How KIPP New Orleans and ULGNO Are Empowering Students to Vote

At KIPP, we say that “Knowledge is Power.” One way to turn knowledge into power is by voting. This summer, as an intern with the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, I got to help high school students across the city—including KIPPsters like me—register to vote.

KIPP Renaissance students on early voting day
KIPP Renaissance students on early voting day

By Brandi Sylve, Alum, KIPP New Orleans

It’s Election Day! For young voters like me, this is a big deal. As a freshman political science major at Howard University, I’ve seen all my friends watching and talking about the presidential debates. It’s so important for us to be informed about the changes that might affect us in the coming years.

At KIPP, we say that “Knowledge is Power.” One way to turn knowledge into power is by voting. This summer, as an intern with the Urban League of Greater New Orleans (ULGNO), I got to help high school students across the city—including KIPPsters like me—register to vote. I learned so much about the professional world, the political process, and how my peers and I can help make a difference in our community.

My connection to ULGNO started during my junior year at KIPP Renaissance High School. I spoke at the KIPP New Orleans fundraising gala, where I met ULGNO’s president and CEO, Erika McConduit-Diggs, and the director of community engagement, Ethan Ashley. I got introduced to them because they both went to Howard University, which I was considering attending.

About a year later, I learned about a summer internship at ULGNO. Knowing that that’s where Mrs. Erika and Mr. Ethan worked, I jumped at the opportunity to work with them. I also liked the organization’s mission and I knew I would learn a lot.

I loved working with ULGNO, especially under Mr. Ethan’s supervision. He was a great mentor to me. I’ve always been smart-alecky, but Mr. Ethan showed me how to handle my work with precision, professionalism, and class. I learned what information to put in your email signature, how to address people in emails, how to coordinate phone calls, and so much more.

What Goes Into a Voter Registration Drive?

When I came on as an intern, my job was to help make the Voter Engagement Challenge happen. For about a year, ULGNO and a group of organizations had been working on creating a high school civic engagement drive. The idea was to create a new community of voters in New Orleans by making it common for high school seniors to register if they were turning 18 before the election.

I learned a lot about all the work and coordination that goes into a collaborative campaign like this. My job was to contact the schools to confirm that they wanted to participate. That meant making lots of phone calls to schools all over the city. I even went back to KIPP Renaissance to talk to my old teachers, which was surprisingly emotional. It felt like yesterday I was their baby, sitting in class talking about the theory of gravity, and now I was helping plan a major citywide project!

In the end, we got almost every public high school in the city on board. Each school committed to doing four things:

  • Getting eligible students (students who turned 18 before election day) registered to vote
  • Hosting workshops to highlight the importance of civic engagement, including things like voter registration and jury duty
  • Hosting community registration drives
  • Helping students vote on an early voting day

This is a competition, so there are prizes! ULGNO arranged for registered students to go vote together during early voting week. The school that completed the challenge and had the most students vote early will win a prize. All the participating schools will get a pizza party and a proclamation from the city council.

How KIPP Renaissance Embraced Voting

My old teacher at KIPP Renaissance, Mr. Jones, says the Voter Engagement Challenge has really changed his students’ minds about voting. At first, they just wanted to win the competition. They weren’t sure voting would actually make a difference.

Mr. Jones was teaching a unit on political power in his AP Government class. He and the students talked about how voting rights are a source of power, especially for black and brown people. Our forefathers fought for the right to vote. Now, for many people, that right is being taken away through things like mass incarceration and voter suppression. Voting is important, and can’t be taken for granted.

They talked about how the presidential election is important, but so are state and local elections. The students were seeing policies passed in New Orleans and Louisiana that didn’t reflect their priorities. Mr. Jones pointed out that voting is a way to change that.

Mr. Jones and other teachers kicked off the voter drive by getting students excited for student council elections. The students campaigned, voted, and elected a fully functioning student council for the first time. They did the same thing with homecoming court. Then, for the real voter registration drive, KIPP Renaissance partnered with Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority to have a table in the cafeteria. Students were coming 10 at a time, and Mr. Jones had to recruit extra teachers and staff to help out. Some of the adults ended up registering to vote too!

What’s Next for These New Voters

In all, between 400 and 500 students across the city registered through the Voter Engagement Challenge. This includes 70 students from KIPP Renaissance. About 60 of them went together to vote during early voting week. Mr. LaRoche, KIPP Renaissance’s school leader, shared a photo on Facebook and wrote, “These are our voters. These are my students. I was honored to cast my ballot with them today.”

I’m so excited for all of these students. They just turned 18, this is the first election they can vote in, and now they can actually vote! Even better, they know who their elected officials are and what laws are on the ballot. If they want to advocate for something, like restoring the funds for the TOPS state scholarship program, they can. I can’t wait to go home for break and ask people, did you register? How do you feel about the election?

This is happening outside New Orleans too. For example, the national KIPP Votes campaign registered hundreds of people this summer. It’s great to see so many people being empowered to vote!

As I continue in college, I’ll take what I’ve learned and become a better organizer and advocate. Maybe one day I’ll lead a school system like KIPP New Orleans, or follow in Ethan Ashley’s footsteps and serve on the Orleans Parish School Board.

The best part is knowing I’m not alone. There are so many students graduating from high school in New Orleans, year after year. The city is about to burst with ideas and potential. All we’re trying to do is go to college, change our city, and change the world. KIPP and ULGNO are helping us do that!

Interested in partnering with KIPP for social change? Contact the KIPP Foundation >