After the controversial presidential debate Sept. 29, the upcoming November election is more looming than ever. Getting the student body of Grand Valley State University registered to vote in time to participate has been a fall priority for the Community Service Learning Center, who recently wrapped up September with National Voter Registration Week. Their culminating event on Sept. 25 was centered around civil engagement and student athletes.
“We’ve been working hard all week to make sure our students are knowledgeable and registered for voting in the upcoming election,” said Associate Director of Student Life Melissa Baker-Boosamra. “Our event tonight is about how to use our own spheres of influence to build a better world, and one of the best ways to do that is voting. We know it isn’t the only way to create change, but it’s a fundamental one.”
The event featured discussion from a panel of three players from GVSU athletic teams, who discussed how athletes can use their sphere of influence to create positive change.
“On campus, we have a really big community of student athletes,” said Rhys Green, a senior on the women’s lacrosse team. “If even just a few of us can influence half the student athlete population, that’s a huge impact on people who might not have voted before. All three of us are on the executive board for SAAC, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and this year, we are focusing a lot on getting people registered — just pushing that voting is really important, especially in the climate we’re in right now, and that even though we are young people, our voice and our vote really do matter.”
They noted that voting isn’t the only way student athletes can create positive change in their communities.
“Being a student athlete and being a part of different community outreach programs — either from just football or getting involved in different groups on campus — I felt like it not only sparked in me, but in other student athletes, the want to reach out in our own communities, to uplift them,” said Damon Wesley, a junior on the football team. “If each person goes home and does that, we’re not just helping Grand Valley out, we’re making a better world out of it.”
The event’s discussion was framed around a showing of the movie “Race,” a biographical sports drama about African-American athlete and four-time Olympic medalist Jesse Owens. Facing an Olympics hosted in Nazi Germany, Owens faced racism both abroad and at home in the United States.
Though the political landscape has changed from what Owens experienced in 1936, the issue of discrimination in athletics, as well as the world at large, has remained. All three student athletes noted the importance of taking in diverse perspectives to stay aware of the realities facing peers of varying backgrounds.
“Being on the lacrosse team, we’re all from different areas, some from Michigan, some from out of state,” said Amanda Barian, a senior defender for the team. “Bringing all those backgrounds together and educating ourselves on what we know and what we don’t know helps us inform each other on how to be better as a group. Rhys has definitely educated me on a lot of issues in America and the world.”
Rhys Green, a junior defender for the Laker women’s lacrosse team, concurred. Seeing examples of discrimination in professional sports made Green and the team want to take steps back to consider their own perspectives.
“Women’s Lacrosse is a predominantly white sport, and it’s predominantly middle to upper class,” Green said. “We had a lot of conversations this summer with our coaches where we would read articles about privilege, or about issues with discrimination. Although I’ll never understand what it’s like to be a person of color, I can learn to take a step back and listen. There’s a lot of discrimination within sports — it was really obvious last year, when certain teams were fined for players kneeling, or women’s basketball teams that were fined for wearing shirts that had the names of people who were killed by police on them.”
Voting isn’t a solution to all these problems. GVSU Volleyball coach Callie Youngman said it’s a fundamental step to creating the change we want to see in our society.
“The balance of our democracy relies on our actions, now and leading up to Nov. 3,” Youngman said. “The reason I vote is not because any single politician is the answer, but because we are the answer. We allow systems to be corrupt when we let our apathy or exhaustion or cynicism stop us from taking action. If you are feeling scared or frustrated or upset, then let that fuel you. Let’s all vote together, so that when those election results come rolling in, we can feel good that our voice was heard.”
The Community Service Learning Center encouraged students to get information about voter registration through the Outvote app, which also offers an easy way to encourage your contact list to do the same. Though National Voter Registration Week is over, it’s not too late to ensure yourself a ballet — in Michigan, potential voters can register online up until Oct. 19, and requests for absentee ballots are accepted until Oct. 30.
“Registration is important because it’s the first step in voting,” said Sam Jacobs, Campus Elections Engagement Project Fellow and Director of Member and Community Relations for the Campus Activities Board. “It’s an integral part of our democracy. It’s been fought for for years, and now we’ve come to this point in history and its a privilege to be able vote and to register to vote, but there’s so much more work to be done. At the end of the day voting is your voice, and it’s the way that you can help make positive in the world.”