Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can you hear me now Washington? – Part 2, TheVoterEffect Trends

Voters under 30 got involved in the 2008 Presidential election campaign in record numbers. Many became involved in politics for the first time in their lives – many through social media platforms.

Candidate Barack Obama changed politics forever by setting the bar for all future political candidates to strategize and effectively use social media in political campaigns. He proved out the tremendous power of social media if used with a positive, individual interest, networking message strategy.

The greatest impact of Obama’s powerful use of social media is in how social media as a tool is changing the face of politics and policy in general - not just in campaigning. Everyone learned by watching Obama including America’s citizens – the governed – the voters.

Not feeling their values and opinions were being listened to, let along being accurately represented in Congressional voting, American citizens got involved in political discourse in the last two years. Many typically non-political citizens got informed and involved for the first time in their lives. This included citizens of all ages.

Voters are watching politicians closely for action that backs up their words. Voters are organizing and connecting as they gear up for the 2012 elections.

In the post-Obama campaign evolution, the political focus in social media use will not necessarily be on a politician’s campaign message, for no candidate will be able to tightly control their branding and messaging like Obama seemed to successfully do in 2008.

The social media dynamics have evolved and become much more organized by citizens. The citizens are now in reality just as powerful as the politician’s press secretary and media relations today whether politics or the media like it or not.

Even if the media controls the brand and message by only presenting a candidate in a positive light, ignoring any emerging negative factors or a specific voting record, social media does not allow this to go unchallenged as the only message people see or talk about anymore.

Voters are using key social media tactics to overcome the “power of politicians” who ignore their expressed desires in passing unwanted legislation and more taxation. Now social media affords in reality a leveling agent for both political campaigning and debate playing fields in the political realm.

In politics, these leveled playing fields allow for more accessibility, connection, and networking for the everyday, everyman participant; and these leveled fields are much more equal in several ways to a candidate’s political campaign team’s level.

The everyman has the ability to have a political discussion that is person-to-person and person-to-group with an unlimited audience. This is true even if the everyman has no actual access to traditional media or no actual participation in televised candidate debates.

Voters are now more directly engaging politicians by asking specific questions, expressing their opinion on proposed legislation, and tracking Congressional voting records. Voters are now more directly effecting their own futures having seen how public policy and legislation directly affects their economic stability and individual freedoms.

As we introduced in Part 1, TheVoterEffect.com “demonstrates an active presence by voters and connects them to their representatives to work collaboratively as a part of The Effect – the collective voting power creating change.”

We continue our interview with TheVoterEffect CEO Joe Elkjer and United Kingdom based Director of International Impact Kevan Howley:

BKH: What has been the initial reaction of voters overall to TheVoterEffect?
JE: The initial reaction has been very positive. People are very motivated to create change.
KH: On this side of the pond, it has received a very positive reaction from those I have shown and discussed it with. Many want to know when it will be here in Europe. They express it would be great for the European Parliament.

BKH: What has been the initial reaction of politicians overall to TheVoterEffect?
JE: An example of the reaction is this quote by U.S. Senator of Nebraska Ben Nelson, “I like TheVoterEffect, because it uses social media to give citizens a forum to discuss issues and become educated on happenings in Congress. It’s valuable, because it’s innovative and helps constituents give their feedback on issues of importance to them.”

BKH: What political party affiliation seems most engaged on TheVoterEffect?
JE: It really depends on issue to issue and bill to bill. The more people learn the more affiliation is shaped in reality and matters.

BKH: What age group seems most engaged so far on TheVoterEffect?
JE: 25-65

BKH: What states have had the top voter engagement?
JE: Currently they are California, Texas, Ohio, Nebraska, Florida, and Colorado.

BKH: Explain the “Official Scorecard” feature.
JE: The “Official Scorecard” compares how your Congressional representatives have voted on issues compared to how you would vote on the same issue. A percentage of agreement in voting is displayed for you to track.

BKH: Explain the icon links specifically for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate only.
JE: This is to allow access to our data for Congressional members to have direct feedback from their constituents on TheVoterEffect.

BKH: Do you believe politicians will listen to voters that engage them with TheVoterEffect?
JE: Yes, I believe that 100%. Social media is “the future” of democracy.
KH: I believe many politicians really want to know what the people they represent have to say, but presently there isn’t an efficient means of channeling it directly. They currently have to rely on information from focus groups and opinion polls.

These often miss the mark as they round up issues and don’t allow the voters the chance to express what specifically is important to them. Or politicians must rely on information refracted through biased legacy-media as a benchmark of voter opinion.

BKH: How do you anticipate TheVoterEffect playing into the 2012 elections?
JE: It will have a defining part in the 2012 elections

BKH: Does TheVoterEffect have a direct line to the White House and President Obama?
JE: LOL. I was able to meet with Aneesh Chopra, the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States, to talk about the future of democracy. We discussed the positive impact TheVoterEffect.com. will have.

BKH: What do you hope voters take away from engaging with TheVoterEffect site?
JE: I hope voters realize and understand together we can actively create a positive future for the people and the nation.
KH: I want voters to know they have the ability to feel connected with politicians again. I want voters to know they can have political accountability by being able to compare and track what politicians promise and what they do.

BKH: What are your plans for additional site feature enhancement?
JE: There are many planned enhancements. Of course, I can’t share all the details. TheVoterEffect is a revolution of how the people interact with the government.

BKH: Do you plan on bringing TheVoterEffect to other countries ultimately?
JE: Yes! The next stop is the United Kingdom.
KH: Watch this space!

BKH: How do the needs of other countries differ from the needs in the U.S.?
KH: The UK will be the next country, and I don’t see a whole lot of difference in needs between American voters and elected and those counterparts in Europe. The only difference is in adapting TheVoterEffect engine and presentation to the UK political structures and system.

