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Undergrads Choose Advocacy Over Apathy

lobbying day photo

Widener students Leelabati Biswas, left, and Frank Tweitmann, right, discuss the FRAC Act with Ashley Shillingsburg,legislative director and deputy chief of staff for Rep. Bob Brady.

In the spring, rising senior Katrina Kelly and rising sophomore Leelabati Biswas traveled to New York City to present a letter they had drafted to Sen. Patrick Toomey on the hazards of hydraulic fracturing. Their letter was one of five selected nationally for an advocacy writing competition hosted by Project Pericles, a not-for-profit organization that encourages and facilitates commitments by colleges and universities to include social responsibility and participatory citizenship as essential elements of their educational programs.

As finalists in the competition, Kelly and Biswas earned $500 to continue lobbying in support of the FRAC Act, which would require gas companies to disclose chemicals used during “fracking” on private lands to make the companies accountable to EPA regulations. Widener’s Office of Civic Engagement and Office for Community Engagement and Diversity Initiatives both pledged to match this award to fund a lobbying day over the summer. Although Kelly was unable to attend the lobbying day scheduled for June 27 in Washington, D.C., Biswas, a biology major, traveled to our nation’s capital accompanied by a fellow science buff, Frank Tweitmann, a rising senior environmental science major. Assistant Dean of Civic Engagement Elizabeth Housholder and lobbying consultant Steve Schultz also attended to help prepare the students for meetings with the legislative aides of three Pennsylvania congressmen: U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

“The informality of the meetings surprised me,” said Biswas. “I was also surprised by how open all of the aides were to what we had to say, even Senator Toomey’s aide who we suspected would be reluctant to hear our points of view.”

Tweitman agreed, noting that although Sen. Toomey fully supports hydraulic fracturing, the meeting allowed for a civil exchange of varying opinions. “It was enlightening to talk about our concerns and hear their pro-fracking talking points like cheap fuel and job creation.”

Housholder said that the best way for the students to develop into true advocates is to understand all sides of an issue. She hopes that more students take advantage of her office and other resources on campus, like the political engagement committee, and Project Pericles’ upcoming Debating for Democracy conference at Widener on November 3 to develop into the next generation of public leaders.

“Apathy is not the answer,” Housholder said. “If students take an interest in a social problem, they need to know that they can fight it and create change. Whether it’s through community-based research, letter writing or face-to-face lobbying, advocacy work is needed and important. It’s a form of service that’s often overlooked, yet it is valued at this university, which has a strong commitment to its civic mission.”