Mercer has built a strong reputation for student democratic engagement, and a lot of the credit goes to alumnus Joey Wozniak. His efforts as a student and a professional have helped to increase the dialogue about voter participation not only at Mercer, but on college campuses across the country.
Wozniak graduated from Mercer in 2016 with majors in economics and political science, and he is now managing partner and co-founder of Mile 22 Associates, a social impact consulting firm.
College students have a voice and are the youngest voters, but more often than not, they haven’t been introduced to specific parts of the voter process, Wozniak said.
“Colleges and universities have an inherent mission, and part of that is teaching students how to engage in the political process,” he said. “That’s the only way our country and our state and community are going to become better … if we become much more engaged and active citizens, and it starts with our students.”
As a Mercer Service Scholar, Wozniak was encouraged to change the world by following his own passions and interests.
“I saw the power of a vote as the best way to change our world,” he said.
“I’ve come to realize that we’re all co-creators for the type of community we want to live in. I, and a majority of Americans, want to live in a country that makes it easy for everyone to participate in our political processes to effect change.”
With support from a Knight Foundation grant, Wozniak created the SoCon Votes competition during his senior year as a way to encourage his fellow students to vote. The athletic-style competition gauges student voter participation at schools in the Southern Conference and is held every two years around election time.
Mercer earned awards for the highest student voter participation and most improved student voter participation in the most recent SoCon Votes contest, which looked at the 2018 midterm election. The University also won the challenge two years ago.
On Nov. 12, Mercer was presented with the Best in Class 4-year Campus Action Plan Award for medium-size, private institutions in the national ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. The University also was recognized with the Platinum Seal for achieving a student voter turnout rate of more than 50%.
Following Wozniak’s lead, voting challenges have since been adopted in the Big Ten athletic conference, New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and six other athletic conferences are considering launching contests in spring 2020, said Dr. Doug Pearson, vice president and dean of students.
During his college days, Wozniak also recruited more than 100 student leaders to participate in the University’s Civic Engagement Symposium, was a panelist at the Campus Compact 30th Anniversary Conference in Boston, and presented his plan to increase student voter turnout at the Visionary Student Panel hosted by the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan Office.
“As a student leader, Joey was passionate about college student voter engagement,” Dr. Pearson said. “So instead of merely being frustrated by low student voter turnout, he instead chose to champion voter competition as a vehicle to foster social change. I love that his idea has now been adopted by other schools and conferences across the country, and I can easily see a day where this is the standard for voter engagement nationally. To me, Joey embodies the spirit that our students truly do major ‘in changing the world.’”
Wozniak said he learned a lot of valuable lessons during his time at Mercer, including to cherish his friendships. From Dr. Mary Ann Drake, professor emerita of women’s and gender studies, he discovered how to think critically and build community; from political science professor Dr. Chris Grant, how to understand complex political environments and find a path forward; from Senior Vice Provost for Service Learning Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, the importance of service and how to partner with communities; from Dr. Pearson, how to take bold actions; from mathematics professor Dr. Jeff Pullen, humility; and from President William D. Underwood, decisiveness.
“Overall, I think those experiences laid the foundation for me to grow,” Wozniak said. “Mercer accepts folks as they are and helps them grow into compassionate global leaders. I have so much to improve on and grow, and am grateful to all the individuals in Mercer who helped me get to the point I’m at.”
Since graduating, he has turned his civic-mindedness and passion for the political process into his career. He co-founded Mile 22 Associates in winter 2017 with a mission of building a better democracy. He lives in Atlanta but spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C., and Boston. He travels often along the east coast to moderate and participate in panel discussions related to democracy, elections and voting.
“We believe that every voter needs authentic support — not support that comes once every two to four years and then evaporates, but the year-round, place-based, earnest support they need to confidently participate in every election,” according to the Mile 22 website. “And we believe that equitable support of local leaders with an intersectional lens is the only viable strategy to accomplish our goal of building an inclusive democracy.”
The team at Mile 22 designs nonpartisan programs and fosters networks for philanthropic institutions, nonprofit organizations and other networks to improve voter turnout. Mile 22 had a hand in creating the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, founded in 2016 with a mission of making civic culture and democratic participation the norm on college campuses.