TheVoterEffect name would remain the same. Beyond that the European Parliament is in our sights. It’s almost totally disconnected from the 500 million European Union population. TheVoterEffect can redress that. Ultimately, I see TheVoterEffect as a global platform within which many different voter constituencies will experience the voter effect.

BKH: Thanks gentlemen. Check out TheVoterEffect.com and follow on Twitter @ TheVoterEffect.

The dynamics have changed, and we are all in a new era in politics. Voters are definitely engaged, and reading proposed legislation isn’t just for some Congressional staffers or Congressional Budget Office employees anymore. Here’s some feedback from a few of TheVoterEffect citizen users:
“Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! I had fun voting and will do more tomorrow.” Dale T. – Wauconda, IL

“I really think TheVoterEffect is a good way to get voters involved, and it sure gives you factual information in order to make a valid decision on issues that concerns us all.” Frank M. – Saratoga, FL

“The Voter Effect is an engaging way to stay on top of everyday political issues, bills, and how legislators are voting. Additionally, it is fun to be able to network with old friends and new friends. TheVoterEffect is a dream for people, like me, who love politics and social networking.” Carol W. - Rapid City, SD
See also: Part 1, What is TheVoterEffect?

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Can you hear me now Washington? – Part 1, What is TheVoterEffect?

In past elections, have you blindly voted for candidates knowing nothing about them or their campaign platform? Have you voted for an incumbent on name recognition only or simply because they had an “R” or “D” after their name without knowing their voting record?

Have you relied on the media for your political news? Do you believe everything you hear or read by the media? Do you watch campaign ads believing they can not say it if it is not true? Have you in fact allowed the media and campaign ads to shape your political opinions and votes?

Are you ready to change, to get informed, and to get more involved in the political process with the upcoming 2012 election? Many voters are. Many voters have even become citizen organizers.

The citizen organizer has the ability to identify like-minded individuals; to create political consensus; to establish political allies; to provide information outside of the candidate’s controlled message; and to persuade others in supporting or not supporting a candidate. This is true whether we are talking about political campaigns or existing politicians – whether proposed bills or existing legislation.

Have you ever wanted to ask a politician a direct question, to express your opinion on proposed legislation, and track a politician’s voting record? Would you know how to go about this? Would you consider the time and effort involved a deterrent?

There’s an easy and effective way to accomplish all of this now. TheVoterEffect is new, non-partisan, free, and available now. TheVoterEffect.com “demonstrates an active presence by voters and connects them to their representatives to work collaboratively as a part of The Effect – the collective voting power creating change.”

TheVoterEffect provides voters the ability to “access and view bills on the floor of Congress in real-time, cast virtual votes on bills, and connect with other voters.” It allows voters to “review, rate, and share representatives’ voting history” as well as to “track outcomes for accountability and transparency.”

TheVoterEffect provides voter opinion feedback and reports directly back to U.S. Representatives and Senators also.

Based in Omaha, TheVoterEffect CEO and Co-Founder Joe Elkjer is an entrepreneur/Internet businessman. From very early on, Joe knew that “working for himself would offer the most room for personal growth.” He is an independent and abstract thinker that likes to take ideas and make them a reality.

Prior to founding his own companies, Joe worked in sales and marketing within the music industry. In 2009, Joe founded Nuclear Minds Inc., Idea Creation Company, and Nuclear Minds Racing. In 2010 he co-founded The Voter Effect LLC, a political social network to allow users to be heard and actively involved in creating their future.

Based in Chicago, TheVoterEffect CTO and Chief Programmer Joe Dundas received his Ph.D. in Bioinformatics from the University of Illinois in December of 2010. His main area of research was structural bioinformatics, where he developed and implemented an algorithm to computational find structurally conserved concave surface regions across a family of proteins.

During his research career he built several web servers and databases, including CASTp. Dr. Dundas' education and research have given him a strong background in graph theory, statistics, and data mining. Dr. Dundas has been published in several esteemed journals including Nucleic Acids Research, BMC Bioinformatics, and the Journal of Molecular Biology.

TheVoterEffect United Kingdom based Director of International Impact Kevan Howley is also an executive of various companies spanning ICT, Business Services, Technology Innovation, Web 2.0+, and Property Development. Kevan brings global business experience with an exceptional reputation for propelling rapid profitable growth of international technology-enable services. Kevan “loves a challenge”, and he “wants TheVoterEffect to be instrumental in rejuvenating politics by breaking the legacy-media monopoly of voter and elected communications.”

An interview with Joe Elkjer and Kevan Howley:

BKH: What was your “light bulb” moment for TheVoterEffect?
JE: It was a combination of ideas between Dave Stebbins, another Co-Founder, and me. The light bulb for me personally came a couple years ago at the beginning of the “bad economy.” I had a bigger picture understanding that the future of social media is not just about sharing the current moment. The future of social media allows users to be active in creating a more positive future for them.
KH: I found TheVoterEffect in a LinkedIn discussion group. I immediately realized it’s potential and contacted Joe to talk about leveraging it across the pond.

BKH: Is the company or website funded by any Political Action Committee (PAC) or lobbyist money?
JE: Nope.
KH: And it will stay this way, for neutrality of the medium is paramount. It is individuals that count – voters, candidates, and the elected.

BKH: How do you retain party neutrality with TheVoterEffect?
JE: Social media is interesting in that way. Users are both the providers and the consumers. We approach development of TheVoterEffect as a tool. It is a tool for all people to become more active and knowledgeable in creating a positive future.

