With just one year to go until the 2016 elections, campaign season is in full force. For many, the spectacle of the presidential election will always overshadow local elections, but for Meaghan Burke ’16 of Acton, Mass., those races signify the importance of small-scale democracy and the results of her internship with the Massachusetts Democratic Party (MDP).
Burke landed an internship with the Massachusetts Democratic Party this summer. The history and political studies major capitalized on Colby-Sawyer’s internship requirement as an opportunity to explore an aspect of her major with which she had little experience.
“I wanted to go behind the scenes and see what upholds the party, the things you don’t see on TV,” Burke said.
Behind the Scenes with the Democrats
For Burke and a dozen other summer interns from across the country, upholding the MDP meant entering data from local elections into voter and fundraising databases, filing and scanning paperwork and mail, and takings shifts at the front desk of the office on Summer Street in Boston. Burke also researched news stories about the Democratic Party and compiled the clippings to keep staff members informed.
“They gave us a variety of projects to see what we were good at and what we were interested in,” Burke said. “The internship exposed me to many types of politics and all the facets of what the party does.”
Of special interest to Burke were grassroots efforts like the summer barbecues held by MDP supporters to fundraise for year-round projects, including town and ward committee support, outreach and voter registration efforts.
The internship ended up being a crash course in local politics for Burke. Though she has always been interested in history and politics — she cites PBS’s “Liberty’s Kids” and her family’s ritual of watching the evening news as formative experiences — Burke planned to study nursing. She switched majors halfway through her second semester after an introductory history course with Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Education Malachy Flynn. “I had more fun in that class than all my science classes,” Burke said.
The fun turned into passion at her internship. “There are 90 year-olds who are still running for local offices, and also 20 year-old delegates,” Burke said. Observing passionate people made her realize she holds stronger opinions than she thought. “I didn’t think I would feel so connected to certain issues, but my internship really showed me how people in a room debating issues can affect people on the ground,” she said.
At the MDP, interns take shifts managing the front desk, which often means answering the phones. It was a challenge for Burke, who fought shyness to provide constituents with information in response to a wide range of questions.
In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the MDP launched a campaign to register 1,965 new voters. Burke and other interns participated in the “1965 Project” in typical grassroots fashion by approaching people in public spaces like Boston City Hall Plaza. Clipboard in hand, she would ask if they wanted to register or needed to update their voter information.
“It definitely wasn’t in my comfort zone, which is good, because it helped me build interpersonal skills,” Burke said. “It was also an amazing project that honors something worth remembering, so I’m glad I had the opportunity to participate.”
Burke brought the new skills gained from her internship back to campus, including stronger research and analytical skills as well an ability to express herself more effectively through written and oral communications.
Her summer experience also contributed to more focused career goals and a greater respect for her chosen discipline. Burke was once unsure about what she would do with her degree. Now, she feels reassured. “There are definitely opportunities out there for careers in both history and political studies,” Burke said.