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Kamala Harris connects politically and personally with students during college tour


READING, Pa. — After a rousing opening featuring a marching band, cheerleaders and students waving red and white pom poms, the crowd fell silent when Vice President Kamala Harris asked for a show of hands: how many had grown up participating in active shooter drills at school?

Most of the students in Reading Area Community College’s 500-seat auditorium raised their hands.

“Here’s the problem: I think older people don’t understand what they’ve been through and what that means in terms of the fear that they have to live with,” Harris said at Tuesday’s event. “So when I think of our young leaders, they’ve been through a lot. But… what I like about you is that you don’t wait for others to find out.

“You are a leader on these issues,” added the vice-president, provoking a round of applause. “I am here to thank you and encourage you to continue on this path.”

The need to address gun violence was what seemed to resonate most with students, who were still talking about the issue after the vice president left the campus of the Hispanic-serving institution in a majority-Hispanic city located in about 60 miles northwest. from Philadelphia.

Harris is in the middle of a month-long “Fight for Our Freedoms” tour to several colleges across the country. The tour, which began last week with her visits to two historically black schools, is an opportunity for Harris to talk about the issues the Biden administration sees as most pressing for young voters as a year approaches electoral.

Biden, who is seeking a second term, and Harris have struggled in recent polls to enthuse young people and voters of color, two of the Democratic Party’s most important groups. Biden, 80, is fighting the misconception among most voters, including Democrats, that he is too old and should not run for office. Harris, 58, has faced intense scrutiny, having taken on high-profile tasks but made little progress on intractable issues such as addressing the root causes of migration and protecting voting rights.

The vice president was well received at Tuesday’s upbeat event, similar to her reception last week at Hampton University in Virginia and North Carolina A&T University. Upcoming visits are planned in the coming weeks to schools in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, most of which have significant Black and Latino student populations.

A few hours before Harris’ arrival, long lines formed outside the college’s Miller Center for the Arts, while inside the auditorium a DJ played top hits from artists like Bad Bunny, Latto and Beyoncé and the Reading High School band and cheerleaders energized the crowd. The cheerleaders finished by applauding Harris: “She had that fever. She had this heat. She’s our vice president. You can’t compete,” they chanted.

Before taking the stage, Harris made brief remarks to students in the overflow area outside the auditorium and to a group of student leaders in the center lobby. She then spoke about a series of issues with actress Annie Gonzalez, who appeared in the Netflix show “Gentefied” and the Hulu film “Flamin’ Hot,” and answered students’ questions about concerns such such as climate change, reproductive rights and gun safety.

Gabriella Soto, 19, who attended the event, said Harris’ question about active shooter drills particularly struck a chord with her. She no longer counts the number of exercises she did at school growing up. Today, as a daycare teacher, she has taught young children to stay quiet in their hiding places. And as an education student, she expects these exercises — and the fear of school shootings — to be part of her future in the classroom.

Soto said it was meaningful to her to hear the vice president acknowledge how present the problem is in young people’s lives, as guns are the leading cause of death among children and teens. It also reminded him of his own conversations with his family about experiencing school shooting drills.

“I talk to my parents or my grandparents about it and they look at me like I have three heads and I say to myself ‘that’s normal’. Even now I work in a school and it doesn’t bother my children. It’s weird to think about it, but I feel like it’s normal for me and it’s not right,” Soto said.

Biden, for his part, will announce the creation of a new Office of Gun Violence Prevention on Friday, as Congress’ progress in passing gun legislation has stalled.

Several students, including Soto, marveled at Harris’ decision to come to their community college, calling it a sign of his dedication to them.

“It really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of RACC students,” Soto said as she stood outside the auditorium on this sunny afternoon hoping to catch a glimpse of Harris leaving .

Colin Pinkerton, 21, said he thought Harris’ visit sent a positive message to Reading, a city of about 95,000 that is the seat of Republican-leaning Berks County. Reading’s median household income is $38,738, compared to the county’s median household income of $69,272. It has a poverty rate of nearly 30 percent and was named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the 10 poorest cities in the country.

