The idea that one vote can make a difference couldn't have been more clearly illustrated than in the September 20th primary for the mayor's race in Holyoke. The final tally: challenger Alex B. Morse 2,023; incumbent Mayor Elaine A. Pluta 2,022.
"If that is not a teachable moment, I don't really know what is," said Hilary Pollan, a senior and fellow from Mt. Holyoke College and a teacher at HCC's Adult Learning Center (ALC) at the Picknelly Adult & Family Education Center (PAFEC) in downtown Holyoke.
For the last few weeks, Pollan has been teaching a class in voter education to students at the ALC, which provides adult literacy, pre-GED and GED preparation classes, among others, to people from Holyoke and the surrounding communities.
"A lot of people in this community, and our learners, are not registered to vote," said Pollan. "So over the last three weeks, we've been working on that."
The first week of the class featured a visit from the League of Women Voters of Northampton; in the second class, a campaign manager came in to talk about how politicians run their campaigns. On Wednesday, October 12, a representative from the Northampton League of Women Voters will visit again for a class devoted to people from the Deaf community, an idea initiated by a deaf student in the class. "The Deaf community doesn't get a lot of political representation or attention and so she asked me if we could run a special class."
The class will culminate in a community voter registration drive on Tuesday, October 18, when students from the voter education class will go down to the Holyoke bus station-on the first floor of the PAFEC building-to help people fill out voter registration cards.
"For a plus, we'll see some changes, so that will be a good," said Neftaly Rodriguez, 36, a Holyoke resident and ALC student. "If you want to see the community do better, we need more voters."
The voter education class evolved from a previous class Pollan taught at PAFEC on social justice. "In one of the really cool lessons, we went to the park and we came up with our visions of what [we] could do to change the park, and after that everyone was like, we have to take action," said Pollan. "Within five weeks, it was like a totally different group of students. They saw themselves as agents, rather than just people."
On Tuesday, October 4, Pollan visited an ALC GED preparation class at PAFEC to talk a bit about the importance of voting and have the students fill out voter registration cards. When Pollan asked how many people in the class were registered to vote, only a handful of people raised their hands. When asked why, they said they weren't interested in politics, but upon further questioning they said they didn't vote because they were disappointed in the results of previous elections or disappointed in politicians' broken promises. Students also said there are political issues they care about, such as health insurance, homelessness and single parenthood.
GED instructor Linda O'Connell suggested that if they didn't like certain politicians, one way to exercise change is to vote for someone else.
PAFEC student Carmen Ocasio said she used to be registered to vote, but when she tried to vote for Obama in the last presidential election her voter information couldn't be found. "So I said, forget it," she said. Nevertheless, she filled out a new voter registration card. "I'm going to try this one more time."
All in all, Pollan collected six voter registration cards from students, which may not seem like much, but in a close election, it could make a difference.
"That's six more votes," said Pollan. "Who knows what the actual turnout will be, but for these learners every single opportunity like this means a lot to them and gets them one step closer to seeing themselves as someone who is capable of creating change in their own lives."
PAFEC is located at the Holyoke Transportation Center, 206 Maple St., Holyoke. For more information, please call (413) 552-2990 or e-mail PAFEC (firstname.lastname@example.org).