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E. Pluribus Unum

How—and why—Swarthmoreans of all stripes stay politically active

Sean Barney ’98 is running for Congress in Delaware. In a way, so is his 6-year-old daughter, Sophie. In addition to her behind-the-scenes support, she’s sat in on party meetings, attended public debates, and accompanied her parents to the polls. 

It’s a far cry from his own youth, which Barney admits wasn’t politically engaged or even aware—it wasn’t until a high school teacher challenged him to know and take moral responsibility for the events of elected officials that he had his own awakening.

“Once you look around at the world, you see just what’s at stake politically: people’s ability to achieve their potential and flourish,” he says. “Everything starts with being informed, because then you will be moved to be involved.”

When he and his wife, Nikki, made the decision for him to run, they kept that thought in mind and how it applied to Sophie. And now, sharing this experience and seeing it through her eyes has been a powerful reminder that the political process isn’t a far-off soap opera of partisanship and power; instead, it’s a living, breathing system that truly belongs to—and affects—all of us.

“It makes me so proud to see my daughter participating, asking questions, and thinking about what American politics mean,” he says. “No matter what happens with my campaign, I hope that this will influence her to be, at the very least, an active, engaged citizen throughout her life.”

That’s a goal endemic to the Swarthmore ethos, and it’s no surprise to see the myriad ways in which alumni remain politically involved, informed, and inspired. 


In 2011, Occupy Wall Street looked like a movement that was going to change the world. After its collapse, Occupy co-founder Micah White ’04 moved to rural Oregon, where he worked out for himself what went wrong—and what went right—in the book The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution

“The beautiful thing about Occupy is that it completely woke up a whole new generation of activists and changed the discourse,” he says. “Overall, it was a positive thing, but I think it’s necessary to see it as a constructive failure; otherwise we’re unable to move forward and achieve something greater, especially in this time when political protest is broken.”

The problem, White finds, is the prevalence of a risk-averse protest industry, which exploits the good intentions and enthusiasm of activists by funneling their energy and efforts into safe, scripted protests that harmlessly distract rather than actually disrupt. As a result, many protesters today now confuse media attention with success. He points to how the anger and insistence on sweeping change that fueled Occupy—and, more recently, the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump presidential campaigns—ultimately ended up defanged in service of the status quo. That really hit home when White was shopping his book.

“No American publisher would touch it: It had to be published in Canada and imported into the U.S.! Eerily, they all said the same thing, that there was no market. That’s ridiculous when hundreds of thousands of people protest in America every day,” he says. “So what they’re really saying is that they won’t sell a book like this.”

Ultimately, he hopes that the future of protest will benefit from the example of Occupy—taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by a leaderless organization that gains worldwide momentum from social media, but better navigating the challenges of decentralization and the pitfalls of “clicktivism”—while innovating in necessary ways, since protests should never repeat themselves.

White’s history of activism dates back to high school—his acceptance letter to the College included a personalized note saying, “Welcome to Swarthmore, where constructive activism is always celebrated.” Experiencing the current political cycle with his wife and their infant son in a town of 280 people has inspired him to dream of a new movement, where activists win election in multiple rural communities across the country to realize the left’s utopian agenda.

“Protest may be broken, but we can fix it by looking at history, reading theory, and gathering ourselves,” he says. “I’m absolutely going to be part of the next revolutionary wave, whether that happens now or five years from now.”



Before she spent 25 years as a lawyer—and another 25 as a New York judge—Felice Klau Shea ’43 was a political science major who navigated Swarthmore in just seven semesters.

“It was war time and the College was in session all year round,” she says. “I was eager to go to Washington to do my part, so when I realized I had enough credits to graduate by dropping out of the honors program, I did.”

After a three-year hiatus, during which she worked for the federal government, got married, and started a family, Shea made it to Columbia Law School, where she was one of 10 women in a class with 235 men. (Serendipitously, one of her classmates was Isabella Horton Grant ’44, who later became a judge in San Francisco.) Although public service was always her goal, Shea knew that she had few other options as a lawyer.

