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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Student group Middlebury Civics In Action encourages civic engagement in talks and workshops

Middlebury Civics in Action (Midd CIA), co-founded by President Erin Chouinard ’24 and Vice President Ethan Schmitt ’24.5 in spring 2022, is a student group aiming to help students get directly involved in the political process and to provide education regarding active civic engagement.

“It’s a club focused on fostering and giving students the skills they need to advocate in the legislature and the government, in order to strengthen the democracy of the country itself,” Chouinard said.

Although it holds regular meetings and events, Midd CIA does not yet have final approval from the Student Activities Office and is not currently an official student organization. It hopes to gain approval this semester.

One of Midd CIA’s main objectives this year is to prepare students to testify at public legislative hearings at the Vermont State House. These hearings are an opportunity for lawmakers to hear voter’s direct input on bills that may be passed into law. Last year, the newly founded club did not provide testimony but toured the Vermont State House, watched State Senate proceedings and sat in on a women’s caucus meeting.

“When there's a public hearing of a bill, students will be able to go there and testify in front of legislature legislators to try to persuade them one way or another to vote for or against the bill,” Schmitt said.

Midd CIA does not persuade students to advocate for certain positions and, instead, encourages students to find issues and bills that they are passionate about. The time limit for each person’s oral testimony varies from two to five minutes, depending on the hearing. To help students with public speaking, CIA held workshops with Oratory Now.

In addition to helping students testify, Midd CIA also provides general education about how the U.S. government functions and student engagement in the political process. Group meetings also include lectures by Schmitt, whose familiarity with Vermont politics comes from growing up in the state. One of these lectures discussed the power of the personal story in swaying legislators’ votes. Other topics include how a bill becomes a law and the logistics of the midterm elections.

“If students feel comfortable testifying, that's great,” Schmitt said. “But they also are here more for the educational side of things, to learn about how the system works, to hear about specific bills and know what's happened in the state house, or even to support other students in their advocacy.”

The Midd CIA group is not explicitly affiliated with a political party.

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“The club leadership is nonpartisan, so we can't persuade a student one way or another to advocate a certain way. We try to maintain that objectivity so people feel comfortable bringing whatever beliefs they have to the table,” Schmitt said. He emphasized wanting students to feel accepted in the club regardless of what political views they hold.

Hinda Ibraahim ’25, who runs Midd CIA’s social media and communications, said this atmosphere of acceptance was something she appreciated when she first joined.

“It just seemed like a space where I was going to be heard and listened to, and everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “I saw it as an opportunity to not only be a voice for POC, but specifically Black women, and uplift their voices, since their voices are the most silenced, especially in this country.”

In addition to educational meetings and preparing to testify at hearings, Midd CIA also hosted former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas on Oct. 20 to speak to members about his experience in state government.

“We hope to bring in more legislators and senators to come and speak about the importance of public engagement in politics,” Chouinard said.

In addition, the group coordinated with the Student Government Association and Center for Community Engagement (CCE) to organize Beyond the Ballot: Why Civic Engagement Matters at Middlebury College. This non-partisan discussion series is part of the Democracy Initiatives, sponsored by the CCE, and aims to promote active participation in civics among students. According to Schmitt, Middlebury has permitted the candidates to come and speak in these events so long as they do not discuss their candidacy or parts of their platform. According to the CCE, “all qualified candidates for the positions represented by the candidates present were invited to this event, regardless of party affiliation.”

As part of the Beyond the Ballot events, Midd CIA was involved in organizing a Nov. 1 visit to campus by David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor for Vermont in the 2022 midterms. Students had an opportunity to hear Zuckerman’s discussion opposite Middlebury Political Science Professor Matt Dickinson.

Dickinson also held a conversation sponsored by Midd CIA on Nov. 2 with Joe Benning, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, candidate for Vermont Secretary of State, and Mike Pieciak, candidate for State Treasurer.

Schmitt says that Midd CIA plans to invite more politicians from the Republican party to speak to students.

“There may not be other groups on campus that are going to support candidates like that, and since we have that basic, nonpartisan outlook as a group, we were thinking about helping with those events,” Schmitt said.

Regarding the future of the group, Midd CIA hopes to expand both within and beyond Middlebury. This year, they have about ten members and anticipate increasing membership in the spring semester.

“It was a very small circle this time last year, and it's continuing to grow,” Ibraahim said. “I’m excited for more students to see the importance of civics.”

“I hope it comes to a point where Civics in Action becomes a national organization, not just something within Middlebury,” Chouinard said. “I think that what makes CIA very special is that it’s not just mock. You go out in the real world and try to make the change that you want. You're gonna face real life problems and logistics, and, over the years and working with CIA, you'll be better equipped to handle real life challenges.”