Updated: Nov 19, 2022
By Tina Smith-Brown
Philadelphia is a tough place for politics. Registering voters is far from easy here, but West Point cadet, Sheyla Street grew up in a family where voting was as necessary as breathing. She knows enlisting first-time voters is essential if we are to push for local, state, and national laws that positively impact our communities. That is why she does it.
Sheyla, the granddaughter of former Mayor John Street, and daughter of Senator Sharif Street, may have inherited her respect for politics, but it wasn’t till high school that she carved out her own niche. Needing to fulfill a community service requirement, she joined #GetOutTheVote, a group of students that was registering their peers to vote in the 2020 election. It was a perfect fit. Enthused by the potential of gaining, new, young voters, she started taking her ideas and efforts to other schools throughout Philadelphia.
Too young to vote herself, Sheyla, jumped into the voter registration movement by partnering with the Urban League, and the Black Voters Matter organizations. While still attending Central High School she was selected to attend a writer’s class at the University of Pennsylvania taught by Professor Lorene Cary. This opportunity led to her interning with the #VotethatJawn youth voting campaign where she contributed blogs, social media posts, and videos. This work, in turn, created a pathway for Sheyla to expand her work from the schools to an even broader city outreach. But it was during the summer of 2020, as she held 25-get-out-the vote drives, and joined zoom calls with other youth organizations that she learned how to the tackle the hardest part of voter registration – convincing people who have given up on a system that doesn’t seem to work for them to give it one more chance.
“Voter registration is about connecting people but registering them is only the first step.”
Sheyla was determined to get new people to show up on election day and press the buttons. Maybe it was her audacity, her tenacious youth, her deep belief in the American political system, or the call of her ancestors, pushing her forever forward, but she got people to listen, to register, and then to vote, with some gentle follow-up prodding.
“Seeing people seeing that hope and believing it,” as she puts it, is what keeps her going and keeps her encouraging others to get in the fight. “Just start, it’s pretty scary, but just meet voters where they are.”
Sheyla’s insight into how to connect with voters, has made her a powerful voice in the registration arena. She understands that the working mother rushing home to prepare dinner, or the father laboring at a second job, often find the act of voting, near impossible: She makes sure to educate them on their different options. “It is already inconvenient, don’t make it complicated. People shouldn’t have to go out of their way to cast their vote. That is why I am a big advocate for automatic voter registration. I want to make voting a part of Philly culture.”
It is hard to remain encouraged when turnout can be low and many Philadelphians mistrust the system. But Sheyla remains optimistic. “The process doesn’t start or stop with us. Politics and elections are non-stop. If we don’t win in one election, there is always another. It’s a great feeling to be that one person who was involved. A one percent change in the vote is definitely better than nothing.
With issues like abortion and voter restriction on the ballot Sheyla is excited about the power of the youth vote to exact change. “The youth vote will be really important to prove ourselves. We do a lot of social media but showing up or backing up our voice is essential. Election officials don’t consider you a constituent if you don’t vote. This is our time to prove that we are not just emotional, but we are also going to act on those emotions.”
After graduation, and receiving a National Honor Society Scholarship, Sheyla was accepted into the prestigious West Point Military Academy. For many, acceptance into a college that is both academically and physically demanding, would have slowed down their volunteerism, but it has not put the brakes on Sheyla’s pace. She considers encouraging citizens to vote, to be a duty and a service to her country.
Students can register to vote by absentee ballot but persuading them has come with its own challenges. Trying to get “away students” to go the extra steps of requesting and returning a mail-in ballot, has been discouraging at times. She’s learned that cadets coming from a multiplicity of backgrounds may not have the same interest or feel the same need that she feels to vote in every election.
“Often I’ve found that they (West Point cadets) are more privileged than the students I’ve worked with before. They don’t have the same disappointments, and some may not feel as affected by changes in the law, as the people in my Philadelphia community do.” But Sheyla doesn’t quit. She believes in the West Point motto of duty, honor, country, and believes it ties directly into the voting process.
Sheyla Street was brought up in a city where her grandfather started his career by selling hotdogs from a cart before becoming Mayor of Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the country. She understands the power of citizenship, and the vote. Now she’s applying that understanding to the next phase of her education. “My previous experiences on the voter registration battlefield has given me the confidence I need to tackle every area of my life: It’s taught me how to address my military commanders with respect and self-assurance. I have a greater purpose here, not just to graduate. I’m here because I want to protect democracy in my country. As I train to become a lieutenant, a platoon leader, I will be able to lean into my voter registration experience to assess my subordinates, and evaluate what each of them are good at, before assigning tasks. While doing advocacy and voter registration work, you will hear individual stories, from a variety of people, but it is important to understand that we are all coming together to work toward one common goal, increasing voter registration.”
Tina Smith-Brown lives in Philadelphia. She is the author of a novel, Fish and Grits, and runs a workshop titled – Letter to My Father.