By Rhaime Kim
“In this kind of new age where you don’t have a Democratic president, what do the Brown Dems look like on campus?”
This was the question that Brian Cohn ’17, president of the Brown Democrats, was left asking himself in the wake of President Trump’s victory. The group’s response came in January: Brown Democrats created the Brown Progressive Action Committee, a new committee of students working toward political activism on a grassroots level.
BPAC aims to mobilize students new to political activism and centralize progressive efforts on campus and in Providence, said BPAC Chair Aidan Calvelli ’19. The group will “help people who might not know how to get involved (in political action) but are fired up after the election and want to get politically active.”
The Brown Democrats decided the best way to make an impact was to continue educational efforts, but they recognized that “on the other side of the same coin is activism,” both on and off campus. “So we decided it was more important to create a new group of people who were going to be clearly dedicated to the activism side.”
BPAC is currently applying to the Student Activities Office to become a category one student group, Calvelli said. The committee was established last month after the Brown Democrats selected the seven-person board from an application process, he wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. BPAC will be a separate group from the Brown Democrats, Cohn wrote in an email to The Herald.
The Brown Democrats did not allow any of its current executive board members to apply for the BPAC board, Cohn wrote. Nonetheless, BPAC and Brown Democrats continue to work closely together. Abby Sanft ’18, political director of Brown Democrats, and Cohn regularly attend BPAC meetings as members, Cohn said. Similarly, Calvelli has since been appointed a board member of Brown Democrats.
Instead of aligning politically with the Democratic Party like the Brown Democrats, BPAC focuses on promoting progressive causes such as criminal justice reform, reproductive healthcare, LGBTQ rights and environmental issues, Calvelli said.
“There’s a lot of people on this campus, for instance, that call themselves progressive but not Democratic,” Cohn said. BPAC aims to mobilize that broader range of people.
“Our first goals are likely going to be locally oriented because there’s a lot of really good, aggressive legislators here in Rhode Island,” Calvelli said. “Rhode Island legislators are really accessible — you can just head down to the State House and talk to people.”
BPAC’s legislative director has also coordinated efforts to reach out to “those within the progressive caucus in the Rhode Island State House,” Cohn said.
At BPAC’s first meeting on Feb. 8, the board encouraged attendees to urge Speaker of the Rhode Island House Nick Mattiello to bring the Justice Reinvestment Bills — six bills that aim to reform Rhode Island’s criminal justice system — to a vote once they clear committee. BPAC provided attendees with an email template they could use to contact Matiello.
The group’s efforts go beyond just emailing, too. On Feb. 15, about a dozen students from BPAC attended a hearing on a bill banning conversion therapy in the Committee of Health, Education and Welfare at the Rhode Island State House.
BPAC looks to engage broadly with Rhode Islanders across the state. On Saturday, BPAC encouraged students to attend a Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America canvassing event in Pawtucket against a local bill that would require the government to investigate immigration violations, Calvelli said.
Despite BPAC’s focus on local activism, “down the road, we also know that stuff at the national level is going to be really important,” Calvelli said. BPAC organized a phone banking event last week where students called their representatives about both national and local issues, he said. BPAC plans to hold regular phone banking events, he added.