BKH: Facebook has many people forming political groups. How is TheVoterEffect different?
JE: TheVoterEffect is an unbiased tool.
KH: And it is purpose-built with its central purpose being political engagement. It’s not just an add-on to a general purpose social networking platform, though it’s being quoted and leveraged by such.

BKH: Facebook has had a lot of member data privacy issues come into play in the past few months. How does TheVoterEffect handle member data privacy?
KH: We handle user privacy with the utmost care. We invite people to review our privacy guidelines detailed on the site.

BKH: What needs does TheVoterEffect meet?
JE: We meet the need for the people to become more involved.
KH: And, we meet the need for politicians to know what voters’ issues are as opposed to what big legacy media lobbies for.

BKH: Who is the target market for TheVoterEffect?
JE: The target market I want, are the people who can see the possibility of a positive future for the people of our nation.
KH: I also want the target market to be politicians who want to serve people more than party.

BKH: How do you counter any fraudulent results or hidden lobbying with TheVoterEffect?
JE: We monitor the data, and we would be aware and see patterns of strange activity.
KH: We apply our internal application of highly advanced structural bioinformatics algorithms.

BKH: Is it available for every U.S. Representative and Senator nationally?
JE: Yes.

BKH: Is it available for local and state politicians?
JE: Yes. Right now we don’t pull data from state legislatures, but it is in the works.
KH: Local is vital too, for there are many voters who have lost confidence in central government but still hold faith in their regional or local politicians. Politics can be driven up from local to national with TheVoterEffect. Many believe top-down national dictating to local has gone too far.

BKH: Does it contain information for every U.S. legislation bill or law?
JE: We focus on the current congressional year. That is what shapes our future government

BKH: Does it contain information for every local and statewide legislation bill or law?
JE: Not yet.
KH: Watch this space!

BKH: This would be a great teaching tool in the classroom. Is TheVoterEffect working with schools?
JE: We are in many classrooms across the country. We are currently developing the ability for schools to create their own secure sub networks, and are always willing to help kids learn. They are the future.

BKH: What are your ultimate goals for TheVoterEffect?
JE: I most want people to be involved in actively creating a positive future.
KH: I think its time to cut through the legacy-media monopoly of the communication channels between voters and the elected. It’s time for direct undistorted communications in both directions!

BKH: Thank you gentlemen.

Kevan is right in many ways. In 2008 an often minimized reality was the majority of the U.S. traditional media pushed Obama as their candidate due to their desire for an historic election for the most part. They controlled the brand and messaging for him in the media with limited exception. They endorsed him, and the reality is the objectivity of the media in the U.S. is gone.

The main stream media, most often liberally slanted, has continued to define and control the President Obama message for most Americans. In reality, they have already begun to endorse him for his re-election bid in 2012.

Yet, the media’s position as the definer of what is to be accepted as “good” like Obama or “bad” like the Tea Party movement is severely waning with the evolution of social media and voter engagement in general.

Social media now permits a pointing of people in a direction for news outside of information by the limited and possibly political philosophy controlled traditional news sources and the political candidate’s Internet networking.

We are definitely in the social media political era that allows and encourages voters every day to get connected and network, raise issues, ask politicians questions directly, follow voting records, and decide if they are being represented effectively. Voters will increasingly endorse a politician, or not endorse, based on informed and critical thinking.

Voters want a real seat at the table, and they know social media can easily facilitate this. Voters are more invested, and they feel ownership in the process. The expectation of two-way participation and communication in politics in real-time is an emerging and lasting dynamics with voters.

The days of politicians thinking the dynamic remains I talk, you listen, and you don’t question my message are over. The new dynamic is now you spoke, I listened; now you listen to me as I speak my experience and opinion - a two-way exchange and a more personal individual relationship is expected.

Should a politician ignore the two-way communication that social media fosters and voters expect, they will be viewed as out-of-touch and replaceable no matter how great the initial excitement, the strength of message, or the value of their platform.

In addition, once elected, politicians will have to live up to their campaign rhetoric in their actual voting record to be re-elected. The importance of listening to the people they represent is a growing factor with voters. TheVoterEffect easily and directly facilitates this for voters and politicians.

As Joe likes to say, “The future is bright, and it begins in Middle America.” Check out TheVoterEffect.com and follow on Twitter @TheVoterEffect.

See also: Part 2, TheVoterEffect Trends

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

5-Part Series, Effecting Change with a “un-Revolution”; Part 5, ATOM Answers “Dream Act” Opposition

Many American student groups, and the majority of liberal progressive groups, are working for passage of the Dream Act. Many of these groups often express a desire for an open-arm and open or no border society in American immigration policy.


Many often cite the Dream Act amounts to fairness for young illegal immigrants who are innocent of wrong doing in their plight. Many most often ignore it is policy that is much further reaching than this in reality and can realistically be seen, in many ways, as part of a political game that ultimately only benefits politicians.


They believe the Dream Act is necessary to be good citizens of the world – good citizens of a Utopian one world society. Some even take the militant stand the majority of America’s southwest land was stolen from Mexico; and therefore, it is the only right thing to do even if this results in a revolutionary position against the U.S. This does not follow actual history, yet this is, believe it or not, what is being increasingly taught in many American schools today.


Many of these groups know there is extreme opposition from many American citizens regarding the Dream Act. Most liberal groups are unwilling to honestly and realistically address any opposition coming from legitimate citizen concerns of enforcing existing American immigration law, to local and national fiscal cost of illegal immigration, to national security and U.S. sovereignty. Many pro-Dream Act groups espouse any and all opposition is due only to those that must be labeled racists.


The Chicago based student group Access To Opportunity Movement (ATOM) is a liberal group. ATOM approaches their work with a willingness to engage every one of any political position and with a mission to unite all to make positive changes within the existing system. ATOM is honest and open and works from the premise of respecting all that they engage.