“It could just be that she’s trying to get us to vote for her, but it kind of shows that she cares about our little community here,” Pinkerton said. “It’s a pretty nice gesture to say the least.”

Harris’ visit comes as Democrats work to energize young voters and build support among Hispanic voters ahead of the 2024 elections. Youth voter turnout has reached historic levels in recent election cycles, with majority supporting Democratic candidates. It also coincides with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, a point that Reading Mayor Eddie Moran said has “deep meaning” for the community where more than two-thirds of the population is Latino.

But polls suggest Biden and Harris are having difficulty with some Democratic base voters. Since June, President Biden has averaged 41% approval and 55% disapproval in polls among 18-to-29-year-olds or 18-to-34-year-olds. Among Hispanics, Biden has averaged 38 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval in recent polls.

A recent CNN poll gave Harris 45 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval among 18- to 34-year-olds. Among Hispanics, according to the poll, 43 percent approved and 57 percent disapproved. And 77 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said Biden is too old to effectively serve as president for another four-year term, according to a poll released in August by AP/NORC.

Alexander Hitchens, 19, attended Harris’ event unsure which presidential candidates he likes — and whether he’ll even vote. He admitted while attending the event that he felt uninformed on the issues and was skeptical of politicians.

“I’m not on anyone’s side,” said Hitchens, who studies criminal justice and calls himself an independent.

But he left the event saying, “I think I’m going to vote.” »

He felt Harris was “very people-oriented, straight to the point.” His message about the need to combat climate change and combat gun violence while preserving citizens’ right to bear arms, in particular, resonated with him.

“I would probably vote for Biden and Harris. My family probably won’t like it,” he said, laughing and adding that his family supports former President Donald Trump.

Nangelie Zapata, 19, said she hopes Harris’ visit will spark momentum for change among Reading’s young people and show them that they and their city matter.

Zapata, who is studying art, added that she looks forward to voting in 2024 and is trying to influence her friends and other students who are less convinced of the importance of voting.

“It’s difficult to come to an agreement just because there’s a strange stigma against it. But I think we can always change that,” she said. “It’s just hard for some people to understand why their vote matters, but I try to explain it and change their minds.”

Aracelis Carrero, 21, is one of those students who doesn’t know if their vote really counts. She did not attend the event but stood outside the auditorium hoping to catch a glimpse of Harris.

Carrero, who is studying criminal justice, said she has registered to vote but doesn’t know if she actually will.

“I am neither Republican nor Democrat. … Sometimes, as a person, I feel like my voice doesn’t matter. So I keep that to myself,” Carrero said.

Pinkerton, who spoke with Carrero and other students outside the event, added that he felt just the opposite.

“I feel like voting is the way to make your voice heard,” said Pinkerton, who is studying secondary education. “Even if it’s like you’re just one of millions… if everyone thought their vote didn’t matter, then no one would vote.

For Justin Perez, 19, who was at the event, it was Harris’ remarks on gun violence that stood out the most.

“This is just an issue that really hits close to home for us,” Perez said, sporting a red student ID lanyard reading #RACCProud. “Changing that for us is what would really make a difference in our lives because I feel like our entire community. I feel that.”

Perez, Pinkerton and Carrero debated after the event with their group of friends about what gun control would look like, but they all agreed it needed to be a priority in Washington. They agreed they would support a ban on assault weapons, more background checks and wanted more efforts to curb illegal gun sales.

Ahnya O’Riordan, 19, cried as she listened to Harris speak. It wasn’t about any particular issue the vice president addressed, but hearing her give them advice on being proud of who they are. She recited almost verbatim a final part of Harris’ remarks in which she told students that they would often walk into rooms where they were the only ones who looked like them.

“When you walk in these rooms, you walk in these rooms, head held high, shoulders back, knowing that we are all in this room with you and that your voice is the voice of all the people that you carry in this room and you make sure your voice is heard,” Harris said.

“I felt like she really gave us a voice and wanted us to be heard and even gave us a little bit of strength,” said O’Riordan, who is majoring in forensic psychology. “I just love him.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this story.


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