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Nicole Robinson DNC volunteer

Nicole Robinson, Executive Director of the YWCA, displays credentials from her time as a volunteer for the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, May 30, 2024.

Mariah Woelfel/WBEZ

As the DNC looks for thousands of volunteers, past helpers share stories of the convention’s influence

From 1968 to today, volunteers in Chicago aim to connect visitors to their city, and to see some of the convention action themselves

In August of 1968, the song “People Got to Be Free” by The Rascals was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The nation was still reeling from the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Chicago was preparing to host the Democratic National Convention amid mass protests over the Vietnam War.

And Jim Terman was a college sophomore, looking for a way to get involved.

“I walked into the Hilton Hotel, which was then the headquarters for the convention … I wanted to do anything,” Terman said.

At the time, Chicago taxi drivers were on strike for better wages, a medical fund and bulletproof partitions between drivers and passengers. Terman lucked out when he ran into a DNC operative who needed a ride from the Hilton to the International Amphitheater where the convention was being held.

“It was difficult to get around town,” Terman said. “And I offered to drive this person to the convention hall every day, if he would just get me into the convention as a volunteer.”

Terman got a volunteer gig that, today, probably wouldn’t exist, passing out paper copies of DNC press releases to reporters.

Jim Terman, a past DNC volunteer, poses for a portrait

Jim Terman, now the vice chairman of a public relations firm, recalled how volunteering at the DNC inspired his work for years to come, June 6, 2024.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Come August, Democrats from across the country will descend on Chicago for the party’s nominating convention, the third in Chicago since 1968. And this year, the volunteer application process is a bit more formalized.

The DNC is looking for 12,000 people, ages 16 and older, from the Chicagoland area. Half that number have already applied. Application questions include everything from whether someone speaks another language, to whether they have a driver’s license, to what size T-shirt they wear.

Terman is one of several past volunteers who told WBEZ that working the convention influenced their life course. He went on to work for candidates for the U.S. Senate, go to law school, to work in the White House under Jimmy Carter’s vice president, and eventually start his own public affairs firm.

“It was a fantastic experience, and I became addicted to politics,” he said.

DNC PASSES

Volunteer Nicole Robinson’s credentials from her time helping at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, May 30, 2024.

Mariah Woelfel/WBEZ

Sitting in her office at a high rise in the Downtown financial district, Nicole Robinson keeps the DNC badge she still has from her 1996 volunteer stint.

Robinson, now the Executive Director of the nonprofit YWCA, took a week off her corporate sector job in 1996 to volunteer.

“I was someone’s spreadsheet jockey, counting numbers, helping track productivity,” Robinson said. “This was an opportunity for me to think about what shapes our democracy and how I want to be involved … it was actually pretty pivotal.”

Robinson volunteered as a driver for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who had a reputation for being a tough boss. Robinson said the work was demanding.

“Driving the senator to every single meeting during her entire week of the convention, starting at the wee hours of the morning, into the wee hours of the night. In many respects, I became an extended member of the team, helping them understand the layout of the city … the best places to host meetings.”

“[I had] the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in every single meeting — to see the life of an elected official for a week, not just a day, but an entire week of sitting with her in meetings,” she said.

This year, the DNC is looking for drivers, people to greet delegates at airports, to check people into the convention itself.

Alejandra Sotelo, a volunteer at the DNC, poses for a photo

Angela Sotelo attends a DNC volunteer application launch party on May 30th.

Provided by Alejandra Sotelo

Alejandra Sotelo’s work is already underway. She is one of 77 so-called “neighborhood ambassadors” essentially responsible for drumming up excitement, recruiting volunteers, and recommending restaurants.

Born and raised in Rogers Park, Sotelo recommends Honeybear Cafe’s “Rogers Park french toast” with “exotic flavors.”

Sotelo is an upcoming senior at Loyola University — and envisions a career in public service, telling WBEZ “you might see me on a ballot” one day.

Sotelo is excited at the chance to network with electeds, strategists and thousands of delegates attending the convention. But getting an audience with political insiders isn’t a given for ambassadors like Sotelo who work to throw the massive event. Ambassadors are competing for a convention pass and volunteers don’t get to attend (unless they’re situated inside the convention).

20240607_DNC_Volunteer_mm0039.jpg

Left to right, Phallon and Kyra Pierce, poses for a portrait in front of their home in Bloomingdale, Illinois on June 7, 2024. Both sisters are actively involved in volunteer work for the DNC that will be coming to Chicago this summer.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Teenagers from across the region are being encouraged to apply by two of their own peers — twins Kyra and Phallon Pierce who already have an impressive track record of public service. The pair gained notoriety when they challenged a racist book on their school’s summer reading list and took action.

“We decided to make our own reading list that went from first grade to eighth grade. And they all had diverse books,” Phallon Pierce said. “Yes, because we also didn’t see representation for people that look like us,” Kyra Pierce joined in.

The two are serving on the convention Host Committee’s youth advisory council.

This year, thousands of young people are expected to descend on the convention for a different reason — to protest the Democratic Party. Chief among their concerns is the war in Gaza. The national atmosphere is prompting comparisons to the 1968 convention. It went down in infamy for the violent brutality by Chicago Police officers against anti-war protesters.

Volunteers, who are working in close conjunction with the DNC, brushed off questions from WBEZ about those protests.

Sotelo said protests “are to be expected.”

Terman said that the nationally-watched chaos and turbulence of the ‘68 convention didn’t much affect his experience as a volunteer, at least when inside the convention hall.

“The amphitheater was the most secure place you could be, you had the secret service and everybody else … there certainly wasn’t any fear,” he said.

Stepping outside was a different story.

“I never saw clashes … But I do remember at one point in the evening, coming out and seeing the scene, the National Guard posted, which you never really see. I’ve never seen [that] before or since on a public street.”

Mariah Woelfel covers city government and politics for WBEZ.

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