ATOM is willing to advance a dialogue to affect change. They are strategic and measure their effectiveness. They are not looking to rewrite history to fit their position or to name-call those that do not agree with them. ATOM is not demanding a revolution or to take anything by force.


They want to enact change by working within the system to change the system – a “un-Revolution” approach – which is most often how change is in fact successful within entrenched policy.


Unlike most Dream Act proponents, ATOM is willing to answer tough Dream Act opposition as an element of their work. Even if you come from the position “you will never agree with passage of the Dream Act”, this ATOM straight forwardness is in itself worth your attention and consideration.


In Part 4, we met Cindy Agustin. She is ATOM’s Director for Immigration Reform Initiatives. On behalf of ATOM, she shares her insights on the expressed thoughts from those Americans who believe the Dream Act would in fact be a nightmare for the U.S. You may agree or disagree with passage of the Dream Act, yet ATOM’s position is, at the least, one to hear and consider.


The Dream Act is quite controversial with many Americans. What are ATOM’s thoughts on the following points?


BKH: Many Americans see President Obama using the Dream Act to simply pander for Latino votes for his 2012 re-election?


CA: The Dream Act is a piece of legislation that was first put on the table in 2001, well before President Obama was ever considering even an initial Presidential bid. Rather than speculating about the President’s political tactics, what voters need to focus on are the merits of this bill, which stands to greatly improve the lives and prospects of the thousands students who stand to be affected by it.


BKH: Many Americans are angry about the existing immigration laws not being enforced by the federal government?


CA: Contrary to what many Americans have been led to believe, immigration laws have been heavily enforced under the Obama administration. In fact, the number of deportations has greatly increased under Obama as compared to Bush.


What’s more, this administration has gone so far as to establish a number of federal programs, such as the Secure Communities Program, which are aimed towards arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants who are found to be criminals. Under this program alone, thousands of people are deported every year regardless of whether or not they actually do in fact have a criminal background.


To assume that existing immigration laws are not being enforced at the federal level would clearly be missing the full picture.


BKH: Many Americans believe the U.S. cannot be a sovereign country if its borders are not secure and protected from illegal entry?


CA: The Dream Act is not advocating that our borders should not be secured. This piece of legislation is a measure to deal exclusively with those who are already within this country.


Border security is an entirely separate debate, which legislators will also have to address, but it is important that they realize that this debate over the Dream Act is not the appropriate stage to do it.


BKH: The majority of Americans want the U.S. borders to be secured and illegal immigration stopped prior to any immigration reform being considered including the Dream Act?


CA: What many fail to recognize is how complicated our current immigration system is and the loopholes that many immigrants have to go through to come to the United States. We need to understand the reasons behind the increase in unlawful migration from around the world, especially from countries in Latin America.


It is difficult for people from Latin American countries to acquire visas to the United States due to the quotas that are in place. The situation is much different for European countries. It is also important to note that border enforcement has increased dramatically over the last few years.


BKH: Many Americans believe the Dream Act rewards illegal behavior?


CA: The Dream Act is a piece of legislation that will give undocumented youth a chance at the American Dream. The Dream Act would only apply to undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States as children before the age of 16 years and who have completed at least two years of college or have enlisted in the military service.


These young people are not being rewarded for any illegal behavior, but rather will be given a chance to fulfill their dreams of attending college, joining the military, and making use of their education and skills by being able to become productive members of American society.


BKH: Many Americans believe the Dream Act will only lead to more illegal immigration incentive?


CA: Again, the Dream Act will only apply to those who arrived before the age of 16 and have been in the U.S. for at least 5 years before the enactment of the Act. Those who come afterwards will not qualify under this Act and therefore will not benefit from gaining U.S. legal permanent residency.


BKH: Many Americans have begun to feel the federal government, and some states, now grant illegal immigrants preferential treatment and benefits over many American citizens and legal residents?


CA: Many Americans are not aware of what type of services undocumented immigrants do and do not have access. Undocumented immigrants do not qualify to receive any social services like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, or federal and state funding for their education. Undocumented immigrants are not receiving preferential treatment and benefits over American citizens and legal residents.


In fact, undocumented immigrants are among the most vulnerable groups in the U.S. Many undocumented immigrants are exploited in their workplace, have no access to adequate health care, and do not have the resources to attend college or to continue their education.


BKH: Many Americans are angry about the huge financial cost of social programs already being given to illegal immigrants paid for by American taxpayers and adding to state budget problems?


CA: A misconception many Americans have regarding undocumented immigrants is that they do not pay taxes. Yet, a report released by the Immigrant Policy Center shows that undocumented immigrants have paid about $11.2 billion in state and local taxes. That included $1.2 billion in personal income taxes, $1.6 billion in property taxes, and $8.4 billion in sales taxes in 2010.


Undocumented immigrants do not benefit from social programs any more than U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.


BKH: Many Americans believe the Dream Act is a ‘camel nose under the tent” attempt to extend amnesty for illegal immigrants?

CA: The Dream Act is not amnesty for any undocumented immigrants. In order for anyone to qualify for conditional permanent residency under the Dream Act, they must have completed at least 2 years of college, or enlisted in the military service, and undergo background checks to show that they are of good moral character.

Undocumented immigrants who would benefit directly from the Dream Act have shown that they want to give back to the only country they know through education and serving their country.


BKH: Many Americans object to the provisions in the Dream Act that would allow those applicants that gain citizenship to then sponsor family members for citizenship?


CA: Under the Dream Act, those who benefit will have to apply for 6 years of conditional permanent residency before being able to apply for U.S. citizenship. The fact that they are Dream Act beneficiaries will not affect how quickly their application goes through the immigration system. It might take up to 10 years for them to become U.S. citizens.


