Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

CALPIRG at UCI: Fighting for Your Interests and Your Attention

By Alex Robles

Can one signature make a difference? CALPIRG seems to think so. CALPIRG is the California Public Interest Group, which campaigns for student-oriented initiatives like cheaper textbooks and Cal Grants. They are also those people who make it difficult for you to walk on Ring Road in peace -- they’re taught to.

CALPIRG has been described by Amanda Read, the CALPIRG campus organizer at U.C. Irvine, as “a statewide student-run and student funded organization that works on the most progressive public interest issues, those that are public interest issues and issues that affect students and that students care about.”

What can CALPIRG do for you?
Its midday, sunny and hectic on Ring Road as Diego stands with his script trying to get any busy student to make a call to Senator Boxer and leave a message. Most people don’t lose a stride as they pass by the eager interns or as Amanda puts it, “put up their blinders and walk straight through”.

Diego admits that it’s hard to get people involved on campus “but they usually come around…little by little”. Diego Del Campo is a student intern for CALPIRG’s Homelessness and Hunger Campaign trained in the art of ‘tabling’, a popular technique used by CALPIRG on Ring Road to try to illicit interest and garner support for CALPIRG and involves setting up a table and being constantly active.

“People are always more likely to stop and talk to you if you have a smile on your face, if you’re making eye contact, if you’re waving, be an active tabler, don’t stand behind the table, be out in the middle of ring road talking to people”. Tabling is one of the various techniques used by CALPIRG to try to get your attention, often with tiny scripts given to passer bys on what to say when they lobby officials to help achieve CALPIRG’s, and their own, goals.

The student body and CALPIRG have a very unique relationship in which they are ultimately working for each other. The student funded part of CALPRIG comes from a voluntary $5 given by students who choose to pledge CALPIRG. If 10% of the student body doesn’t pledge then, “We don’t charge anyone that $5, we want to make sure that this an organization that a large percentage of the student body supports and wants to have around,” Amanda explains. They are good for each other, though, even if it doesn’t always appear so.

CALPIRG understands the challenges they face as Amanda continues, "There’s definitely widespread apathy in terms of political involvement, I think, personally, a lot of it has to do with thinking that it doesn’t matter, that the legislator isn’t going to listen, the phone call doesn’t make a difference, that its not going to pass legislation, no you’re individual call isn’t going to make senator Feinstein make the right decision, when you partner that with hundreds of thousands of other calls it definitely makes a huge difference.”

She doesn’t think people’s attitude towards political activism is a problem though, “It’s like anything else, you join the soccer club if you’re interested in soccer, you join the political activism group if you are really interested in political activism.” Every year CALPIRG has campaigns for the issues they want to attack, along with one lead campaign that is the same at the other 9 CALPIRG campuses. CALPIRG even has its own set of student interns who organize and run the certain campaigns.

“The campaigns we run depend on what the students decide as a whole on the statewide level but also what the students at U.C. Irvine want to run so every spring students, faculty members, anyone who is interested can write a campaign proposal and have it presented to board members.”

Chancellor Michael Drake, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Manuel Gomez and Dean of Students and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Rameen Talesh have all recently signed on to support no cuts to Cal Grants, part of a campaign to do just that.

This is Amanda Read’s first year at UCI but she has already seen development with her interns and volunteers, a broad smile takes over her face as she explains, “I’ve seen a lot of volunteers and interns come in and start working for CALPIRG just be planning events or planning tables and then the next quarter come back and run the whole campaign.”

The learning curve is high but the commitment is also demanding, interns participate in weekly planning meetings as well as their intern class and CALPIRG core meetings, earning 4 units of UCI credit. Amanda admits her job is difficult, working 60-80 hour weeks and often committing her weekends to CALPIRG-related activities.

The good, however, greatly outweighs the bad. “I like my job and I’ve really enjoyed my time here because of the students I work with and seeing them succeed and seeing them learn something or work on an issue they care about or get really excited about an event idea really makes it worth it.”

What’s your name again?
With administrative support, an office on campus complete with its own professional staff, at least 10% of the student body behind it and eager students ready to achieve its goals, CALPIRG appears to be a well-oiled machine of goodness. At their weekly core meetings, the bustling world of political activism I expected is absent, I had to look more into this machine. What I found was the heart of an organization happy about its place and indeed eager to achieve its goals, and talk about them as well.

