American University is consistently ranked one of the most politically active campuses in the nation. Surprisingly, though, a presumed AU seat on a DC Advisory Neighborhood Commission remained unfilled for more than two years. With that bothersome reality in mind, Taylor Berlin decided to act.
James Harnett—a George Washington University student, friend, and current commissioner—reached out to Berlin about the need for another student ANC member. At first, Berlin—an already hyper-busy AU student—had little desire to hold office.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be a politician. I’m not interested in running for office. I won’t be any good at it.’ And then he told me how long the seat had been vacant,” Berlin recalls in an interview. “This is a city where students are always talking about voter disenfranchisement and not having enough political representation. And here was this seat at a table that was being left vacant, and I just couldn’t really stand for that.”
All Politics is Local
Choosing to pursue the position was just the first step. During a non-election year, she needed to gather 25 signatures for a petition. Yet if you read the fine print, that’s much, much harder than it sounds. The signatories of her petition had to be registered to vote in DC, and many AU students prefer to register in their home states. They also needed a 4400 Massachusetts Avenue address, according to the old maps, which ruled out students living on East Campus.
For Berlin, it was like a crash course in the art of local politicking and organizing. “I went onto the quad, and I registered freshmen to vote. People who hadn’t registered in their home state, after eight or so months of being at college,” she explains. “I kind of created my own voter population.”
She got on the commission, holding the 3D07 seat. Sworn in by DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, Berlin’s parents and campaign helpers were on hand. Much of her work, she says, is being responsive to constituent needs.
“It is the most local form of politics, which in some ways makes it the most emotional form of politics. I think it affects people’s lives—maybe in small ways, but every day it can mean something,” she says.
The job entails everything from writing resolutions to zoning commission hearings to liquor license approval for local businesses. She gave testimony to the City Council in support of a measure to lower the voting age.
She champions AU, and she thinks having an AU student at meetings facilitates a better relationship with the neighborhood. And she’s also come to appreciate helping non-student constituents in the community.
“If I can help some neighbor of mine who has a problem with a noise complaint, or with a sidewalk issue—if I can help that one person in their everyday life—isn’t that all politics is, just on a larger scale?”
Finding the Other News Junkies
Berlin grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, and engaged in politics early. She worked for Republican Gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, whose campaign was the “only one to call back a 14 year old.” She later interned in a local office of US Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn. While just a middle schooler accompanying her older sister—who ended up at GW—on DC college tours, Taylor set her sights on AU. “I said, ‘I’m going to go to this school. Watch me.’ And I bought a T-shirt that day. I’m very good at planning,” she jokes now.
As a high school senior, she attended an admitted AU student overnight on campus. She quickly realized she’d found her people. Her CNN news notifications were unusual in her Connecticut high school, but Berlin and her future AU classmates all started getting the same news alerts on their phones.
“It just clicked that I was around people who were finally interested in the things that I was interested in,” she remembers.
Mentoring and Support
At AU, she’s found more of those like-minded students, joining quite a few campus organizations. She’s a member and mentor for AU College Democrats, and she does similar mentoring with AU Hillel. Berlin is also a member of the Model UN team, AU International Relations Society, and Alpha Xi Delta sorority. Amid all of her campus activities, she’s put in time at the Federal Communications Commission, Ralph Northam’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and this summer, she’s working in Washington at The NewDEAL, Developing Exceptional American Leaders.
A rising junior, Berlin is an international studies major and a public administration and policy minor. She mentions the invaluable support she’s received from numerous professors, including Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby. “She embodies what makes SIS so great, because we pull in some of these really fantastic people with so much experience,” she notes, “and the stories she can tell are just unbelievable.”
Nothing is Assured
Berlin’s activism and ANC service didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. She worked on the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and she was distraught watching election returns on the third floor of SIS.
“We were planning to run to the White House [if Hillary won],” she recalls. “And I went to the White House the next day, but I went to protest. It was not how I thought it was going to happen.”
Berlin subsequently attended the Women’s March on the Mall, and she’s inspired to stay committed at the local level. “I think it was just a wake-up call of how much harder we had to work, and how nothing was assured,” she says. “This has definitely pushed me to be more involved, because I can’t sit back and be passive.”