institute stay-at-home and mask orders that likely saved thousands of lives.
- Pledge to Stay Home: In addition, we launched a #PledgeToStayHome campaign that educated tens of thousands of students on our campuses at a time when many institutions were struggling with consistent messaging. We engaged campus leaders to create positive social pressure for responsible pandemic behavior.
- Meeting student basic needs: Many of our campuses decided to move to remote learning in the middle of spring break, leaving thousands of students without access to course materials, computers, or reliable internet access. We quickly released a guide and met with campus leaders to educate them about how they could meet student basic needs in the rapidly changing learning environment.
- Pandemic voting: Finally, knowing that the pandemic would likely stretch on through the election, we launched a campaign calling on states to institute emergency absentee balloting and create measures to help people vote safely and efficiently.
Building a brand new remote organizing model
In the month following our rapid response campaign launches, 42 states put stay-at-home orders in place and COVID-19 surged across the country.
We focused on learning how to best shift our in-person organizing model to effectively organize campus communities online. We launched a Remote Tactics Library in Google Drive that we shared with campus leaders and coalition partners across the country. Throughout the month it always had a few anonymous animals adding to it or visiting it for new ideas.
We tried close to 100 discrete experiments, some large but most small, to update our model for remote organizing.
In that first month of remote organizing, nearly 4,000 students took a grassroots action with us and more than 930 students attended PIRG chapter meetings.
We were not only able to pivot our campaign work quickly to meet the needs of the moment, but we were able to completely reinvent our organizing model to be, in some ways, even more effective than before.
Walking and chewing gum at the same time
Despite the new challenges that the pandemic posed, we knew that we did not have the luxury of tackling only one crisis at a time. We continued to run campaigns to get out the youth vote, protect the environment, make higher education more affordable, and more.
Helping students get to the polls: Leading up to the election, our teams called for accessible mail-in balloting and expanded drop boxes. We worked with campus leaders to make sure remote students knew their options. And of course, we helped hundreds of thousands of students register to vote and navigate the pandemic election. On National Voter Registration Day, we helped one voter register every 48 seconds for 15 hours. In all we reached more than 1 million young people through phone calls, text messages, class announcements, and activating listservs.
Students across the country continued their important work to protect the environment and fight climate change: WASHPIRG Students won their campaign to ban single-use grocery bags. CALPIRG Students won the 2020 American Climate Leadership Award and secured a commitment to shift away from single-use plastics across the University of California system. On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, our team hosted 50 events across the country which more than 800 students attended. Thousands of students called on President Biden to Rollback the Rollbacks and their voices are being heard.
Coming out of the election, student leaders have hosted state lobby days in Oregon, California, Florida, Massachusetts, and California to fight for 100% renewable energy, ban single-plastics, make higher education more affordable and more.
Fighting for affordable higher education and student basic needs: The pandemic made higher education even less affordable and accessible than ever before. We successfully called for the suspension of student loan payments. We released a groundbreaking report on the real cost of access codes and digital course materials that was covered in the New York Times and dozens of other news outlets. We organized student leaders to call on Congress to support students and higher education institutions through the appropriations process, and hosted a national lobby day just two weeks after the election where more than 120 students met with their Congressional representatives.
Since the new Congress has been sworn in, we’ve continued our advocacy. More than 160 student leaders from across the country ranging from student government presidents to cultural group chairs have signed onto our letter calling on Congress to double the Pell Grant and we’ve done more than 80 additional Congressional lobby meetings calling for change.
The next generation of activists
It is clear that this generation of young people is incredibly resilient and ready to fight for a future that works for all of us.
From remote and asynchronous classes and caring for siblings and sick family members to an economic recession that is improving for every age group except for those 18 – 25, this pandemic class of college and university students has faced incredible challenges*.
Despite this, even more students have engaged in our campaigns this year than pre-pandemic. In total, more than 5,980 students have volunteered or interned with us over the course of the last year. (That’s a 31% increase from the 2019 – 2020 school year.)
All of the progress and victories I’ve written about here would not be possible without the hard work of our staff – most of whom are recently out of college – and the persistence of our student leaders and volunteers.
With multiple vaccines now deployed across the country, there’s now a clear light at the end of the tunnel. But if you’re like me, when you look back on the last year you see that the strength and innovation of this team has illuminated our path here and will allow us to come out even stronger on the other side.
* Major props to our new class of organizers that started on staff with us in August of 2020 with two weeks of Zoom training!