By Sheyla Street
6:00 a.m. is the time I was told to arrive but I got there at 6:20. The address—1124 N. 11th Street—was where I was supposed to work for my first day as a poll worker, but my dad drove me to the wrong place. A handful of older voters were waiting with their chairs. As it happened, I worked there all day.
A lady prepared with her pen and pad, walked up and asked my dad, “Are you Eric?”
“No,” he said. “I am here to drop my daughter off. She was assigned to be a machine operator here.”
The other lady yelled across the room, “What ward?” Then she recognized my dad. “Hey, Mr. Street, how you doin?” She sounded super familiar so I figured she knew him from his days working at the Penrose Playground. “What you doin? I know you ain't workin the polls.”
“Nah, I am here to drop my daughter off.”
Although my dad’s constant announcement that I was his daughter annoyed me, it also comforted me. I was going to be at this rec center all day, until it got dark again, so it felt good to know these people were familiar with me in some way. Twenty minutes later, at about 6:40, Eric, the Judge of Elections for the Fourth Ward, finally showed up.
He came in, put stuff on the table, set up the machine. Also talked to the air, no eye contact. “Good morning. You guys ready to get this show on the road!”
At this point the poll workers for all three divisions had arrived and were roaming around, making themselves useful. It seemed like there were more than enough workers there. I wondered if I would spend my day sitting around like a child waiting for a parent who is in the dressing room at Macy’s. Ugh I used to hate that.
I knew that even if I was not supposed to be here, my dad was determined to get me to work. He walked to Eric and explained for the hundredth time the story of how I was assigned this polling place. My dad’s assistant, Kassib, had come with us.
Eric said, “Oh no, I do not think that’s right. We have a guy right here. He’s our machine inspector.”
The guy he pointed to was with an older lady, who said: “She ain’t takin’ my son's job. I don’t care who she is.”
Kassib did not react well. He started toward her son with balled fists. The situation had gotten tense fast. I jumped in front of Kassib, and said, “I am not here to take anyone’s job. I am only here for the experience, to volunteer.”
The lady’s son stopped staring and Kassib backed up.
All summer, I’d been learning to read people’s body language, to figure when to go toward them, and when to listen. My first week as a Vote That Jawn Intern I responded to another intern on Zoom with an immediate correction on some fact she’d cited. I’d done a paper on the subject. Our leader argued that just knowing the answer did not give me the right to shut someone down. That it undercut my effectiveness in the discussion. She said, “It's not what you say, but it's how you say it.”
At voter registration drives, I remember a few indignant adults who were upset that someone so young would talk to them about voting. And they would reply with: How dare you? Are you talkin’ to me? I am a grown-ass man!
I struggled to hold back.
Almost got into a physical fight with a gray-haired woman who thought my question, ”Are you registered to vote?” was disrespectful. Eventually I learned I would be more effective not answering tit for tat, but to be the mature one.
Most of the people I talked to at the Mecca Unisex Salon, on Cecil B. Moore Ave were Black men. I sensed the same hesitancy whether they were 18-year-olds or 50-year-olds. One of the middle-aged men, with two infant children, told me, “I don’t believe in politics. Voting ain't gonna change anything; all these politicians do is talk and lie.”
Instead of telling him all the reasons he was wrong and revealing my own point of view that “voting was not the end all and be all, but was necessary,” I invited him to explain.
He said, “I can provide for myself and my family. I don't gotta vote for nothing.”
I let him express himself. Then I explained, “Voting is necessary. It affects us all. It will affect those little ones you have with you. Think about their schools and where the funding comes from. Think about how you can help them in the future. Even if you do not want to vote for Biden, consider the others on the ballot. At least give yourself the chance and register.”
Although he did not register by the end of our conversation, he was like: “You right.”
I started to value “you right” types of conversations more and more as I stood out in front of different Shoprites every Saturday at 4pm. Angie Hinton, who ran another voting initiative, had arranged these registration drives as her spare-time, volunteer activity. She picked me up and dropped me off afterward. It was Ms. Angie who pointed out “sometimes the conversations are more meaningful than the registrations.”
It was like I was building a library in my head, filled with people’s personal stories, reasons, and the barriers that caused them not to register or vote. For once, I was doing more listening than talking.
Listening allowed me to learn more than I ever could in a programmed environment without real-world risks, responsibilities, and rewards. I found a purpose larger than myself. Much more important than an A on a test. I found a community that shared my values and people who were also reaching into something bigger. I found freedom and started to decide how I would spend my time. Because as my Philly Black Students Alliance (PBSA) comrades constantly reminded me, my life matters and I do not want to waste it.
So I even started to consider school as an extracurricular activity. My passion and work were not found in a lecture while taking notes, but in a parking lot while listening to people who needed to be heard.
Working as a poll worker at Penrose was the next step in growing up as a citizen. I’d taken the online training, which told us that a registered voter whose name had the word “inactive” written next to it in the voter books still had the right to vote. And good thing I knew it. At least 30 people, names labeled “inactive,” were almost turned away. It made me think of our work this summer to register voters, one by one. If I hadn’t been trained, all our work would have been in vain. There we were at the polls, and voters could be turned away at the finish line because someone else did not know the rules.
My experience as a poll worker emphasized the importance of spending time doing work that you actually care about. If someone messes up at step one—registration—their voice will definitely not be heard. But even if they do everything right: show up at the polls in the middle of the day with plenty of time, their voice is in the hands of the people on the ground doing the work.
My patience, which developed over the summer at those drives, enabled me to gain the trust of the same poll workers, the ones who did not want me there at first. I did not tell them about my voter registration work or use it to build my credibility. Instead I listened to them as they told me about how they had been “doing this work for over 20 years.” I learned how “everything had changed.”
COVID-19 disrupted so much of what they had known about poll working. There were new voting machines, mail-in ballots, which could be brought to the polls and “spoiled;" and so many COVID health precautions. They expressed how it was unfair that they were not plugged into the City Commissioner’s office and how they had not received the training video. But I—the newcomer—had received and watched the video. I knew the new rules. Which meant I had responsibility.
Whether it was correcting the voting machine setup, explaining ballot questions, directing people to the correct polling place, going over the rules for surrendering a mail-in ballot, or convincing the other workers to allow someone to vote, I worked under the pressure of knowing that if I did not listen, learn, and respond, there would be real-world consequences that would not only affect me, but my whole community.
Sheyla Street is a senior at Central High School and a member of Penn’s Young Scholars Program. Captain of her school’s voter registration team, a Vote That Jawn intern, and a My School Votes ambassador fellow, she is committed to showing the world that high school students do vote by working to increase the young voter turnout rate.