Because only U.S. citizens can petition their family members, those who benefit from the Dream Act will not be able to sponsor their family members for at least 15 years.


BKH: Many Americans believe illegal immigrants protesting for equal rights to American citizens and legal residents do not have a legal or moral standing to do so?


CA: Undocumented immigrants in the United States have become an essential part of our daily lives, and it is important that all members of our society, regardless of immigration status, are treated in a humane and respectful manner.


Undocumented immigrants are not demanding special treatment from the U.S. government but rather for the opportunity to be protected from being exploited in their workplace, for better opportunities for their children who may have limited resources to attend college, and to be treated with dignity.


Undocumented immigrants have contributed to the U.S. economy and society over the last decades and deserve the right to be treated as people and not second-class citizens.


BKH: Many Americans see those already in the U.S. illegally demanding favor over those wanting to come to the U.S. that are following the immigration laws and the legal process to do so?


CA: The United States government cannot ignore the fact there are approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. working, attending schools, and making their lives in the United States.


Current immigration laws and quotas that the U.S. has in place for certain countries limits the number of people who can legally arrive to the U.S. Unfortunately, unless a person has money, family who are U.S. citizens, and are highly skilled, they will not be able to receive a visa and file to stay in the country for long periods of time.


In some cases, family members will attempt to bring in their family from their home country but must wait up to 15 years before the family member can come into the U.S. Undocumented immigrants are not demanding special treatment from the U.S. but rather asking that they be given the opportunity to continue living in U.S. without fear and to be treated with respect.


Our immigration laws need to be fixed. This includes fixing the quotas set for different countries, the process to obtain a visa, and finding a way to fully incorporate the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. into society.


BKH: Many Americans point to illegal immigrants, from Mexico in particular, demanding rights and benefits from the U.S. government that the Mexican government does not grant any non-citizens including Americans in Mexico?


CA: The U.S. has a large immigration problem that must be addressed. Those that leave countries like Mexico and come to the U.S. do it as a last resort in search of a better life for them and their family.


Immigrants come to the U.S., work at low-wage jobs, are exploited at the workplace, and live in fear of being torn apart from their family. They are only asking to be treated with dignity and respect. The number of people who go to countries like Mexico out of necessity is much lower than the numbers that come to the U.S.


BKH: Many Americans oppose granting illegal immigrants the benefit of in-state tuition while maintaining higher out-of-state tuition application to American citizens wanting to go to the same school?


CA: Undocumented students are asking to be given the same right to an education as their peers. Many of these undocumented students arrived to the U.S. as toddlers and consider the U.S. to be the only home they know.


Students are asking to be given the same opportunities to an education as their peers in the states that they live. The 12 states in the U.S. that offer in-state tuition to undocumented students only offer it to students who have attended high school in their state. They are not allowing undocumented students from other states to benefit from these laws.


BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts to affect change in Education, Youth Violence Prevention, and Immigration?


CA: Come check us out at the Access To Opportunity Movement website!


BKH: Thank you Cindy Agustin, ATOM Director for Immigration Reform Initiatives. Thank you also to Bradley Akubuiro, ATOM Chairman, Kaasha Benjamin, TOM Director of Education Strategy, and Jennifer Mahlum, ATOM Director of Youth Violence Prevention for participation in the AXcess News “un-Revolution” series.


Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.


See also:


Part 1, What is ATOM?


Part 2, ATOM Education Misson


Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention


Part 4, ATOM “Dream Act” Work


Follow Brenda Krueger Huffman on Twitter and join her on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

5-Part Series, Effecting Change with a "un-Revolution"; Part 4, ATOM “Dream Act” Work

Cindy Agustin is Access To Opportunity Movement's (ATOM) Director for Immigration Reform Initiatives. She is from a predominantly immigrant community in the southwest side of Chicago and is a fourth year at the University of Chicago studying Comparative Human Development and minoring in Human Rights.

On campus, Cindy has worked with students and student groups to bring attention to the issue of undocumented students in higher education and advocating for the rights of documented and undocumented immigrants.

Through a new organization, the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights, she and has been working with the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). IYJL is a youth-led group representing undocumented youth in the demand for immigrant rights through education, resource-gathering, and youth mobilization.

Cindy also works with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) organizing students in local universities to advocate for the rights of undocumented students on their campus and pressuring their school president to publicly advocate for the Dream Act.


Ms. Agustin hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in an education related field and work to improve the conditions in the public school system in Chicago, as well as encourage more minorities to continue onto higher education. She provides insight for the ATOM Dream Act platform.


BKH:
What led to incorporate the Dream Act into the ATOM platform?

CA:
In the U.S., there are approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools every year who have limited opportunities to continue with their education and to pursue their dreams because of their undocumented status.


These young people have no pathway towards citizenship except through federal legislation like the Dream Act. This fair and simple policy, if enacted, will give these young people the opportunity to earn their citizenship through education or military service. It will be a chance for them to pursue the American dream and achieve their goals.


It is important to remember that many of these students were brought to America at a very young age, with no voice in their family’s decision to move here. We believe that access to opportunity applies to everyone, which means that undocumented youth must be made part of the conversation when discussing policy, especially in the area of education.


BKH:
What does ATOM see as the main positives for Americans in passing the Dream Act?

CA:
In November of 2010, the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA released a report showing the economic benefits of the Dream Act. According to their data, the 2.1 million undocumented immigrants who qualify to receive legal status under the Dream Act would generate about $3.6 trillion over a 40-year period.


Not only would these young people be able to contribute to the American economy, but they would be part of a highly educated and skilled population which would now have the resources and the agency to help America to be more competitive in the global economy.


