If you end up conversing with an affable woman and find yourself being constantly called “sweetie-pie”, despite however short the conversation was, you would most likely be talking to Jackie Weatherspoon, one of the most captivating, intelligent and politically active faculty members at Phillips Exeter Academy.
That is how three dozen Access Exeter and Upper School students received an unforgettable lesson in grassroots American politics last weekend. Mrs. Weatherspoon first got involved in politics in Brooklyn when she was 14. She took part in the Council for a Better East New York “and part of that campaign was to make sure people had jobs during the Summer.”
She then joined her first demonstration which took place in City Hall. She claims that it was this event that taught her “how important being active was, especially advocating for young people.”
In the regular session, Mrs. Jackie Weatherspoon teaches leadership (campaigning process), modeled on organizing students to meet influential political individuals. Her husband, Russell, is on the faculty too.
“The students here have even met Hillary!” she said. “In leadership, the top leaders for the Democratic club, we took them downtown, to this quiet area, where people didn’t know. You know that Water Street Bookstore downtown, that’s where she met the six students from leadership. By the time Hillary was leaving the building, the entire Main Street down Exeter was packed. People were standing on cars, screaming ‘Hillary!’, they made the papers, they made the national news. But those six students, they got to meet her personally and get individual pictures. So that’s how I thank students – get a picture, get a souvenir!”
The marvelous opportunities Mrs. Weatherspoon is able to offer her students stem from her wide and global social network. “I served in the [New Hampshire] House of Representatives for 6 years,” she said. “My name is on the Martin Luther King Day Bill, I used to work for the US Civil Rights Commission, I served in 3 delegations with Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, I was in Beijing, China, in 1995 when she made her famous speech – “Women’s Rights and Human Rights.” I worked on her Africa policy.” The list of her achievements seemed to go on and on.
Aside from her work at PEA, Mrs. Weatherspoon is volunteering as the New Hampshire Democratic Party African-American Caucus Chair. “I help organize and I make sure they do what I want them to do,” she said. “So I made sure everyone met Donna Brazile this year, they met congressman John Lewis too, all these African-American citizens.”
Nevertheless, Mrs. Weatherspoon’s main focus is to politically train and develop Exeter students. She has been doing it for over two decades now and has loved it ever since. “I have been doing it 25 years here at Phillips Exeter, and I love it! I love it! I love working with the students.”
Last Saturday, Mrs. Weatherspoon took the summer students under her care and set up a phone bank for a Democratic campaign. In the alumni building on campus (near the D-hall), both Access and Upper School students were bustling around, ready to show their support for the Democratic State Senate candidate – Kevin Cavanaugh. Mr. Cavanaugh, a Manchester Alderman, was running against Republican David Boutin to fill a Democratic seat left vacant by a Senator’s death.
“So, what we’re going to be doing today is training students how to do a real phone bank,” Mrs. Weatherspoon said. “The phone bank we’re doing is to call those to get out the vote, it’s called the GOTV program, for a State Senate seat that the Democrats hope to win.” said Mrs. Weatherspoon.
Her goal was to help the Democratic race, as well as interest students to take part in similar processes back in their home state.
“This race will help us (Democrats) win back the majority in the House of Representatives of New Hampshire,” she said. “Also, students, after they leave here, they can volunteer at their home state, and say, ‘Yes, I worked for, on a campaign. I’ve done voter contact on a campaign, and I know how to use the software on the campaign.’ The software is called VoteBuilder. Because campaigns are transitioning to electronic.”
Half an hour after noon, the room started to fill and Mrs. Weatherspoon began the phone bank. She explained the entire process.
“I’m going to give students a link,” she said. “This is what is called the virtual phone bank. That’s what we’re doing today. So, it’s called the Get Out the Vote calls.”
Mrs. Weatherspoon displayed the website on her laptop, the cursor hovering over people’s information. “So, as you can see, the party or his campaign has purchased the list. This is what we (the State) have on a candidate, we will be telling them today – where their polling station is, because they’ll say ‘Oh, I plan to go but I don’t know where to vote-’. So, this program has that. We have the preferred number and the voting address up here. It does not say how many times they voted, it does not give their voting record.”
“So today the students will say, ‘Hello, is (example) Heather there?’ and then you say, ‘Hi Heather, my name-’. See, what we’re going do here today is to make sure to say ‘I’m a student’ because people don’t like, but they’ll talk to a student. Adults get embarrassed hanging up on kids. Like, how do you tell your friend – ‘I hung up on a kid, oh this is bad.’ That’s why we do that.”
Omolade Mebude, nicknamed Omar, was the first to make a call. “Hello, is Heather available?” he said. The room was filled with giggles and enthusiastic faces, eager to hear what was happening on the other side of the line. “Tell them your name! And that you’re a student!” whispered Mrs. Weatherspoon. “This is Omar and I am a student at Phillips Exeter Academy. I’m calling to remind you for a special election for State Senate this Tuesday, July 25th—Okay, have a nice day.”
Omar put down the phone with a slightly disheartened expression. It was evident that he was cut off. “She said this was the third phone call she got today,” he said. “Now, I don’t know anything, and she got mad! She was like ‘This is my third call! I’m sorry honey!’”
The room roared with laughter and Mrs. Weatherspoon reminded Omar that this was not uncommon. “That’s why it’s important to call in a group,” said Mrs. Weatherspoon. “So you have all that support, right? You’re like ‘Oh my God! My first call I ever made to a candidate and like, he was pissed at me!’”
