As head of Rock the Vote, Carolyn DeWitt ’04 is engaged in an often uphill battle to ensure that young adults can, and do, exercise their right to vote. Her days are filled with deadlines, details, donors and decisions and, though she considers herself “incredibly sentimental,” she has little time for nostalgic reveries.
Yet there is one object she keeps where she can always see it to remind her of something for which she has an enduring affection. It’s on her right hand, wherever she goes: her Kalamazoo College class ring.
“I am not a class ring person in any way whatsoever,” said DeWitt, who also serves as a class agent for her 2004 peers. “But Kalamazoo College completely changed my life. It was where I developed and how I grew. So I wanted to remember that.”
K is where a 17-year-old from a Michigan farm town, extremely bright yet subject to struggles with insecurity and depression, got in touch with the world around her and then the world itself, and gained self-confidence as she discovered the power of democracy.
“It was a huge four-year transition that continues to impact me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without it.”
Where she is today is running an iconic, Washington-based organization that has its roots in a controversy of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hip-hop was then emerging as a musical force, and its often raw and politically charged themes and lyrics were drawing threats of censorship and prosecution. In those pre-internet days, big-box retailers were the primary venues for music purchases, and they pressured record labels to censor their artists.
In response, music executives joined forces with political professionals to send the message to young people, the primary audience for those artists, that the best way to fight back was by electing officials who would stand up for First Amendment rights. Thus was born Rock the Vote, which went on to gain national visibility through a partnership with MTV and the support of artists such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, the Ramones, Michael Stipe, will.i.am, Sean Combs and Miley Cyrus.
A grade-school student when those events were occurring, DeWitt began her involvement in public affairs while a K student majoring in political science. By 2016, when she took the helm at Rock the Vote, she was a seasoned political organizer and tech executive. She joined the organization just in time for that year’s epochal presidential election and now she’s deep in preparations for the November 2018 midterm voting at a time when there has been an uptick in political consciousness among students.
“We are in a moment when young people are getting a lot of attention because they’re standing up and speaking out,” she said while visiting K as a Career Summit 2018 panelist not long after the March For Our Lives gun violence protests, in connection with which Rock the Vote ran a voter registration drive. “What I think is unique about the moment we’re in right now is that young people are calling on their peers to move activism into building concrete political power by registering to vote and voting. This amount of attention we haven’t really seen in a mid-term election in modern American history.”
Rock the Vote has evolved from its MTV days. While urging young people to harness their political power remains a primary goal, it also is helping lead efforts to widen online voter registration and defend voting rights. And DeWitt says it is putting increased resources into connecting young voters to sources of accurate, vetted information about voting requirements, issues and candidates to combat the myriad and often deliberate misinformation circulating on the web.
It also continues to partner with so-called “influencers” — youth-oriented companies such as Twitter and Vevo, and artists such as “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish” star Yara Shahidi — as it seeks to overcome the cynicism, educational gaps and lack of civic engagement that historically have prevented young people from achieving their potential as a political force.
DeWitt says her own political awakening came when she studied abroad and participated in other overseas programs at K.
“It wasn’t until I started to learn about democracy-building and democracy overseas while studying the end of apartheid in South Africa that I understood how democracy worked and how power actually worked and how important voting is,” said DeWitt, who also studied in Kenya while at K. “It was really the experiences K gave me, in the context of being able to study internationally, that gave me that perspective.”
She said Kalamazoo College also provided her first real exposure to people from backgrounds dramatically different from hers.
“Coming from a very small, homogeneous town, I was exposed to students who could educate me on experiences I had never had and probably will never have,” she said. “Whether they were from a different race, they had a different religion, a different upbringing, we could have real, honest, deep discussions where I could get a perspective and I could think about ways that I would address problems. And that really started at K.”
She said that experience — and navigating K’s demanding academics — gave her the resilience to lead an organization that must constantly adapt itself to the opportunities and resources at hand.
She sees her mission at Rock the Vote as being to help young people discover their own resourcefulness and resiliency and recognize their capacity to change a system they tend to see as being stacked against them.
“Basically, there’s a feeling among communities of color and a very strong feeling among young people of this generation that they’re being used when people reach out to them right before an election to get them to vote,” she said. “What I’m inspired by is that young people are waking up to the fact that if no one is stepping up for them, they are going to have to do it.
“We have to open the door and let them in.”
When your organization is called Rock the Vote, you can be expected to have some favorite songs with political overtones from the rock and pop genre. Here are some of Carolyn DeWitt’s:
• “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye
• “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke
• “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
• “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Bob Dylan
• “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar
• “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Salt-N-Pepa
• “Waterfalls,” TLC
• “Get By,” Talib Kweli
• “Keep Ya Head Up,” Tupac