BKH: What does ATOM see as the main negatives for Americans in passing the Dream Act?
CA:
Unfortunately, the Dream Act will only apply to a small percentage of undocumented immigrants in the United States and not solve the larger problems with our immigration system. Yet, immigrant youth and advocates for the Dream Act do not consider this bill to be the final goal.


In order to solve the issue of unauthorized immigration, larger pieces of legislation need to be considered and larger conversations need to be had that include all undocumented immigrants, the injustices in our immigration laws, and potential solutions that would create a pathway towards citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.


BKH: What are ATOM’s thoughts on President Obama not pushing for passage of the Dream Act in actuality when the Democrats had a majority in the House and the Senate in 2009 and 2010?
CA: President Obama had the opportunity to push for the Dream Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform during his first term and make it a reality. For whatever reason, he chose not to. Immigrant youth and allies are now asking him to file an executive order to at least stop the deportations of Dream Act eligible youth, as a temporary compromise.

We believe that President Obama should offer some relief to undocumented youth during his first term as president, and it’s not as if he is against the idea. During his campaign for office, President Obama made a promise to America that he would pass the Dream Act within his first 100 days in office. We still have faith that he will find the strength to make the right choice, but unfortunately, we have yet to see this happen.


BKH:
Why does it seem the majority of Americans are opposed to the Dream Act?

CA:
Actually, polls show that more Americans are in support of the Dream Act than not. Numbers range from a CNN poll showing that 54% of the American public was behind the Act, to a to a more informal CBS News reader poll reflecting 68% of respondents support it.


First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Their poll conducted in June 2010, showed total public support at 70% with a break out of Republican at 60% and Democrats at 80%.
The majority of polls, other than a Pulse Opinion Report commissioned by the group Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), show at least a slim margin in favor of passing the legislation.

That being said, most Americans are still not properly informed about the Dream Act and all of the social and economic benefits that it would stand to the United States. Many major news sources give the public biased information portraying all undocumented immigrants as “criminals” and dangerous to American society.

Sadly, many Americans believe the propaganda that they see on the news channels. For this reason, personal stories from undocumented youth are crucial in earning even more support for this bill from the general public.

BKH What is being done currently at the local and national level to overcome this opposition?
CA: Over the last year, undocumented youth all over the nation have been sharing their stories with their friends, community, media and politicians as a political tool to change the image of an undocumented person.

Undocumented youth have proclaimed their undocumented status and have publicly come out of the shadows, a tactic borrowed from the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) movement. Over the last year, undocumented students have shared their stories with the public and changed the image of an undocumented youth.

At the local level, many states have also attempted to create their own version of the federal Dream Act. Some of these states are making education more accessible to undocumented students by pushing for in-state tuition, while other states, like Illinois which has already won in-state tuition for undocumented students, are pushing to create private sources of funding for immigrant students to be able to continue with their education. Local efforts allow the momentum to continue in support of the federal Dream Act and undocumented youth.

BKH: Give an overview of the ATOM immigration advocacy and programs.
CA: ATOM has collaborated with the Immigrant Youth Justice League and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in advocating for the Dream Act, undocumented youth, and immigrant rights. ATOM also works with campus groups whose aim is to bring awareness to the issue of undocumented students.

Overall, ATOM is committed to working with local and national immigrant rights organizations in advocating for the rights and equal treatment of all immigrants.

BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against specific to its Dream Act platform focus?
CA:
The struggle for passage of the Dream Act is different from any of ATOM’s other platforms, because it is championed by such a cohesive network of other immigrant rights organizations. This is a national movement.


As a collective, our organizations have identified specific targets that range from politicians to university officials and community leaders.


For example, ATOM has been working with students at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to build actionable support amongst their students and school presidents. We encourage them to meet with legislators from their districts and to support both the Illinois Dream Act and the national Dream Act.


BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives specific to its Dream Act platform focus?
CA:
It’s pretty simple. If we target one legislator who previously has not been for the Dream Act, we can launch initiatives from several different angles to help better inform their decision when it comes down to a vote. At the end of the day, a vote will be cast, and we will either have the numbers we need, or we won’t.


There is also something to be said though about the number of new supporters we bring into the movement, and how many misperceptions we are able to correct as they pertain to undocumented people. Those are a little more nebulous, and definitely harder to track, but nonetheless are very important wins towards our cause.


BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts specifically in its Dream Act mission?
CA:
Check out our website and click on “Join the Movement!” We’re always interested in seeing more people get involved!


BKH: Thank you Cindy. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.

See also:
Part 1, What is ATOM?
Part 2, ATOM Education Mission
Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention
Part 5, ATOM Answers "Dream Act" Opposition


Follow Brenda Krueger Huffman on Twitter and join her on Facebook.

Friday, May 20, 2011

5-Part Series, Effecting Change with a “un-Revolution”; Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention

Jennifer Mahlum is the Director of Youth Violence Prevention for the Chicago based student group Access To Opportunity Movement (ATOM). She is a junior at Northwestern University majoring in Human Development and Psychology and minoring in Creative Writing.

Jennifer is a sexual health and assault peer educator, a freeform DJ for the Chicago Sound Experiment, and a research assistant in Northwestern’s social psychology lab.

BKH: What falls under the definition of “Youth Violence” in the ATOM prevention mission?
JM: Things that unfortunately happen every day fall under this mission. Think about a kid being beaten to death by his peers with a nine iron. That’s youth violence. A twelve-year old boy being shot in the back outside of his elementary school is youth violence. Youth violence is a thirteen year-old girl being sexually assaulted by her boyfriend of five months.

None of these should fall under the definition of “youth violence,” because none of these stories should exist. In our prevention mission, ATOM defines “youth violence” as acts of violence (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal) committed “by” youth “against” youth.