“Remember, people will be getting calls from now, until Tuesday! People are also, while we’re doing calls, people are also knocking on doors. And New Hampshire, they get more calls because we’re called the first nation primary state. People will like get 7-8 calls and they’re like ‘If you call me one more time! I’m not gonna vote!” Well yes, they will vote.”
Everyone went back to their own zones, engrossed in their new obligations. Squeals would sometimes pop up, students excited that they phoned Cavanaugh supporters. But at the same time, many voters would not disclose information about which candidate they were supporting.
“What do you think a voter means, when they are saying to you – ‘I’m looking into it.’?” asked Mrs. Weatherspoon. “They were not sure, they could be with the other person. And the last thing is – they don’t want to give away their power of you knowing who they are going to vote for, because it is in the sanctity and the power of the vote that makes the democracy in the United States so exciting. No one can tell you how to vote for, because once you get in that booth, you can change your mind.”
A lot of the students were driven to participate in the phone bank because they heard that it would earn them a letter of recommendation. Mrs. Weatherspoon realized the students’ determination for the recommendation and ensured that as long as the students attempted to help the campaign, they would receive a letter.
“You can use this recommendation as an extra curricular, that you have done something during the Summer School. This is a real life activity. This is not a mock election. No. This election is happening in real time, this coming Tuesday, July 25th. So, this is some of the things that, we call this activity GOTV – so everyone say GOTV. And that means – Get Out the Vote. So you’re going to write, as one activity, that you’ve done this summer, is that you’ve gotten out the vote, for what’s our candidates name? Kevin Cavanaugh!”
Because Mrs. Weatherspoon knew how much this opportunity meant to many students and was aware that many would want to write about it, she was thoughtful enough to lay out an outline of the meeting.
“The first thing you’re going to say when you write about your summer – you worked on a State Senate campaign. And you worked on Kevin Cavanaugh’s campaign. You were in the first nation primary state. So everyone who’s running for President of the United States, they all come to New Hampshire.”
“The next thing – you have worked on a system called VoteBuilder. You are working on an electronic system which is called a predictive dial. I tell you all of this because if you want to get a job on a campaign, you will be able to tell them, you worked for this race. If he wins or lose, you still worked. And what you did on the predictive dialogue, you did what is called voter contact.”
“And the last thing is, in this cycle of an election, because he’s run, he’s had a primary already, you are doing the GOTV program. You have been part of the GOTV for Kevin Cavanaugh. The first in the nation primary state, you worked on the program VoteBuilder, you’ve learnt how to do a predictive dialer, and you’ve done voter contact. This is all that you have accomplished today. And this is so important.”
The majority of students stayed in the alumni building until the last few minutes before the phone bank was closed. They were glued on making calls as they found it almost addicting to attempt to convince voters to support Kevin Cavanaugh on Tuesday’s election. Some of the most engaging and humorous stories were those of Matthew Suri and Omolade Mebude (Omar).
“Most interesting call I’ve got was when I called someone, and it was the wrong number,” said Matthew. “But I still talked to this person anyways. So it was this guy, and another young guy, that I mistakenly called, and then, I talked to him about Kevin Cavanaugh and he was like ‘Oh I love Kevin Cavanaugh!’ and then, he called all his friends over, put me on speaker, yeah and it was a bunch of Kevin Cavanaugh fans and I just talked to them about voting, and yeah, it was really fun!”
Meanwhile, Omar’s story was slightly shorter, but had a strong and comical twist. “So, I called a man named Bryan, and Bryan informed [me] that her name was actually Joyce, and then she hung up on me.”
Mrs. Weatherspoon’s “Set-Up Team” consisted of two very important Summer students – Israel Bryant, an Access student who was often called ‘Izzie’, and Brian Seo, an Upper School student.
Izzie was very active and hands-on with the entire procedure of the phone bank. She was alert in assisting Mrs. Weatherspoon and keen to answer other students’ questions. When asked whether she was interested in politics, she answered – “Not really, but I do like to help.” Izzie heard about the GOTV meeting at the Afro-Latino meeting just 2 days before. “My friends, which are all here, we all decided that we were going to pitch in.”
Brian, a Korean-born Upper School student who is currently living in Los Angeles, was mainly in charge for getting people to participate in the phone bank. Mrs. Weatherspoon approached him on the 11th of July, more than a week before the meeting.
“So, I was getting food, and then she saw me,” said Brian. “And then we made like, eye contact, and then I said, ‘Good morning!’ and she complimented my shoes. That’s how everything started. It was amazing!” he continued. “She was like ‘Hey, you know, this is a good opportunity that’s going to take place next week. Why don’t you bring your friends, and try it out?’ So, I brought my whole friends and yeah.”
Brian claimed that the best part of the entire experience was his chance to do something new, especially with people who made it worthwhile. “Honestly, I love the people and like, the fact that, this opportunity, I’ve never experienced it before, I find it cool that people actually are working together to call someone. And then, we’re all coming from a different background, but we’re taking up one same dream, one goal.”
The last few students stayed until all the lights at the alumni building were shut off, three and a half hours after the phone bank started. Mrs. Weatherspoon had to practically push them out. Everyone excitedly left with unparalleled experiences, all thanks to the determination of Jackie Weatherspoon.
“That’s how adults connect and work with kids.” said Mrs. Weatherspoon. “You guys aren’t going to forget this the rest of your lives, this is going to go with you. And that’s how you impact the lives of students. You feed them, some pizza, ice pops, and you feed students, you give them experience, and they all get a letter of recommendation. And that’s how you engage students when they’re young. You give them something.”
And yes, on Tuesday night, Kevin Cavanaugh won the election.