“Women weren’t even interviewed for big firms when I graduated from law school. That’s of course very different today,” she says. “Not that I think women have achieved equal status and equal pay—we have not—but we’ve certainly come a long way since 1950.”

Shea started her career in academia and continued by representing indigent clients at the Harlem Branch of the Legal Aid Society. In 1975, when Shea was elected to the bench, she shared the honor of being the first Swarthmorean woman to become a judge with Mary Murphy Schroeder ’62. Shea’s rise was rapid: In less than two years as a judge in New York City’s civil and family courts, she was named an acting New York State Supreme Court justice and then, six years later, won her seat on the court in an election. 

Even after her retirement in 2000, she remained active as a volunteer attorney for children in the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society, as a referee in judicial disciplinary matters, and as a board member of the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy group for prisoners.

“I sent an awful lot of people to prison, and I was very frustrated on the bench by the mandatory sentencing laws that strip judges of discretion,” she says. “I want to see the law changed and mass incarceration attacked more vigorously.”

Another issue of crucial importance to Shea is judicial selection. Although electing judges sounds democratic, she says that lay people are often not informed voters when it comes to judicial choices and that a merit-based system of appointing judges is preferable. 

Much work lies ahead, but she’s pleased at how much the legal, political, and professional landscapes have changed over the course of her career, especially when talking to her granddaughter, who grew up watching her in court and became a practicing lawyer.

“We’re very close and it’s gratifying to me that she has opportunities that were unthinkable when I was a young lawyer,” Shea says. “The fact that women now number among the highest ranks of professionals and leaders of this country is certainly a good feeling. Still, we lag behind many countries in workplace support for combining family and work and in provisions for child care—omissions that disproportionately affect women. Some things haven’t changed.”



If it weren’t for his addiction to The West Wing during college, Dennis Cheng ’01 might never have ended up the national finance director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“In high school and college, my focus had always been more on international relations and foreign policy,” he says. “But that show got me excited about elections and politics.”

A co-founder of Swarthmore’s mock trial team and an experienced Alumni Phonathon fundraiser, Cheng changed his plans from law school to public service and became a summer intern for Hillary Clinton in 2000, during the then-first lady’s historic Senate run.

The experience proved so formative that he took the first semester of his senior year off to work through Election Day. After graduation, Cheng went on to serve as a staffer on a series of campaigns, including current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initial run for that office, but got the opportunity to return to then-Sen. Clinton’s camp in 2005.

“Her record of public service, commitment, and tenacity is what inspired me to take that first step in getting involved, and the last 16 years have been such an amazing experience,” he says. “For me, this is not just a profession but it’s personal—I want to make sure that we elect the best and most qualified candidate to be our president.”

From previous stints as Clinton’s deputy chief of protocol in the State Department to chief development officer of the Clinton Foundation to today, Cheng has earned a reputation for discreet excellence over colorful showmanship, which, as this election has proved, isn’t always the norm.

“Politics shouldn’t be about being the loudest person in the room, but about working hard and doing this for the right reasons. Thoughtful, deliberate, and disciplined thinking should pay off,” he says. “It’s not just important for our political leaders to find respectful, productive, and rational common ground—it’s important for all of us, every single day.”

Cheng’s commitment to clear-eyed community-building echoes in all he does, and he makes it a point to credit his fellow behind-the-scenes political staffers whose names and contributions may never be as familiar to the general public as those of the candidates whom they support, but without whom our system couldn’t function.

All of us have our part to play, and even if the outcome of the election doesn’t go his candidate’s way, Cheng believes that sitting out is never a political option—just an opportunity to work harder and contribute more. But if it does, the busy fundraiser whose phone never stops ringing is willing to make a brief exception.

“I’ll be celebrating on a remote tropical island,” he says, “with no cell service.”



This election cycle, both major parties have been especially vicious in proclaiming the other’s candidate to be not just the worst in history, but ostensibly dangerous. What gives?

“Look, both parties are struggling through an identity crisis,” laughs conservative strategist Ford O’Connell ’00. “But what many fail to remember is that these parties are not ideological vessels, but competing enterprises designed to win elections.”