BKH: What are the statistics of youth violence in the U.S.?
JM: The statistics are staggering. Since the start of the war, more Americans have been killed right here in Chicago than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. To further illustrate this, in the last 18 months alone, 500 Chicago Public School students have been shot. Violence is currently the second leading cause of death in the United States among individuals aged 10-24.

BKH: What led to incorporate youth violence prevention into the ATOM platform?
JM: A lot of our group members have themselves been witnesses to or victims of youth violence. Others, like me, have not. Prior to my involvement with ATOM, my experience with and knowledge of youth violence was limited to what I saw in movies like “Boys in the Hood” and to what I read as I skimmed through newspaper articles (and more honestly, newspaper headlines).

It is a mutual passion for its eradication, despite our different backgrounds, that led ATOM to incorporate youth violence prevention into our platform. It’s a passion to free youth from the fear of attack while walking home from school; from the fear of having to bring a knife or gun to school for self-defense; from the fear of attending a best friend’s funeral - or avoiding his or her own.

BKH: Are there characteristics of youth violence that are different than general violence?
JM: Yes and no. No in terms of the acts and consequences of violence itself, which can and does affect individuals of all ages. Yes in terms of the individuals who are committing these acts, namely youth. And yes in terms of the potential for disruption to an individual’s development.

Adolescence is a mandatory time for identity development. Those who experience violence during these formative years will be at greater risk for threats to their identity development.

BKH: What or whom are the targets of youth violence?
JM: Homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans aged 10 to 24 and the second leading cause of death for Hispanics aged 10-24. Men are also statistically more likely to be victims of homicide of youth violence than women. There are also trends toward targeting LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) youth. But anyone can be a target of youth violence.

BKH: How does youth violence ultimately most affect victims?
JM: In the most permanent of affects, youth violence can result in death. However, I feel I would be doing survivors of youth violence a disservice by narrowing their experience into one presumed ultimate affect. Rather, the affect of youth violence is distinctly different for every survivor. Just as acts of youth violence fall along a spectrum of behaviors, affects of violence fall across a spectrum of possible reactions and consequences.

In “extremely” generalized terms, youth violence can affect its survivors in a number of ways: physical well-being, feelings of safety or security, emotional stability, drug and alcohol use, school attendance, participation, and the list goes on.

BKH: What is being done currently to prevent youth violence at the local and national level?
JM: There are a countless number of programs ranging from those put on by small community-based organizations to those that rise out of partnerships between large federal agencies such as the Department of Education and the Office of the U.S. Attorney General.

The problem is, these programs are rarely coordinated with each other and often times don’t include all the necessary stakeholders. All-in-all though, if young people are still getting hurt and dying, we know that these programs have not gone far enough.

BKH: What must be done better for more effective youth violence prevention?
JM: We need a more widespread recognition of the problem and a reprioritization of time and funds toward its prevention. Youth violence is often seen as a problem in “certain areas.” Statistically, these claims have some validity, but it needs not to be seen as one community’s, one individual’s, or one school’s problem.

Not only do community relationships need to be cultivated and given voice, cross-community relationships need to be created and cultivated as well. This is “a” problem, not “their” problem. The prevention of youth violence needs to be shouldered by a larger community.

This would probably demand a cultural shift from the ground-up, emphasizing collective responsibility for the self and others, and individualism within a framework of non-violence. There needs to be a refining of intervention programs and an increase in prevention programs. Intervention programs need to be focused toward alternative policing efforts, neighborhood watch initiatives, education programs, and gun control regulation.

Violence is learned; non-violence needs to be taught.

BKH: What are the main disconnects with what is needed and what is provided in preventing youth violence?
JM: There is a disconnect between the individuals who are affected by youth violence and the policy makers who are designing programs for youth violence prevention. Often the resources that are being provided as prevention tactics are not the solutions that are actually needed. The solutions are fitting neither the scale of the problem nor the source of the problem.

BKH: Does ATOM support the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment – the right for citizens to bear arms?
JM: ATOM supports the U.S. Constitution in its entirety. This includes the Second Amendment and the country’s current firearm registration; registered Americans do deserve the right to hold the right to bear arms. However, illegal firearm distribution needs to be reined in and better regulated by the government.

BKH: Give an overview of the ATOM youth violence prevention advocacy and programs.
JM: This past year, ATOM met with Chicago’s mayoral candidates to discuss their youth violence platforms and offer strategies for more community based approaches to violent prevention in the city.

Something cool we have in the works right now is a cross-community improv group. It will be a place where kids can meet people of different backgrounds and avoid idle time, and the dangers that tend to come with this; a place where they can build communication skills, laugh, and work through issues or stress in an open, casual environment.

BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against specific to its youth violence prevention platform focus?
JM: By asking, “Who has the power?” In other words, we decide how we want to affect change and then figure out who has the power to make the change we want to see. For instance, we targeted all the mayoral candidates equally with the understanding that one of them has to win - and that, post-election, we would have already met with and built a relationship with this new person of power.

Never be afraid to ask for what you want; you won’t know until you ask.

BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives specific to its youth violence prevention platform focus?
JM: Youth violence is the hardest area for us to measure. We look at it on an anecdotal level. If we can save or better one person’s life, then we’ve succeeded in that regard. But we also don’t want to stop there. We want to keep influencing individuals and keep bettering lives.

BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts specifically in its youth violence prevention mission?
JM: Come check us out at the ATOM website!

BKH: Thank you Jennifer. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.

See also:
Part 1, What is ATOM?
Part 2, ATOM Education Mission
Part 4, ATOM "Dream Act" Work
Part 5, ATOM Answers "Dream Act" Opposition


Follow Brenda Krueger Huffman on Twitter and join her on Facebook.

