Determined to be civically engaged

September 21, 2017

Political science student Moira Phyala discusses a project proposal in the UAA/APU Consortium Library’s Kaladi Brothers Cafe. (Photo by Theodore Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

“Think globally, act locally,” is a mantra often repeated throughout the nonprofit sector, but one that University of Alaska Anchorage student Moira Phyala (pronounced Pa-ha-la) takes to heart. The nearly senior (she’s three credits shy from senior status), political science major and women’s study minor has been passionate about civic engagement since high school. In college, she’s made it her mission to help connect her peers at UAA to local issues in the community.

Last year, Moira discovered the Center for Community Engagement & Learning (CCEL), a UAA department connecting academic programs to the greater Alaska community through scholarships and grants. She took a few classes through the center and at the end of the semester was encouraged by director Judith Owens-Manley to apply to The Washington Center summer internship program. The educational center shares similar goals as CCEL and provides leadership, civic engagement education and training, but is student focused.  

Moira jumped at the chance. Within three days she put together a proposal, sent it off, and a month and a half later she was on a plane to D.C. By the end of the summer, she was not only bringing back her experiences from living, learning and working in the nation’s capital, she also had a Civic Engagement Award in tow.

Volunteering in D.C.

Moira’s internship with The Washington Center was with Zero to Three, an Early Head Start program focused on providing resources to low-income children.

When she wasn’t at her internship, Moira was volunteering at the national Planned Parenthood office, helping organize events, rallies and advocating for the organization on a national platform. She spoke at a couple of health care rallies and was invited by Senator Deborah Stabenow to testify at the Democratic Committee for Public Policy and Communication.

It was an eye-opening and empowering experience for Moira — she realized her voice can have an impact on policy being decided by our nation’s heads of state.

Her teachers at The Washington Center took note of her Planned Parenthood volunteerism efforts and presented her with the center’s Civic Engagement Award.

Generation Action at UAA

For Moira, her experience in D.C. lit a flame for her to continue her advocacy and civic engagement work once she returned to campus. She’s the current president of the student club Generation Action, a Planned Parenthood advocacy group that also incorporates other civic-centric projects and campaigns.

The campus group formed about two years ago and has grown to a membership of about 15, which includes students from diverse backgrounds and majors ranging from political science to education. Although the group’s broad focus is Planned Parenthood advocacy, this year they are expanding to raise awareness of ending discrimination on campus and within the Anchorage community.

“Our main campaign is ‘Generation Free From Discrimination’ and with that, there are a lot of different components—with voter registration being one of the main things,” Moira said. She believes educating and encouraging students to vote is going to be vital in Anchorage’s 2018 municipal election, especially with the change from polling locations to mail-in ballots. “Making sure that students have updated addresses on their voter registration, because it’s vote by mail this year—everyone’s getting a mail-in ballot.”

Generation Action’s second biggest campaign is educating students and the community about Proposition 1: Protect Our Privacy, or what some in the community have dubbed “the bathroom bill.” The proposition would amend current municipal code and ensure that people only use public bathroom facilities corresponding with what’s on their birth certificate, rather than with what gender they identify with. The bill would also allow private entities to make their own judgements on bathroom use.

Moira is worried this new bill will lead to discrimination against transgender people. She says Anchorage’s community is incredibly diverse and that often the city’s and state’s message is to be a welcoming place to live and work, but that this bill does not coincide with that message.

“What it would mean if it were to be implemented in the Anchorage community and who it would exactly affect—that being students who go to the university who identify as being transgender,” Moira said. She explained that this would not only affect university students, but youth in the Anchorage School District as well. “It’s attacking one specific community based off of no real evidence, so we’re bringing light to that and how our votes on campus could really dramatically affect that race.”

“Even amongst UAA, you see so many different student groups,” Moira said. “This year there is such a big role for young people to play because of the issues that are being talked about. I think our ‘Generation Free from Discrimination’ campaign is really bringing to light that young people can play a huge role in big decisions.”

Getting involved

Generation Action has many events coming up this school year. The first, a voter registration event Tuesday, Sept. 12, where students can either register to vote, update their voter registration or sign up to learn how to become a voter registrar. The group is also involved in the university’s annual “Take Back the Night” event, which happens later this fall. You can find more information about Generation Action campaigns, partnerships and events on their website or their Facebook page.

For Moira, civic engagement is a key component, whether it’s within the university or the statewide community. She believes young people have a strong voice and the ability to make noticeable change—for the better—to help improve the lives of those whose voices might not always be heard above the crowd. Generation Action works with other campus clubs on additional civic issues like Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights and sexual assault policy regarding Title IX.

“Really anywhere where there’s a lack of representation or a lack of justice for a certain group of people—we try to advocate on their behalf,” said Moira. “So really, I’d call us a group of allies.”

Opportunities with CCEL

Learn more about getting involved in UAA’s Center for Community Engagement & Learning here. For students interested in having an educational experience in Washington, D.C., there is scholarship funding available for Alaska.

Students register for credit at UAA and a portfolio prepared in D.C. is returned with a recommendation for grading. For more information, please contact Judith Owens-Manley, Center for Community Engagement & Learning, or 786-4087.


Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement 

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