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Saturday, May 25, 2024

A roadmap to activism and political involvement for UF students

Students can work with city leaders, draft legislation and organize protests

With the flood of state legislation reshaping areas like education and gun control that took effect July 1, political tensions in Florida have reached a boiling point.

From city-level government positions to partisan political advocacy organizations to non-partisanship coalitions, there are limitless ways for UF students to dive into political activism and support their local community following the 2023 legislative session. 

Local government

For local government, UF students can apply for vacant positions on Gainesville city boards and committees, with some roles designated for students. 

City departments tackle areas that impact local residents like economic development, arts and culture programs, housing and law enforcement. 

Jonathan C. Stephens, a 20-year-old UF food science sophomore, is a member of Gainesville’s Human Rights Board and Nature Centers Commission. 

The Human Rights Board makes recommendations on discrimination cases to help enforce Human Rights and Fair Housing ordinances within Chapter 111 of the Alachua County Code. 

Additionally, the Nature Centers Commission advises the Gainesville City Commission on programs, ordinances and the implementation of policies concerning the preservation of local natural systems. 

The inclusion of UF students in local government allows for better representation at the city level, Stephens said.

“It's crucial to have a student voice in those types of spaces, and begin trying to create solutions that will affect all Gainesville residents — not just the ones who may be from Gainesville,” they said.

Through their involvement, Stephens has aided with various initiatives. They helped get funding for environmental education programs in local public schools approved for the city's 2022 fiscal year budget.

“The most rewarding part has been seeing the impact that you have on those within the community,” they said. “In government sometimes it is very discouraging to want to get involved because it's hard to see that impact.”

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Right-leaning organizations

UF has multiple student organizations, such as UF College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom and the Network of Enlightened Women, for conservative students seeking to get involved in local politics and activism. 

Outside of on-campus organizations, the Alachua County Republican Party, which collaborates with the Florida Republican Party and the Republican National Committee to support and campaign for Florida right-wing nominees, also welcomes UF student involvement.

While there is little-to-no student participation throughout the summer, a handful of UF students regularly help with campaign tactics like phone banking, canvassing door to door and multimedia efforts throughout the fall and spring semesters, said Alachua County Republican Party Chairman Tim Marden. 

“Campaigns are additive,” he said. “The more coalitions that you can build and circles of influence that you can create, the better.”

Marden also holds socials and workshops at his home to engage with conservative UF students. For topics like gun rights, Marden has organized training workshops for students to properly learn how to use firearms in a secure, controlled environment. 

Through his mentorship, Marden hopes to help motivate younger generations to mobilize and accomplish long-standing goals within the Republican party, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to socially pass the baton,” he said. 

Left-leaning organizations

There’s also a variety of progressive and left-wing political advocacy organizations incoming UF students can join to enact change, like UF College Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists of America and Planned Parenthood Generation Action.

Aron Ali-McClory, a 20-year-old UF political science and anthropology junior, has been a member of the left-wing organization Young Democratic Socialists of America since its Fall 2021 inception. 

They are currently the UF chapter’s membership director but previously served as chair. They also hold a position on the association’s National Coordination Committee. 

Aside from university politics, Young Democratic Socialists of America aims to make an impact on Gainesville residents unaffiliated with UF through local mutual aid programs. The organization partners with the nonprofit Gainesville Free Grocery Store to host an annual competitive food drive for food-insecure community members. 

“UF is the biggest economic force in Gainesville, and we recognize the power that has over the community,” they said. “It's those kinds of material impacts that create grounded systemic change that sets [Young Democratic Socialists of America’s] work apart.”

Paulina Trujillo, a 21-year-old UF political science and women’s studies senior, is the public relations director for UF College Democrats. 

The coalition helps advocate for Democratic state legislation, register students to vote and organize demonstrations for issues like encroachment of higher education and reproductive rights. 

At the state level, the organization is currently collecting petition signatures for the statewide effort to put reproductive rights on Florida’s 2024 ballot and repeal the state’s six-week and 15-week abortion bans. 

Trujillo encourages students who suffer from political fatigue or are unsure of how to make a difference to get involved with organizations like UF College Democrats to surround themselves with other students who share their interests and values, she said.

“When you can organize and be intentional with the work you’re doing you can actually make a change,” she said.

Non-partisan organizations

For those interested in engaging with students of different political beliefs, UF also offers opportunities to join non-partisan organizations that work to support communities across Florida.

Andrew Taramykin, a 21-year-old UF fourth-year political science and history major, founded Florida Student Policy Forum with UF student Robert Skrzypek in Fall 2021 to create a space for students of opposing ideological backgrounds to collaborate on policy initiatives.

“I don't love the ‘us against them’ mentality that dominates American democracy today,” he said. “We wanted there to be a place where it doesn't matter who you vote for.”

The organization recently helped pass an ordinance making phone calls for prison and jail inmates free in Alachua County. 

It also amended the state’s budget for the next fiscal year to allocate $1 million for a pilot program to provide free calls for state prison inmates on the condition of good behavior. 

Florida Student Policy Forum also seeks to ban corporal punishment in Florida schools and expedite the state’s foreclosure process to promote urban renewal in underdeveloped areas. 

“None of those are necessarily the things that you tuned into Fox or CNN for every night, but they're real identifiable ways we can really improve people's lives,” he said.

Florida Student Policy Forum plans to expand its organization to other campuses across Florida, with a recently established chapter at Florida State University and interest coming from the University of Central Florida.

Contact Amanda at Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.

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Amanda Friedman

Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the Enterprise Editor at The Alligator. She previously wrote for the Avenue, Metro and University desks. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching coming-of-age films and listening to Ariana Grande. 

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