Writ large, the rivalry between Republicans and Democrats has been monetized and fetishized, not unlike the way certain pro sports rivalries become shorthand for a person’s identity. Although this “us vs. them” mentality creates camaraderie among voters, O’Connell says it comes at a cost when compromise is swept off the table in favor of blood sport.

“Frankly, when you have two even-footed opponents battling for the hearts and minds of voters, the system tends to work better because more points of view are brought into the discussion,” he says. “But with social media and the 24/7 cable networks, each side has created its own echo chamber so it’s hard for some individual voters to get outside of that.”

Acknowledging the irony of this statement coming from a longtime political analyst on Fox News—while also pointing out the inherent liberal bias of the media—O’Connell says this isn’t a partisan problem: This presidential campaign has exposed intense anger on both sides that no election result will completely heal. The answer, he believes, is for both sides—third parties being seductive but impractical solutions—to undergo complete makeovers, including embracing split-ticket voting, ending gerrymandering, and revamping the Electoral College.

An iconoclast like Donald Trump has the potential to make that happen, he says, pointing to parallels between this election and 1980’s, when another system-bucking celebrity won the White House and changed the face of American politics. For O’Connell to make a Reagan comparison—seeing as the Gipper is one of his lifelong heroes and his grandfather served as one of his advisers—is no small praise.

No matter the outcome of this or any election, O’Connell remains energized by the political process, seeing even this bruising presidential campaign not as a harbinger of disaster, but as proof of the remarkable principles and system on which the United States was founded.

“For as much grief as modern history departments give the Founding Fathers, they built a lot of checks and balances in our system to make it work,” he says. “Besides, we all have to wake up and move forward together on Nov. 9.”



Last year, Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive ’88 spearheaded the creation of a new digital channel, Named for the number of eligible female voters in 2016 under age 45, the site expands on Glamour’s political coverage at a particularly auspicious moment in time.

“I don’t think any of us could have predicted the extent to which sexism in the coverage of the election and on the part of the candidates would play a role,” she says. “The conversation around women, gender, and justice in this campaign is at a fever pitch—and we’re not through yet.”

To facilitate this and other political conversations across the spectrum, Leive also partnered with Facebook to launch a series of town-hall discussions around the country to focus on women’s issues while highlighting women’s voices. 

Throughout, Leive’s seen many nuances play out, particularly when it comes to millennial women who have grown up in a postfeminist world without encountering sexism on the level that previous generations faced. 

“I don’t want to generalize, but it’s an interesting divide: They may or may not decide to support Hillary Clinton, but they feel completely convinced that there will be a female president—not just within their lifetime, but soon,” she says. “Whereas some older women feel that, as women, we should support Hillary Clinton because we all want to put a woman in the White House now.”

Despite the tenor of this year’s campaign—as well as the relative paucity of women in Congress and at the top levels of business—reflecting just how deeply fault lines of sexism and inequality run, Leive sees many opportunities to use her position to even the playing field. 

After all, women’s magazines have a long history of tackling weighty issues—Glamour was one of the first magazines to not only cover but advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, and launched the industry’s first nonprofit, The Girl Project, which helps girls in 95 countries gain access to secondary-school education.

In fact, Leive can trace her own interest in politics to her mother’s. When she was 3, her family lived in northern Virginia down the road from the Kennedy family. During the height of Watergate—which Leive’s mother followed intently—the Kennedys hosted a community pet fair.

“I had this mangy kitten who clearly wasn’t going to win best in show, so my mom dressed her up with a kerchief and a watch for the costume contest,” Leive recalls with a smile. “When whichever Kennedy was judging that category asked me to explain my cat’s costume, my mom had me say, ‘She’s crying and counting the seconds until Richard Nixon is impeached.’ She won.”



The first-generation American son of Mexican parents in rural Mississippi, Gilbert Guerra ’19 grew up in the only immigrant family in a county named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan’s original Grand Wizard.

As a high schooler considering the Marines, Guerra never thought college was an option until he was invited to the all-expenses-paid overnight Discover Swarthmore program.

