The Oct. 19 deadline for voter registration is looming large. So little time, so much at stake. Tom Quinn, a longtime Central High School social studies teacher, knows that getting voting-eligible students registered will go right down to the wire.
He’s up for the challenge, because he and other Philly educators have been helping teens register themselves — and their peers — for years.
This year was to be no different. But then COVID-19 hit, sending students home and throwing a curveball at their voter-registration process.
“Last spring, we teachers and organizers had to regain our footing like everyone else," said Quinn. "It was a setback for voter registration — the numbers were down everywhere — but we’re hoping to catch back up. There’s a ton of energy and excitement about the election.”
Quinn, 51, grew up in Lancaster and voted for the first time in 1988 as a Temple freshman. He sees teaching and enabling kids to vote as part of his job. At his first school in San Francisco, over 20 years ago, he sponsored a Youth Vote club. He continued the effort when he arrived at Central in 2008.
But in 2016, Quinn and colleagues with the Caucus of Working Educators realized that more could be accomplished if teachers' student-registration efforts were more organized and systematic. That led to Philly Youth Vote!, a group connecting voter-registration activists and teachers with each other and with resources to get students on the voting rolls.
Last year, several Philadelphia high schools won the Governor’s Civic Engagement Award, thanks to their high voter-registration rates.
But “this is a year like no other,” said Quinn. In addition to a highly contentious presidential race, there is urgency around big issues like police reform, gun violence, climate change, and more. Philly kids, working with the advocacy groups, have been hitting the pavement to turn their peers and elders into voters. Some are registering voters via tablet. Students have also turned out a spirited body of material on YouTube, TikToK, and Instagram to inspire registration and voting.
To Quinn, making sure kids master the skills needed to be active citizens is an important part of being a teacher, especially one who teaches civics.
“If we’re not teaching kids how to register to vote, we’re disenfranchising them,” he said. “That’s almost as bad as voter suppression.”
Not having students physically in school because of COVID-19 has made organizing them more difficult than usual. But on Oct. 2, the school district convened its first district-wide voter registration assembly, held online, which allowed students to register electronically. Quinn wasn’t the only person who lobbied for the program, but he has been a leader in the push for the district to adopt formal policies to support student voter registration.
“His dedication to his students and to making sure they are represented in government is remarkable," said Lauren Cristella, chief advancement officer for Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan advocate for better government. “He goes beyond simply encouraging them to register. He writes lesson plans, encourages active, informed citizenship, and helps students understand their impact” on democracy.
The effort to get young people and other first-time voters registered has taken a lot of work by many groups and individuals. No one could have done it alone, but those who have joined forces with Quinn say his contributions have been a cut above.
“If Tom wasn’t there, where would we be?” said Andy Toy, spokesman for SEAMAAC, a long-standing advocacy group for immigrant and refugee communities and active in registering youth. “We wouldn’t be in that many schools. There would be a lot of students missing from the equation. He has definitely moved the ball more than anyone I can think of in the school district.”
Author and Penn professor Lorene Cary has collaborated with Quinn in her role as director of Vote that Jawn, an organization aimed at getting youth registered and involved.
“Quinn turns out voting evangelists — students I’ve been happy to meet on the 18-year-old seam into adult civic life because they seek nonpartisan engagement,” Cary said. “Just as a great writing teacher or art teacher inspires students to produce poems and paintings, Tom inspires his students … to step into the responsibility and power of our civic life.”
Sheyla Street is one of those students. The 17-year-old Central senior is the tireless captain of the school’s student-registration team, even though she won’t be old enough to vote in this election.
“I need people to vote because my generation is the one most impacted by all the crazy decisions that people who become elected are going to make,” she said.
Street grew up in a voting family; her grandfather is former Mayor John F. Street. But getting out in communities — she registers older folks as well as peers — has taught her the importance of talking with people and listening.
“Mr. Quinn is super selfless," she said. “He always makes sure that youth are involved in anything he does because he’s about getting youth engaged, not just about registering and getting them to vote.”
Quinn sees his role as organizer and collaborator, helping an A-team of activists connect with each other and disseminating information in his weekly email blasts.
Angie Hinton, an organizer with My School Votes, a program to empower students and educators to get registered and ready to vote, jokingly calls Quinn #informationstation because he’s such a font of it. And while COVID-19 has made the mission more challenging, Hinton believes it has led to “something beautiful” that might not have happened if students were physically in school.
"We are out registering people in the communities. Kids are able to have these persuasive conversations with adults who were completely turned off to voting,” Hinton said. And what she has witnessed in the Philly kids she’s working has given her hope.
“For me as a Black person, this has been a super sad time, but this is something that has really kept me going and inspired me to know we’re going to be OK,” Hinton said. “The kids are going to make sure we’re all OK.”
But their elders still need to make sure that they, too, get the tools they need to vote, said Quinn.
“I believe in democracy fundamentally,” he said. “If groups of people are able to vote, government will be responsive to them. That goes for young people, people of color, low-income people, immigrants. For things to change in Philadelphia, we need to increase voter turnout across the board.
“As a teacher," he said, “I’m starting with the young people. That’s where the potential is.”