Yasmeen Silva ’15 says the best way to learn how to change the world is to go somewhere – or in Silva’s case, three places – and find ways to change small parts of it. Shortly after she graduated from Vassar, Silva joined Change Corps, a national grassroots training organization. Over the next 12 months, she helped a teachers’ union campaign for education reform in Michigan, lobbied for food labeling laws in New York and spearheaded a voter registration initiative in Florida.
And just a few weeks after her stint with Change Corps ended, Silva landed a job with the Philadelphia chapter of Fight for $15, a nationwide organization that is working for a hike in the minimum wage and advocating for workers in other ways.
As a community organizer for Fight for $15, Silva meets with union leaders, community and religious organizations, students and others advocating for better pay and working conditions. “My old boss from Change Corps heard about the job and contacted me, and I was hired a few days later,” she says.
Silva says the results of the presidential election may actually have helped mobilize more people to support the issues Fight for $15 is advocating. “Since Trump was elected, a lot of people have reached out to us; they’ve been very receptive to our message,” she says. “There’s a lot of solidarity. People are asking, ‘What can we do to help?’”
Silva, who majored in international studies with a concentration in women’s studies and the Middle East and earned a minor in religion and Arabic, says she joined Change Corps to acquire the skills to combat domestic violence and other issues affecting women. She plans to continue to explore gender dynamics, particularly among displaced populations in the Middle East, in graduate school next year.
“I was looking at graduate schools while I was in college,” Silva says, “but I decided Change Corps would give me the opportunity to learn community organizing, which was something I hadn’t done outside Vassar.”
Silva says she became interested in addressing injustice while participating in Vassar’s Prison Initiative program and while working for an agency in Poughkeepsie that provides services to victims of domestic violence. As a member of the Prison Initiative, Silva took a religion course at Otisville Correctional Facility taught by (now-retired) Prof. Lawrence Mamiya and got to know some of the incarcerated men. “I was raised to believe that only ‘bad people’ went to prison,” she says, “but after that class, I began to see that these institutions ought to focus more on rehabilitation rather than punishment.”
Accompanying women to court during her work with the domestic violence services agency helped Silva understand more fully the issues women face when they attempt to leave their abusers. “We’ve come a long way from the 1970s and 1980s, but there were times when women were in the courtroom with their abusers, answering questions that were re-victimizing them,” she says.
Silva’s first assignment at Change Corps was in Ypsilanti, MI, where she worked for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. She worked with students at Eastern University to convince the university president to sign a letter urging the Michigan congressional delegation to support legislation that would expand student aid programs. “The day I left, the president agreed to sign the letter,” Silva says, “and I was able to teach students some organizational skills so they will be able to continue the work the NEA started.”
In New York City, Silva worked for Food and Water Watch, an advocacy and policy group that addresses food safety and clean water issues. She was given the task of organizing community members and contacting state lawmakers and urging them to vote for a bill that would require food companies to provide information on their labels about any genetically modified ingredients in their products.
Silva says the assignment had its share of frustrations. ”One of my target legislators refused to even meet with me,” she says. “You learn quickly that change doesn’t happen overnight.”
However, another legislator in New York City agreed to support bill. “We worked with some food-based nonprofit organizations in Harlem, and the assemblyman there, Keith Wright, did agree to be a co-sponsor of the legislation,” she says. “Community organizing can make a difference when you form coalitions and work together.”
Silva’s final assignment with Change Corps was as an assistant director of the Tampa (FL) Community Voters Project, a non-partisan group that set a goal of registering 30,000 new voters in 2016. “The poor and people of color have been historically under-represented in Tampa, so we wanted to register as many as we could,” she says.
Silva says she and her colleagues encountered some roadblocks as the project began. “There’s a huge mistrust of the system, and apathy about voting, especially this year because most people we talked to didn’t like either presidential candidate,” she says.
Silva tried to counter this apathy about the presidential candidates by pointing out to residents that registering to vote would empower them to influence the outcome of state and local elections. But she said she continued to encounter skepticism from many residents, in part because she could not reveal her own political views. “Because we were working for a non-partisan organization, we were barred from talking about our political opinions,” she says. “If you can’t tell people what positions you support or oppose, it’s hard to build trust.”
Despite the frustrations and challenges she often faced, Silva says her year at Change Corps was rewarding. “There’s so much apathy, and that’s discouraging.,” she says. “So many times, I heard people say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about the system.’ And funding for these organizations is lacking. I really saw a tilted playing field.”
“But looking back, I’d say I’m optimistic about the role community organizers play,” Silva says. “Seeing so many people dedicating their lives to making life better for so many people was just an amazing experience. “