“It was my first time on the East Coast, my first time on a college campus, and my first time meeting a Democrat,” he laughs. “It was eye-opening, but I vibed so well with the people that I knew Swarthmore was the place for me.”

Advocating as he did for gay marriage and immigration reform, Guerra counted himself liberal-leaning, at least compared with his hometown friends, but by the end of his first semester, he discovered that his beliefs actually lay further right. When he took public stances against two popular liberal causes—using the “Latinx” neologism to make the Spanish language more gender-neutral and Swarthmore’s proposed social-justice academic requirement—Guerra was frequently the lone voice of conservative dissent.

“I’m used to it, growing up in places where the deck is stacked against me, and I think every conservative student has horror stories,” he says. “But what really surprised me about Swarthmore is that I can be vocal about what I believe and my friends will stick up for me, even if they don’t agree.”

In fact, Guerra made many friends in situations where he respectfully disagreed with the consensus. His co-president of Achieving Black & Latino Leadership & Excellence (ABLLE), Pat Houston ’17, is not only a devoted liberal, but also a treasured friend and teammate.

“The best thing about my life here is that I love and cherish people who vehemently disagree with me on many things,” Guerra says, “and that they love and cherish me, too.”

A supporter of Republican candidates capable of reaching across the aisle, such as Rand Paul and John Kasich, he thinks it’s important for people all over the political spectrum to condemn Donald Trump for his rhetoric and racism. 

“I’m probably a lot more sympathetic to his supporters than most here, but Trump makes it hard to convince people that the Republican Party is not a party of hate,” Guerra says. “I liked Marco Rubio a lot because his positions were really well-thought-out, nuanced, and optimistic, but now I’m probably going to go for Gary Johnson.”

As demoralizing as many have found this election cycle, Guerra has never lost the optimism instilled in him by his parents, despite—and because of—their sacrifices.

“When my parents moved to the U.S., they had no English or money. They faced horrible racism—my dad would go for factory jobs and get told to his face, ‘We don’t hire Mexicans,’” Guerra says. “As discouraged as they would get, they would still sit us down and say, ‘Do you realize how lucky you are to be in this great country?’

“Yes, there are a lot of things we need to reform, but I have an inborn bias to say that our political system is not broken,” he adds. “From what I’ve experienced with how people have treated me here, I have too much faith in humanity not to have hope for us all.”



For Sean Barney to be alive, let alone run for office, is a miracle: After enlisting in the Marines after 9/11, he was shot through the neck by a sniper in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006.

“I’m alive today only because the Marines I served with and the Navy corpsman who was with us that day are heroes,” the Purple Heart recipient says, describing how they got him to a surgical center in only 12 minutes. “That Navy corpsman used his fingers to pinch off the bleeding from my jugular and he refused to let go until surgeons in the operating room gave him the signal that it was OK to do so.”

Remembering that moment and that man—not to mention his own journey as a recovering veteran—echoes in every aspect of Barney’s campaign, which has special focuses on gun control, LGBT equality, expanding and protecting Social Security and Medicare, and, of course, veterans’ rights.

“It’s not a coincidence that we have fewer veterans in Congress today than at any point in our history,” says Barney, a Democrat. “Veterans have ingrained experience in putting the country first over personal advancement, and we need more of that again in our politics.”

That same spirit is what drew him to Swarthmore and its mission statement that invokes the idea of developing individuals to be informed, responsible citizens and humans. Ultimately, it’s his best hope for his daughter, Sophie, too. 

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he bought her a T-shirt that says, “Future President,” but will leave it up to her to decide to run for office one day. His hope is that everything he does as a citizen and—voters willing—an elected official will pave the way for a better future for us all.

“I hope my daughter will aspire to make a difference politically in whatever way is meaningful to her,” he says. “Knowing Swarthmore and loving it, I see that’s the hallmark of our community.” 


Editor’s Note: Although Sean Barney ’98 did not win his primary, he says, “Now, as a private citizen, I will continue to serve my community, my state, and my country.” Read more at


+ WATCH a video of Tessa Chambers ’19, a campaign volunteer for Sean Barney ’98