In a trailer converted into a classroom , the attendance sits at the grand total of four. The weekly meeting proceeds anyway with students giving Campaign presentations and organizing times for each of them to speak in classrooms to push their issues further. One person reported that they emailed over 100 student groups to see if they will sign on support no cuts to Cal Grants yielding two replies, one yes and one “do you think this shit is actually going to work?” That struck a chord: “Who do they think they are to say that? Just tell me no. I don’t understand what is so negative about Cal Grants. There’s been vandalizing of building and properties and they think that’s the best way. If you simply go up to Chancellor Drake he will agree, he wants to work with us. The students think that violent ways are the best way to get what they want, but it’s bad. They want to know what one signature will do and think it won’t do anything but it does.”.

In traditionally conservative Irvine that is hardly known for its protests or political activism it is surprising that the U.C. Irvine CALPIRG chapter generated more petition signatures than any other PIRG chapter across the country during Earth Week, which petitioned for climate change. “People aren’t as receptive at UCI” Srishti Prasad, the Chapter Chair at U.C. Irvine proclaims then smiles as she explains the phenomenon of generating the most signatures, “Maybe they just don’t work as hard as us.”

The Chapter Chair is one of three board members elected by members of CALPIRG, the other two being Vice Chair and Social Chair. Midway through this week’s meeting, Srishti delegates roles to her other 3 companions. She stops and asks “What’s your name again?” to one of them as that detail seems to be the least of their concerns. Srishti seems to have a positive approach to the attendance problem, or lack of one.

“It trickles down, the spring quarter is the worst. We just need a few core people. In a way it has turned into a few people doing the work, there are a lot of flaky people. The way that it works, the results make you feel better about all the work.”

Unlike the sometimes contentious relationship with their fellow student, the dynamic within CALPIRG is anything but hostile. Amanda strives to make the groups members comfortable due to the group’s nature. “We like to do a really good job in welcoming people and making them feel comfortable, I know what we do is outside what other clubs are doing, there aren’t a lot of political activism clubs on campus, its not something that is standard to participate in, we want to make sure people are comfortable with the work we are doing, because people are initially stepping out of their comfort zone, but they are also comfortable in the group.”

The atmosphere in the room is casual, like a group of friends studying together for a final. They sit in their own desks covered with their own homework as well multiple binders and pamphlets for their CALPIRG campaigns. The meetings go at a slow but productive pace; groans about biology homework are quickly extinguished by politics.

The previously nameless intern shows signs of nervousness with her new routine for her campaign. “Do I just go up to the teacher and say this?” pointing to a paper with a ‘script’ on it. The members want to help and encourage her rehearse the liens in front of them. “You did really good” they reply cheerfully, “You’re a good teacher!”, and she is now ready to go. Cal Grants are back on their minds; they are focused on preventing the dissolution of a program that provides monetary aid to UC and Cal State students for college expenses like tuition and room and board. The tinge of genuine concern is hardly absent as they question it. “What about the people who don’t qualify?” one asks, “I know, my friend is like that, she is middle-class and her parents make too much to qualify, but she still doesn’t have a lot of money.”

The room slowly gets quieter as they seem to contemplate the reality of Cal Grant’s effects. CALPIRG members are encouraged to socialize in settings that are not political or have any mention of CALPIRG. One of their board members is indeed a Social Chair. These board members meet with other members from the other 9 CALPIRG campuses to decide and discuss different campaigns. As the meeting comes to an end, roles are delegated to interns in absentia, “Diego will take care of it”, in an assuring way.

As CALPIRG’s members await to see who their Campus Organizer will be for next year they can be comforted with the words that can be used to encompass Amanda. “Be friendly, be active, be confident”

CALPIRG hopes you will finally notice.

Reporting Notes:
-1 Lengthy Interview with CALPIRG Campus Organizer Amanda Read at the CALPIRG office on campus
-1 Interview with CALPIRG Student Intern Diego Del Campo
-1 Interview with CALPIRG Chapter Chair Srishti Prasad
-2 Hours of Observation of Weekly Core Meetings
-Observation of Campus Activities
-CALPIRG Pamphlets and Scripts

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