Inside Bernie's boot camp for students

Bernie Sanders' online summer school. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders's online summer school. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Hector Chaidez Ruacho was huddled in bed next to his siblings in an Austin, Texas, hotel. It was past midnight, and Ruacho was nervous that the hazy glare of his laptop would wake them after the most recent leg of their group road trip. The 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Buffalo kept his keystrokes quiet and his screen dim, but he was dedicated to his task — Ruacho, after all, was in summer school. He was crashing on a research project outlining the contours of his university, measuring how many students attended, what the major clubs were, where certain groups of students congregated, etc.

But the assignment wasn’t for his social work degree; it was for Bernie Sanders.

Ruacho, who is from Nevada, is one of more than 1,500 students chosen for the Bernie Sanders Summer School, a campaign-led boot camp aimed at teaching supporters of the Vermont senator the basics in campus organizing with the aid of the campaign’s designated app, Bern. According to the campaign, the two-week intensive program received more than 2,000 applications, 30 percent of which came from community college and high school students. Aides had to reopen the application process three times due to mass interest, eventually capping the process in early August.

Nearly 20 million voting-age students are enrolled in college in the United States; just over 60 million Democrats voted in the 2016 presidential election. So securing the student vote could play a determining role in a bloated primary. Yong Jung Cho, Sanders’s constituency organizing director, said many other campaigns tend to rush to curry youth votes at the eleventh hour — a failing strategy. The Sanders youth vote gambit could transform a frontrunner’s campaign if a candidate is able to secure this voting bloc, and that’s where the summer school comes in.

“Being a good organizer is something that just doesn't happen,” said Cho. “There's a lot of mentorship and training that’s critical in order to organize your campus successfully so that your school is successful.”

Ruacho’s research assignment was just one example of graduation requirements. Homework, coupled with attending three hourlong webinar classes a week, put each student on the path to being inducted into the Students for Bernie 2020 Campus Corps, the official school-based organizing effort for Sanders’s presidential bid. (Graduates also receive a swag pack filled with stickers, buttons and instructional canvassing tip sheets.)

Inclusion in this cycle’s campus corps was a motivating goal for Ruacho, an immigrant from Mexico who became a U.S. citizen during the last presidential election in order to support Sanders’s 2016 bid in Nevada. But not every assignment came naturally for him.

One of the most intimidating tasks for Ruacho was one of the first: He had to share his personal narrative and the reason he’s supporting Sanders in a short-form video called “My Bernie Story.” The video was then posted to the campaign app and shared on various social media platforms.

“Don’t get me wrong, writing that story was intimidating because I had to tell something so personal to me,” Ruacho told Yahoo News as he and his siblings were preparing for the next leg of their summer road trip. In Ruacho’s story, he spoke about friends and loved ones who were undocumented, and the sacrifices his family made in their own immigration journey.

“It’s nerve-racking going through that process when you actually film the video and put it on Twitter.”

Eighteen-year-old Kayla Sloan, an incoming Sarah Lawrence College student, focused her version on how her cystic fibrosis poses difficulties in securing long-term health care. She felt similarly tense.

“It was kind of a scary thing to open up and be vulnerable,” said Sloan. “But I think once I pushed through it and submitted it, [the] comments and the positivity I got from the other Bernie supporters in the group just made me feel a lot more comforted.”

Rarely does something as ordinary as a homework assignment come saddled with emotional quandaries — but sharing intimate narratives coupled with their campaign messages has paid off for both the students and the Sanders campaign. After the coordinated release of “My Bernie Stories” on Aug. 12, the hashtag trended No. 1 nationally and No. 3 worldwide for the remainder of the day. It was a teachable moment for the next webinar session: a testament to the power of collective organizing and the payoff of sharing personal voter stories all in one —which, at least to the campaign, is the crux of the summer school program.

Unique to the summer school are dedicated assets for high schoolers, who are being coached on how to effectively evangelize the gospel of Bernie not only to their fellow students but also to their teachers, parents and friends’ parents. The campaign is forgoing pushing celebrities and influencers with the students, who are made up in part of Generation Z, or Zoomers, opting instead to create influencers and surrogates out of the students themselves.

“If we just look at how movements happen, especially youth-led movements, from Parkland, but even Occupy, the Sunrise Movement, BLM, it’s never done by influencers,” Cho added. “Thinking that just because these are Zoomers, and they are digital native, it must be influencers that launch it, history shows us differently. History shows that it’s all about grassroots organizing, and we’re just giving people the tools to make it happen.”

While the campaign’s overarching efforts are largely mission-driven, its goals are ultimately quantitative: persuade as many students as possible to register to vote, and have that vote be for Sanders. Each time a student gets closer to their goal to register 50 of their peers (also a homework assignment), it’s recorded in the Bern app. Every event sign-up, every voting record, every campus activity can be logged and received by headquarters, where the campus outreach team can then draft strategy for individual university or high school chapters. Centralizing the data has been “groundbreaking” for Team Bernie, according to Cho, allowing it to more purposefully allocate resources.

What actually happens in one of these webinars? Picture an hourlong office Google hangout, but your co-workers are actually excited to show up for it. Each “class” opens with introductions from some of the students, who share their name, their age, where they go to school and what gets them fired up about Bernie Sanders.

During a recent session centered around campus canvassing, students unmuted their mics to yell slogans familiar to those who frequent Sanders’s rallies. “I love Bernie because he believes women’s rights are human rights!” one student cheered. “Health care is for all!” said another.

Then Cho and Shana Gallagher, who formerly ran Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign campus outreach, took the reins. Cho and Gallagher took turns teaching students how to prep for canvassing (“Be enthusiastic!” “Expect rejection!” “Enter 15 people’s information an hour!”), stopping to answer chat questions (“How do we set up the clipboard?” “What would Bernie do?” “Will there be swag provided?”) or the occasional beat to remind everyone that they’re working to kick-start a revolution.

Forty-five minutes later, campaign manager Faiz Shakir called in, assuring students, “Stuff is about to get real.” (He stopped short of cursing.) “Show what this movement is all about. People who’ve never voted before need to vote.”

Ten minutes later, the call concluded with an ill-timed (but well-intentioned) conference call nightmare: Every participant unmuted their mic and yelled, “Feel the Bern!”

And while some aspects of the class might feel a touch summer-campy, students feel that the training gives them the edge to push Sanders.

“It’s absolutely crucial that people like Bernie are reaching out to young people,” said Sloan, the Sarah Lawrence student. “It’s clear that if we can get young people excited about politics and actually get them involved, we can do amazing things with the election — we can win.”

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