Sarah Westover works 13-hour days, but you won’t hear her complain. She loves her work as Southern Oregon University’s “campus organizer.”
Westover moved into the position two weeks prior to fall term, 2012. She had been the campus organizer for Portland Community College’s Cascade campus, working with students to organize large-scale voter registration campaigns. When she saw the same position come available at SOU, she jumped at the chance to return to the area (where she lived since she was 9 years old) and especially to SOU.
“The environment at SOU promotes a level of activism that I have yet to see on a lot of other campuses,” she said.
The campus organizer position was created by the Student Fee Committee, which voted to allocate funds from the student incidental fee for her $24,000 – $26,234 annual salary. Westover technically works for the Oregon Student Association, a statewide, non-profit organization whose goal is to make post-secondary education more affordable and equitable for all students.
Westover is co-directed by the executive director of OSA (their main office is based in Portland) and SOU Student Body President Josh Danielson.
OSA is led by students, for students. The 18-member board of directors consists of two students from each member campus, the student body president and the president’s designee. Current member campuses are: Eastern Oregon University, Lane Community College, Oregon Health & Science University, Oregon State University, Portland State University, SOU, University of Oregon and Western Oregon University.
Westover is currently in campaign mode and working with the Oct. 16 voter registration deadline, so the hours can be long. During a typical day, she arrives at 8 a.m. and preps for an 8:30 class rap, and possibly another at 9:30). After speaking to students in the classroom, she sets up tabling for student volunteers to help register their peers.
Westover conducts at least one training per day, teaching new student volunteers and student leaders grassroots organization tactics and coaching them on public speaking. They workshop about social justice and she educates them on the long history of oppression in the U.S. with regard to voters’ rights. She checks in with students and club leaders one-on-one regarding their projects, plans and priorities, making sure they are on track.
“I teach others and they teach others,” said Westover. “It’s kind of a leadership
She spends about a half a day in the field, registering voters. Every day she stands with a clipboard.
“I’d never ask students to do what I wouldn’t be willing to do,” Westover said, adding that she feels it is important to lead by example. In the evenings, she spends time phone banking — calling students who have expressed interest in getting involved and getting them assigned shifts. To wrap up her day, she participates in a statewide conference call with other campus organizers to discuss strategies and goals. Once the nightly call is over, she can gear up to clock out at 9 p.m.
Westover wasn’t always so politically involved. In fact, she said, “My kind of community was apolitical. I came from a poor family and was taught ‘politics isn’t for people like us.’ Then somebody told me I could make things better for people like me.”
That “somebody” was a representative of SOU’s Student Vote Coalition. Westover was in her sophomore year, working toward a double major in political science and criminal justice. Her focus was public interest law and civil rights issues.
Westover started as a student organizer for the Student Vote Coalition and became the chapter chair of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group. That experience taught her how to organize and how to “get things done about things I cared about.” She said it provided her with an entirely new skill set.
After graduating in 2010, Westover worked for a couple of non-profits in Portland.
“I’m passionate about this work, about organizing and mobilizing traditionally
disempowered communities,” said Westover.
She enjoys her position because it is student-funded and student-directed, allowing her to champion for issues that students deem important. “It’s gratifying to help students learn what fundamentally changed the course of my life,” Westover said.
The OSA represents students from across the state. Its lead field campaign is “Vote OR Vote,” which is focused on registering, educating and turning out student voters. The campaign is being run by a coalition of student governments and groups on campuses across the state at community colleges and universities. Students running the Vote OR Vote campaign have surpassed their statewide goal of registering 38,000 voters and already have reached 40,000 voters.
According to Westover, this is possibly the largest student-led, nonpartisan voter registration campaign in the nation. And they won’t stop until the registration deadline, Oct. 16.
“It’s a numbers game. We talk to elected officials and explain we have ‘X amount ‘of SOU students registered to vote,” Westover said. This builds electoral power for students first by getting them to vote, then educating them and preparing them to talk to their legislators.
“In politics, you can’t be a bystander. It’s a participating democracy,” said Westover. “Students need to be actively involved and to be decision makers in matters that affect them.”
Westover’s passion is a direct benefit to SOU students. “As a first-generation college student, I’m dedicated to education in general. I never underestimate the power of students and what they bring to the table.”
She said she also thinks it helps to have a sense of humor. She reached for a small, white, stuffed goat. “This is Totes McGoat, the Vote Goat,” she said, laughing. Totes McGoat is the mascot she brought with her from PCC. She said the search is on for an SOU mascot. “Anything that rhymes with ‘goat’ is good.”
At 9:10 p.m., Westover’s day is finally done. While most people would be dreaming of vacations, she remains focused on her goal. In fact, Westover’s 27th birthday will be spent on campus preparing for the following day: Election Day, Nov. 6.