As director of Rock The Vote, Heather Smith—Trinity ’98 and a member of the DukeEngage National Advisory Board—has helped millions of young adults vote in their first presidential elections, shaping Rock the Vote’s reputation today as the largest non-partisan, non-profit voter registration organization in the country. The Chronicle’s Rob Palmisano spoke with Smith about her role with the organization and the ongoing significance of its mission.

The Chronicle: What originally inspired you to help young people register to vote?

Heather Smith: When I first got started, I had just graduated from Duke and was working on environmental policy and organizing and running different campaigns, and I quickly realized that many of the things I cared about were actually being decided by all of these people we were electing, and I wanted not only to have the power to vote in elections for myself, but also to spread that power across as many of my peers as possible. That’s what led me down this path.

TC: What has been the secret behind Rock the Vote’s success, and can you describe the scope of that success?

HS: For the last 25 years, Rock the Vote has been on a mission to register and engage with as many young voters in their first elections as possible. We’re not really looking at people who are already going to vote, but people who—like me at the time—aren’t very well-versed in politics. We feel that these people can be authentically reached, meaningfully spoken to and ultimately motivated to make a larger difference on the issues they care about the most. We’re also trying to bolster the “collective power” of young people to vote. Today, Rock the Vote has run the largest non-partisan voter registration drive in our country in the last six election cycles. We’ve registered and turned out millions and millions of first-time voters, and another interesting thing about our organization is that we don’t tell people who to vote for. We give them the option to let them express themselves by choosing which candidate will best suit their own beliefs, or those of their family and friends.

TC: What part about your job do you look forward to the most?

HS: I ran the organization for eight years, and now I just sit on the board, but I think the best thing has really been passing the baton off to the next generation of young people who want to help other young people register to vote. It was also such a creative and open place to be—when you run a national organization, you get input from some people who you’re working with every day at all kinds of events—so to see the creativity and passion of 18 to 25-year-olds from all around the country and all different pockets of the United States, it was really inspiring. I think often times in politics it’s “Young people are apathetic,” “They don’t care” or “They don’t know any better,” and I felt like every day I had another opportunity to prove that wrong.

TC: What do you least look forward to?

HS: Running a major nonprofit is hard work. So you have the fun part, working with celebrities and media, and doing concerts and driving people to the polls. But you still have to make payroll, and you still have to manage every dollar efficiently in order to sustain the efforts into the next election cycle.

TC: If you had to name the greatest challenge you’ve had to overcome through your efforts with Rock the Vote, what would it be, and why?

HS: 18-year-olds are very different than they were four years ago, and four years before that, and so on. So it’s an ever-changing demographic audience of people we’re trying to reach, as well as an ever-changing media and technological landscape that is turning out more and more online tools that speak to our audience, so we have to constantly make sure we’re keeping up and staying relevant.

TC: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned along the way?

HS: I think the greatest lesson for me has been that young people have been at the forefront of social change movements throughout the country and the world in our history, and that’s no different today, especially with strength in numbers. The impossible becomes possible when you’re mobilizing the largest generation in U.S. history, and I still remember the 2008 election—my first cycle running Rock the Vote—when we registered 2.5 million voters with hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and the sheer number of people who participated prompted “Time Magazine” to dub that year the “Year of the Youth Vote.”

TC: What’s the next big milestone for Rock the Vote?

HS: My opinion on where we could go spans in two directions. First, I think about Rock the Vote’s ongoing mission not just to register young people to vote, but to motivate their passion for doing so—that’s how you really effect lasting change into a voter. Secondly, we’ve always been dedicated to making the process easier and helping people realize how it works and why, because you can’t expect people to show up if they don’t know how the system works or why it even matters. I think there’s a great need for re-education in the merits of civic engagement in our country, and while that sounds rather boring, I think Rock the Vote could really do something about it, so that when young people eventually turn 18 they will be that much more excited to register and contribute to their democratic process.

TC: Do you have any thoughts on the upcoming election?

HS: When I look at this election, the debating dialogue feels angry and negative. The American public seems frustrated—you see the Bernie Sanders camp going, “The system isn’t working for us,” so very high levels of frustration. For me, it raises the urgency for organizations like Rock the Vote who aren’t candidate-specific to say, “Hey, we are the largest generation in U.S. history, and we believe that larger, special interests are trumping our own,” and the only way we’re going to shift our country and leverage the tools we are given to do so is by mobilizing in strength of numbers to represent our political beliefs by choosing our candidates.

TC: What message would you offer for young people who are voting in their very first election this November?

HS: It’s a powerful thing to be able to cast a vote and participate in this process, so congratulations, enjoy the moment and bring your friends along with you to the polls!