February 18, 2020

Chapter Spotlight: Edmonton builds community

Since Kimberly Johnson took over as chapter chair of DA’s Edmonton chapter last March, it’s been one surprise after another. First, that students at the city’s post-secondary schools – Edmonton boasts two main universities, plus tech and community colleges – would become the chapter’s base. “We have a fair chunk of international staff and students,” explains Kimberly, who teaches a unique combination of art, science and medical history at the University of Alberta. “We basically do voter registration all year long on campus.” Also surprising, she says, has been “finding out how many Canadian-born kids with American parents we now have as members who didn’t even realize they were able to vote. The worse things get, the more excited people are to discover this!”

Realizing after the 2016 election that “there were no sidelines left to sit on any more,” Kimberly stepped up as chapter chair after serving as head of communications. “I’m still running our Instagram account. With only three of us in leadership, we run Edmonton with a skeleton crew.” Even so, the chapter hosts an ambitious roster of events from regular debate watches to postcard-writing sessions to Thanksgiving dinners. “We also do what we call Sanity Sessions,” Kimberly explains. “We had one right after the Kavanaugh nomination.” Held in a campus pub, these are a “big source of relief and comradeship. People just want to talk to somebody, for someone to say, ‘No, this is not normal. We’re all worried.’”

That camaraderie has been another pleasant surprise for the chapter, with many American students coming by every week to say hello to volunteers at the voter reg table. “Some show up out of homesickness,” guesses Kimberly. “But we’re building a community and that’s rewarding.” The community has spread beyond Americans. “We have such luck finding Canadian volunteers. They push their American friends over to our table, take flyers to people they know are American. If you’re having a horrible day because of too many Trump tweets, one of these folks will thank you for what you’re doing. They restore our faith in common purpose.”

The rewards come with challenges, of course. With the chapter’s leadership in their thirties, Kimberly sometimes longs for members with a longer perspective and experience. And then there’s the challenge of the province itself. “Alberta is so conservative, with big oil interests here. There’s direct Trump support. We’ve had difficulty finding friendly venues,” she admits, adding that a campus bar, one she hung out in as an undergrad, has opened its doors. “It’s vital to have safe, welcoming spaces for our members.”

But it would take more than this to derail DA Edmonton. There’s the upcoming GPP to prepare for and debate watches to organize, not to mention balloons to blow up. “Everywhere we go, we carry red, white and blue balloons. If you have a balloon, you don’t look like a dangerous liberal!” Kimberly laughs.