By Emma Sarran Webster
The current state of student loan debt in the United States is bleak. Even worse: While tuitions rise, budgets for public schools are getting slashed. It’s a scary combination and was enough to inspire the former University of California, Berkeley student Max Lubin, 29, to take action.
Two years ago, he — along with Emelia Martinez, a student at the University of California, Riverside, and Courtney Yamagiwa, a student at California State University, Long Beach— co-founded Rise, an organization in California and Michigan devoted to fighting for free college, led by student organizers. The group runs campaigns to influence policy changes that will make college more affordable, with the ultimate goal of free public higher education for all students. “When we look at states cutting billions of dollars from higher education budgets, and tuition doubling over a generation, and $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, and half of students experiencing food insecurity, and one-in-six experiencing homelessness, that’s a reflection of the fact that students don’t have the kinds of advocates fighting for them that they need,” Lubin tells MTV News.
But there is good news: In the two years since Rise launched, they’ve experienced several wins. The group has petitioned, visited the California state capitol, and worked with partner organizations — all actions that have helped lead to first-year free community college in California, an end to tuition hikes for certain public universities, and even a slight tuition decrease at one school.
These campaigns can only be part of the equation; in order for students to move the needle, they have to be able to vote for elected officials who will support their mission. So Rise is also fighting for increased voting access for college students — in part through a brand new voter initiative launching on National Voter Registration Day in partnership with MTV: Run With It. As part of the initiative, Lubin says Rise will award grants of up to $1,500 for students around the country who have “innovative ideas” to make voting in 2020 easier and more exciting. “Our goal is not just to help support student voting…but also identify some really effective new practices that we can scale up in the November 2020 election,” he says.
During a phone interview with MTV News, Lubin shared more about his work, his goals for campus voting access, and how students are uniquely positioned to make real change.
MTV News: What inspired you to get into activism?
Max Lubin: I had the opportunity to earn an education without having to worry about the cost or knowing that I would struggle to get it. I was recruited to college to play sports, and it wasn’t really until I got there that I saw how much students were struggling, not just to get into college, but to actually afford it. From there, [and from] having the opportunity to work on a different political and advocacy campaigns, I’ve tried to bring those skills and experiences…to other students who are fighting on the right side of the issues and just need some additional resources or skills or knowledge to put what they’re already doing into practice in the most effective way.
MTV News: What does Rise’s work look like on a day-to-day basis?
Lubin: [Our] student organizing fellows make $15 an hour and work around 20 hours per week, and they help implement [everything], whether that’s petition collection, or organizing events, or sharing student stories on Rise’s Instagram and social media channels. We share stories about what college students are experiencing, how hard it is to juggle multiple part-time jobs while a student, [and] how [they] have to often drop out or take time away from school just to save more money to re-enroll.
We [also] partner with student groups and student governments. Let’s say students at campus X want to go lobby around an issue, and they need $500 to rent a van and buy snacks for the people who are going. Whatever trip costs are associated with that, Rise can help them pay for that.
MTV News: How is the mission of free education directly tied to voting rights?
Lubin: Students are often accused of being lazy or apathetic, and that that’s why they don’t vote as much as other groups; when the truth is that the structural barriers to student voting are much higher than for any other group. Students — by nature of being students — change their address much more often than other groups, and most state laws make it so that they have to re-register to vote every time they do that. Students are often juggling multiple jobs, and we know that it’s easier for folks to vote when they’re more affluent.
That being said, the reason it’s so important for us to engage students and young people in voting rights is because we could be the world’s best advocates at Rise; but if students don’t show up to vote in every single election, we will never get lawmakers to invest in us the way that we need them to. Even when elected officials want to do the right thing, the bottom line is that if they want to get re-elected, they need to respond to the people who are voting for them. So until they know that students will be voting for them in every single election, it will be much harder for us to make that case.
MTV News: What needs to happen to increase voting among college students?
Lubin: First and foremost is ballot access. When you look at campuses that have the highest rates of student civic engagement, it’s because they have polling places on campus and make it easy for their students to register and vote. If you are a student and you have to drive a mile to vote in between classes and there’s a line, that’s a pretty daunting proposition. And if your professor is going to fail you for missing class or you’re not going to do as well on an exam, that can be as powerful a motivator as anything else.