5-Part Series, Effecting Change with a “un-Revolution”; Part 2, ATOM Education Mission

Kaasha Benjamin is the Director of Education Strategy for the Chicago based student group Access To Opportunity Movement (ATOM). From Centralia, Illinois, she is a junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University majoring in Political Science and minoring in the Harvey Kapnick Business Institutions Program. Kaasha is also an alumnus of the Alice Kaplan Humanities Scholars Program. She plans to pursue a career in corporate law following graduation.

During her time at Northwestern, she has been involved in working for the Center for Student Involvement Campus Programming Department and participating in the Freshman Emerging Leaders Program, Women in Leadership, Minority Enrollment Committee, and Minorities in Pursuit of Law.

BKH: What led to incorporate education into the ATOM platform?
KB: Education seemed to be an obvious base for the ATOM platform. Regardless of our diverse backgrounds, we are all connected as young adults pursuing an education. It is also education through which we can find agency to tackle the problems that are within the system. If we want to change the world we live in, education is the place we need to start.

BKH: Does the ATOM education platform include all levels of education – K-12, high school, college?
KB: The platform is not catered to one specific population. It ranges from higher education issues for college students to learning more about Chicago Public Schools and issues at the primary and elementary grade levels. Issues at the college level stem from problems beginning as early as the primary years of a child’s education. Seeing that connection is key for solving problems later in the educational process.

BKH: What does ATOM identify as the largest problems leading to education ineffectiveness in the U.S.?
KB: There are two steps to approaching this question - identifying issues in grades K-12 and at the college level. For grades K-12, the inability to properly measure teacher and student performance is the main issue. If we have tests that correctly measure a child’s success, we don’t have the problem of finding effective curriculums for our schools. Removing ineffective teachers can change an unproductive learning environment into a productive one.

For higher education, the issue of college affordability, or un-affordability actually, results in a child not being able to go to college. This is both damaging and ineffective.

BKH: How do these problems ultimately most affect students?
KB: Ineffective teachers are a major problem. Instructors that merely teach a test to students, that doesn’t measure their success, offers no value to a student’s education. Our school system should prepare students for plans after high school, even those not pursuing a college degree.

By putting pressure on students to pass standardized tests that offer no additional value to their education, schools are failing to instill the knowledge and life skills students need for post-high school plans. And with college continuing to increase in costs, even those students wishing to pursue their educations after high school do not have the option to do so.

BKH: What are the main disconnects with what is needed and what is provided?
KB: This is a question of resource effectiveness. Standardized tests do not adequately measure student performance. Also, we need to distinguish effective teachers from ineffective teachers to foster and maintain learning environments. Finally, providing schools that can educate every type of student and not just the ones we label with potential is crucial.

BKH: How does America become more competitive in education scores and practical success globally?
KB: It starts with changing the way that we view education. ATOM Chairman Bradley Akubuiro was telling me about a conversation he had with a Zimbabwean official. The official said that in Zimbabwe, education is valued as a privilege, not a right. He described a school where the teachers taught by carving on wood and students took notes with sticks in the dirt.

Despite their lack of resources, they had a true desire to learn. U.S. competitiveness will require a culture shift. We have to reconstruct our school system around the values of privilege and optimism for where it can take us in our lives. This will lead us to competitive success on a global level.

BKH: Does ATOM embrace using more technology in classrooms as teaching tools and in method?
KB: Technology has dramatically increased teaching capacity. I can remember as far back as elementary, when my school was equipped with smart boards in every classroom.

Teachers were able to convey their lessons to us in an interactive and creative way, while introducing us to new technologies that were taking a major role in society. With almost every part of society having a connection with technology, it is important to put this influence into our teaching tools, and increase capacity any way we can.

BKH: Education cost is rising at a higher percentage rate per year than even health care cost. Why is the high inflation rate of higher education being essentially ignored as a problem?
KB: The truth is that it is not being ignored - it simply cannot be. Every year colleges and universities have to make the hard decisions of what programs to cut, what benefits to students to remove, and evaluate the ways in which they will allocate their resources in the most efficient way and still be able to operate.

Students have to constantly worry about how they are going to pay for their education, and how to replace financial aid that was here this year and gone the next.

BKH: Give an overview of the ATOM education advocacy and programs.
KB: ATOM has been involved in a variety of programs and areas of education advocacy. We have worked with elected officials such as Bob Shireman, former Undersecretary for the Department of Education, to address issues of college affordability and access.

More recently, we engaged with students from Ohio during their Alternative Student Break trip to expose them to the education system in Chicago and provide them with a background on current issues concerning educational opportunities for youth.

Finally, working with Chicago communities to help them identify the problems and solutions for creating effective and productive schools systems in their districts is an example through which ATOM finds agency to advocate for equal education and access for students across the nation.

BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against specific to its education platform focus?
KB: We first identify the problem and who the stakeholders are. Next we identify what we want to see happen. The targets to work against are those who need to be moved, or what obstacles stand in the way of our goals. The targets to work with are those who can give us what we want.

BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives specific to its education platform focus?
KB: For our education platform, we identify a goal and set specific targets that we want to achieve. For example, college should be affordable and accessible for all students. This can be achieved through increased financial aid such as federal Pell grants and scholarships, lower tuition, and low interest rates on student loans.

BKH: How can someone join ATOM’s efforts specifically in its education mission?
KB: Log on to our website to learn more about ATOM and how to get involved!

BKH: Thank you Kaasha. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.

See also:
Part 1, What is ATOM?
Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention
Part 4, ATOM "Dream Act" Work
Part 5, ATOM Answers "Dream Act" Opposition

Follow Brenda Krueger Huffman on Twitter and join her on Facebook.