As you might imagine, living in close proximity to Washington, DC, as a college student allows ample opportunity to engage in politics on a national level. However, my start in politics began at the local and state level on a handful of occasions.
During the 2004 election, there was a lot of energy and focus on increasing the number of registered voters nationwide. I volunteered to help register people to vote in Baltimore City, focusing on many communities of color that were eligible to vote but were not yet registered.
While I was in neighborhoods doing field registration, many residents were confused about the registration process and deadlines. I enjoyed playing my part to determine if they were registered and then help them gather necessary documents if they recently moved and were interested in voting in the presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry.
In 2007, I volunteered to join my classmates in Annapolis to advocate for continued dedicated funding to private colleges and universities under the Joseph A. Sellinger Program of State Aid (“Sellinger Program”). This program was for Maryland residents who needed additional financial support to attend a private institution in the state. That year, the Sellinger Program’s funding was being threatened and we were facing the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could benefit Maryland students. Notre Dame of Maryland University (formerly College of Notre Dame of Maryland) primarily committed this funding to students in the sciences and education, hence my involvement as a biology major and chemistry minor. Since I was a benefactor of this program, it was important for me to see it maintain funding.
Walking the halls in Annapolis with my state legislators was an amazing experience. On the day we visited, several legislators were either in committee or on the session floor, so we met with their legislative staff. However, my state senator, James Robey, was in his office and obliged us with a chat. We told him where we lived in Howard County, our majors, what we were studying in class, and what our college experience meant to us. Lucky for us, he was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which would be voting on budget allocation for the Sellinger Program. Through talking with him and sharing our stories, we gained his support of continuing funding for the program. At the end of the legislative session, we learned that we did not receive the full funding we had hoped for, but we did not lose as much as was initially proposed.
I often look back on my college’s support of student activism as a cherished memory. In my senior year, we were granted use of the school’s van to drive members of the Black Student Union to Washington, DC, to join a rally outside the Supreme Court. In December 2006, we heard that students were mobilizing to march in opposition of segregated schools, which would reverse Brown v. Board of Education’s historic ruling. We were stunned that this was a possibility and we knew integrated secondary schools benefited all communities. Two friends and I signed up in the college’s security office to take the driving test to use the school’s van, and we all passed. The day of the march was very cold, so we dressed warmly with hoodies, coats, gloves, hats, and scarves. It was an exhilarating adventure driving our packed van from Baltimore to Washington, DC, where we joined other students of different races and ethnicities from other colleges who also had a vested interest in protecting the landmark ruling in education.
Prior to college, I had planned to become a doctor. But while participating in all of these events, I realized my passion was advocacy and amplifying the voices of vulnerable populations. Thus, my next stop was Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Biomedical Science Policy and Advocacy.
Through this graduate program, I acquired skills and knowledge on effective advocacy and messaging. On Capitol Hill, I met with staffers to advocate for better national responses to electronic waste accumulated by university students and exacerbated by the lack of e-recycling locations. During this time, international dumping sites were seeing a rise in health hazards among young people working in the trash fields or rummaging through the trash for recyclables they could sell.
Fast forward 11 years and I went to law school to learn the legal system and become a better advocate in the legislative process. After graduation, I worked as a chief of staff for a state senator for four years where I had the opportunity to advance legislation on priorities such as financing college education, improving environmental laws, and credentialing behavioral health providers.
Today, I am a mental health advocate. All of my previous experiences led me to this role, and I have been able to apply everything I learned so I can inform legislators, advocates, government representatives, and other stakeholders about the current landscape of mental health resources for children, forensic individuals, minorities, immigrants, veterans, and other special populations that need a spotlight.
The beauty of the work that I am doing is that I am a first-generation American who lived with parents that reared her to always have a pulse on politics. Little did they know I would gravitate to grassroots advocacy and eventually seek an active role working directly with lawmakers. This has become more than a dream and is now my everyday reality.
Irnande Altema is the Founder of FirstGenRISE.