Often times what you see is college leadership being afraid that promoting voting and civic engagement is going to be interpreted as being partisan and will become a liability to them. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Colleges and universities should make their students’ civic engagement and voting rights a point of pride. Election days should be a non-instructional holiday on campuses so that not only can students have an easier time voting, but [they also] can volunteer with organizations in the community that are getting out the vote. Colleges and universities should host forums about the core issues in the election. [They] should send reminders to students about election day and how they can vote. And colleges and universities should build automatic voter registration systems that allow students to register to vote easily through their course enrollment site.
MTV News: How is Rise working to make these things happen?
Lubin: One of my favorite parts of my job is I get to meet and work with students who are rightfully pissed off about a problem — like difficult voting, or campuses hiking tuition, or not having enough healthy food on campus, or needing to build a food pantry. They build real grassroots efforts on their campuses to lead change…and our role at Rise is to be a platform and, in some ways, an accelerator for those initiatives, recognizing that oftentimes the biggest barriers to students solving those problems are relatively small. A $1,000 grant, or a little advice or support, or knowing someone has their back — those small things can make a huge difference.
We awarded grants to students at universities last year and saw major increases in student voting and civic engagement. We built our own online platform that made it easy for students to organize their friends to commit to vote and get out the vote. And this year we, in partnership with MTV, are about to launch [the Run With It] program. And this is very much in the spirit of what we’re talking about, which is if you have an idea to help mobilize student voters on your campus, or you have an idea to increase students’ civic engagement on your campus, we want you to run with it.
MTV News: How are young people and college students uniquely positioned to create change?
Lubin: Young people, and students in particular, have always have always been at the forefront of social change in this country, whether you’re talking about the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s…or ACT UP in the 1980s, to March For Our Lives; to the Sunrise Movement. The through-line between all of these movements is that students have played a key role in building support and using the fact that they’re grounded in educational institutions that aren’t just about learning, but also imagining how you can make the world a better place, and then building that idea into something actionable.
DSo much of the rhetoric that we hear — [like] lazy millennials, they’re poor because they eat avocado toast…or we’re not doing real activism, we’re just doing Twitter activism; or we’re sensitive snowflakes that need trigger warnings or are ruining the tradition of free speech on campus — is bullsh*t, and is by and large designed to prevent and hold us back from accomplishing what we’re capable of — which is profound social change.
MTV News: What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your advocacy work?
Lubin: One of the things that’s really important to acknowledge is while the last two years have been personally grueling for me; a number of my friends who are in similar positions in terms of building organizations or campaigns, who are women or people of color, often face much greater challenges than I do when it comes to trying to fundraise and grow their organizations in a way that is just grossly unfair. So when we talk about the change that needs to happen, a significant amount of that change has to come from groups that are trying to do good to even the playing field.
Trying to build something new that doesn’t exist requires a mindset shift among the people who can make things happen for you. When we started Rise, I didn’t know wealthy donors who I could go ask to support our work or to believe in me. I would talk to folks about what we were trying to do, [and] it was very challenging to get their buy-in. The most difficult thing is learning how to do that, and trying to create that shift among folks who can see the vision of what we’re trying to build and believe in it.
MTV News: What are you most proud of when it comes to your work?
Lubin: The thing that I’m most proud of is the ways that Rise has been a platform for students to grow and accomplish what they set out to do. And, for me personally, working with and supporting students who grow so much over the time that they’re working with us is really inspiring.
MTV News: If you could give others who want to get into activism one piece of advice, what would it be?
Lubin: For students who have never done any advocacy or organizing work before, the reaction is, “Wait, are you serious? You want me to go approach students on my campus who I don’t know and ask them to support free community college or stopping the tuition hike?” That idea of talking to and engaging with people around an issue seems scary or foreign because that almost never happens in your regular life outside of this work. Overcoming that initial fear and just getting started is so important because that’s how you’ll find a community of people who will support what you’re doing.
There is a lot in our politics that we can’t control; and that if we could control, would look much different. But recognizing our own power in shaping how politics looks on our campuses and communities is foundational to any of this work. We applied for MTVs Leaders for Change program because we recognized that it’s not enough to fight and stop the bad stuff from happening. We have to be proactive about not just expanding ballot access, but making civic engagement and voting something that we celebrate and want to do, rather than something that feels like an obligation. That’s what motivates me — this recognition that by looking at and doing things in a new way, we can reshape our politics in a way that reflects what we care about as students and young people.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Leaders for Change is an MTV grant program that invests in young people doing extraordinary work at the local level to advance voting access. From getting polling places on college campuses across Michigan to registering voters in Chicago jails to providing rides to the polls in Georgia, these young leaders are breaking down the barriers that make it hard to vote in their communities.