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Student takes break from UCLA to serve on Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign

Arden Dressner Levy has been involved in political organization since she was 8 years old. She took two quarters off school beginning in fall to work full-time in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in Iowa, and is returning next quarter to start her third year at UCLA as an international development studies student. (Courtesy of Arden Dressner Levy)

By Maddie Rausa

Feb. 25, 2020 12:49 a.m.

Many students may find it hard to imagine delaying their studies by two quarters for the chance to make their mark in the political world. For Arden Dressner Levy, the choice was an easy one.

Instead of beginning her third year in the fall quarter, the international development studies student accepted a position offered by her summer internship and became a full-time field organizer for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in Dallas County, Iowa.

Dressner Levy said her experiences over the summer were so positive that she had no doubt about the decision.

“I was working with some of the smartest people I had ever met,” she said.

Dressner Levy was tasked with finding and training over 60 volunteers in the county to represent Warren’s campaign on caucus night, Feb. 3.

Dallas County is fairly conservative, voting for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Its biggest employers include Wells Fargo & Co. – whose senior management has been criticized by Warren for its 2013 fake account scandal – and several large private insurance companies, Dressner Levy said.

“I was given a pretty daunting task for a progressive organizer,” Dressner Levy said. “And in my turf, we were the only progressive campaign that did well.”

Dressner Levy was responsible for finding all her volunteers, both by knocking on their doors and cold-calling them. She would then invite them out to coffee.

“I was very nervous because I essentially was told, … ‘This quarter of this county has about 26,000 people in it,’” she said. “‘Go.'”

Five people told Dressner Levy that they worked for Wells Fargo and hated Warren. Others were progressives who supported Warren but could not attend the caucus for one reason or another.

Others, however, agreed to a coffee and a conversation.

Some of them had no experience in politics and wanted to learn where to start. Others were curious about the candidate.

“Some people got coffee with me because they thought it was weird that someone had picked up their life and moved to Iowa,” Dressner Levy said.

Dressner Levy said she found that her biggest responsibility as an organizer was making it easier for voters to participate in the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Democratic caucuses in Iowa take the form of community meetings. Voters move to different areas of a room to represent their preference for a certain candidate, while members of each group speak on behalf of their candidate to draw in as many supporters as possible. The size of each group at the end of the process determines the number of delegates each candidate receives.

Quemars Ahmed, a UCLA law alumnus who also worked on the Warren campaign in Cedar Falls, Iowa, said the caucus process offers a unique approach to organizing.

Ahmed, a California native, said that the process takes place on a more local level.

“Because it’s such a small scale, literally one person makes the difference,” he said.

Dressner Levy’s goal as an organizer was to train volunteers to represent Warren in places she could not, as the county has many different caucuses, she said.

Child care, a part-time job, a disability or any obligation more important than a four- to five-hour meeting Monday night can stand in the way of a person’s political participation in their state caucuses, Dressner Levy said.

Dressner Levy and her team worked to make it easier for voters to attend a caucus. They set up a child care center in Dressner Levy’s office and organized transportation to caucuses.

Many members of her volunteer team would not have been as politically involved if these changes hadn’t been made, Dressner Levy said.

The most important lesson from Dressner Levy’s experience came from the relationships she formed with her volunteers. For a campaign to create a lasting impact, she said, building relationships in a community is essential.

“Organizing needs to be about leaving behind relationships that will survive and thrive. … It should never be just about a candidate, and it never was for me,” she said.

Philip Germain, external vice president of Bruin Democrats and a fourth-year political science student, worked on a local congressional campaign in 2016 before he transferred to UCLA.

He says his choice to take a semester off to serve on the campaign paid off, despite delaying his graduation.

“Students who take a chunk of time off are taking a leap,” Germain said.

Such efforts to encourage political participation are only the latest chapter in a long history of political involvement for Dressner Levy.

She promoted student participation in the 2018 midterm elections as a nonpartisan director for BruinsVOTE!

Before that, she organized with urban farming coalitions as an intern for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

But Dressner Levy’s interest in politics goes back to her childhood. When she was 7 years old, her family moved to Russia, where she noticed a difference in what she, as a girl, was expected and allowed to do. Her first experience in organizing came when she was 8 years old when she advocated for her right to play in co-ed soccer games.

“I had to become more vocal about what I wanted and needed in order to fight for myself, and I have been quite political ever since,” Dressner Levy said.

Dressner Levy said she had no doubt from the start about her decision to work on the campaign.

“I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat,” she said.

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