‘Sam Gbafa of the Reno Justice Coalition, shown in this frame from Facebook Live, speaks to organizers Thursday at the University of Reno in Nevada.
On Wednesday, Ai-jen Poo and I kicked off a six-day, six-state tour to inspire people to go to the polls, knock on doors, and to raise up stories of hope and love in an election season that has often felt void of both.
Our first stop was the University of Nevada at Reno. We were speaking at a “Students Against Hate” get out the vote rally organized by the Reno Justice Coalition and Student Action. All of the young people who spoke were inspiring — wise beyond their years, principled, and straddling the complexity and working through mixed feelings about this election.
It was hard not to be taken by the short speech that Sam Gbafa gave. Sam and his family emigrated from Ghana to the U.S. when he was a child. In his remarks, Sam spoke enthusiastically about what he loved about America. He referenced the challenges, but also the sense of possibility in the American immigration experience, and the social programs that have helped so many people. He even gave a nod to the leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Sam is an engineering student at the University of Reno. When not in class, he’s working at a startup. He got involved in the Reno Justice Coalition when he attended a workshop on organizing at a Bernie Sanders event. Sam was taken by the message of Escenthio Marigny, Jr., an organizer with the Reno Justice Coalition.
“He wasn’t just talking about problems, but about solutions and ways to win them,” said Sam.
Sam joined the organization and helped develop a campaign to reform the school’s system of requiring students to take 15 credit-hours each semester to receive scholarships, a requirement that is not doable for working class and poor students who have to work significant hours to pay for school and other expenses. In the end, the coalition succeeded in reforming the appeal process so students could apply for exceptions to this policy.
“We are having real impacts in people’s lives and how they live,” said Sam.
When Sam caught wind that Sen. Bernie Sanders decided to run for President, he was quick to engage. He started pitching in before the campaign had even set up shop in Nevada.
“To me Sanders represented a chance to change what is valued in our society. For us to become more community-centered and less oriented to the individual,” he said.
In Sam’s speech, he talked passionately about a comprehensive social safety net. This stood out for me. I often hear students talk about the need for good jobs, the rising costs of college, student debt, climate change, and racial and gender equity, but usually not making the case for programs as specific as the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC).
“A social safety net means we take care of each other,” said Sam. “That’s how my family works. If someone has a problem, including economic problems, we pitch in. It works for a family, why can’t we do that as a country? People shouldn’t suffer when the resources are around, and it’s just an allocation issue.”
Sam was all in for Sanders. For Sam, he was the presidential candidate most clear about dealing with the issue of how to allocate the immense resources we have to take care of the many. Sanders’ eventual defeat was a huge blow.
“After Hillary Clinton won the nomination, I was disenchanted. I started to think maybe we just can’et win. Maybe the system is just too entrenched, and I started to think, ‘who am I to go against this power?’”
“I felt like that for a while,” Sam continued. “Then, considering the threat that [Donald] Trump posed to the things I love about America, I knew I could not sit this out. It’s been a transition of fighting for something, to fighting against something.”
Trump is an affront to so many of Sam’s values, but the harsh attacks and depiction of immigrants is among those most motivating him to volunteer with the Reno Justice Coalition’s get out the vote campaign.
“I was voting for Bernie logically, but supporting him emotionally. My vote for Hillary is one of logic. I do not want Donald Trump to be our president, and despite her flaws, if it’s a choice between the two, it’s not a hard one,” Sam said. And yet he cannot make the leap to actually encouraging people to vote for her just to cast a vote against Trump.
So, for the next five days Sam and his partners at the Reno Justice Coalition will be mobilizing voters on campus and beyond to help get out the vote. And, then, Sam is looking for how he can next be a part of creating a better world, especially working on issues of the economy.
It makes me hopeful to meet someone like Sam, who can work at a startup, be a serious Sanders supporter, a big believer in a social contract, and then will pivot to work hard to defeat Trumpism, and sees his next moves in the fight for justice as one centered on how the economy works and who it serves.
You can follow more stories and photos from our six-day, six-state tour on Facebook and Twitter at #BestofUS2016 and on Instagram at aijen_georgegotv16.