Updated: Mar 2
It’s not that being a part of the Columbia Democrats and serving as their president last year was out of the question for Joanna Cohen entering Columbia. In fact, between her physics major and her history concentration, she could have fulfilled a number of interests at Columbia and was looking for whatever grabbed her interest in a school she experienced first as an elementary school student at The School at Columbia. What grabbed her interest happened to be the 2016 Democratic Campaign trip in suburban Pennsylvania, where she campaigned on behalf of the local House and Senate Democrat ic candidates, only to see them lose on Election Day.
I don’t want in writing this to deemphasize the shock involved. Every campaign trip for the Democrats involves sacrificing a rare break in the academic schedule to rally in a district every year maybe one or two people live in. And during the trip Joanna talked to enough people that she felt that her candidates were going to win. The Democrats even got local coverage for their efforts in 2016. However, the shocking yet illuminating experience, inspired Joanna to get more involved, as she chose to become a lead activist for the Democrats in the following year.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
2017 in New Jersey would bring more success in this regard. Campaigning is in the turnout. While occasionally a campaigner might run into some Trump supporters, since the campaign trip occurs in the twilight hours of the election period, most of the doors knocked on are identified as likely voters. A word of advice: the trick lies in making the political personal. The end result for the Democrats was that the State Senatorial candidate they campaigned for told them that made a direct impact in flipping a district that Republicans had held for 30 years. There’s earned pride in that moment, in the power of being politically engaged.
The opportunity to campaign each year is reliant on strong leadership, for which Joanna was blessed with reliable allies when she became president in 2018. Though as an institution, the Columbia Democrats are independent from any state or national organization, the large 12-person executive board, all with an opinion of where the organization should go. It wasn’t easy to navigate those dynamics in order to affect change, but it happened, as a resonant cap from which to look back on. Where in elementary school, Columbia’s Morningside campus may have been more an occasional visit for bubble tea and activities, now through the campus seems laughably different from the perspective of a dorm having overcome latent toxicity.
Post-presidency, Joanna isn’t abandoning the Democrats on campus. On the contrary, she still plans to be involved in the group’s policy committees. She also wants to branch out towards other policy initiatives that dot the student landscape. If her experience with New Consensus, the think-tank primarily responsible for the contours of the Green New Deal, this summer is any indication, she’s likely to have a future in environmental or science policy after Commencement. And in the throes of the 2020 presidential campaign, like most Democrats, she’s keeping her eyes open, gravitating possibly towards policy-driven candidates like Elizabeth Warren.