Democracy Day 2023

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit

A community organizer in Grand Island who encourages people to vote even though she can’t. An international student in Lincoln who experienced corruption in her native country.  A South Sudanese community leader in Omaha who fights against apathy.

These are among the diverse Nebraskans who shared their perspectives about democracy, civic health and the American dream on Democracy Day. 

Here are their stories: 

Community organizer: “I can’t vote, but what else can I do?” 

By Sophie Elias

Even though Joseline Reyna cannot vote, the Grand Island community organizer said she uses her voice to influence others to vote and be involved in their communities. 

“Because of my immigration status, I am not a qualified voter,” said Reyna, who was born in Mexico and doesn’t hold U.S. citizenship. “One of the reasons that pushed me to do this type of work is because I asked myself: I can’t vote, but what else can I do?”

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Joseline Reyna, community organizer with the YWCA of Grand Island, stands behind the YWCA’s promotional table at an outdoor event. Reyna’s job involves educating others about voting. Courtesy photo.

Reyna’s job as the YWCA’s community organizer involves educating others about voting, and she said she believes community involvement is important, even if that means being able to change the mind of just one person.

“I’m making a difference in one person, but that one person is also influencing their family and their friends,” she said, “I planted a seed, and I watered it, but there are other seeds around it that I won’t see flourish.”
Looking toward the future, Reyna said she hopes to see more diverse representation in democratic positions. 

Although Hall County is one of the most diverse counties in Nebraska, the city council does not represent the community’s diversity, she noted. She said it’s essential to have decision-makers who have been personally affected by issues they vote on.

For example, decision-makers who have struggled with housing issues and are now making decisions about housing would hopefully make the best decisions for the community, as they experienced it themselves, she said.

UNL student eager to vote in next year’s election and be part of American democracy

By Sarah Lawlor

As a 10-year-old, Jade Wasowicz’s biggest struggle was remembering her dance routine. 

When her mom was 10, she had just immigrated to America from Thailand and was struggling to learn English at her new school. 

“She doesn’t really talk about it much,” Wasowicz said. “I think it was really hard for her.” 

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Jade Wasowicz, a junior graphic design student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says she tries to have constructive conversations with people of differing beliefs to understand where they are coming from. Photo by Sarah Lawlor/CoJMC

Wasowicz grew up in Woodbury, Minnesota, and is now a junior graphic design student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Now that Wasowicz is old enough, next year’s election will be her first time voting, and it’s a moment she’s been waiting for. 

“Growing up people would make fun of what I looked like,” she said. “They made me feel like an outcast, and I don’t know, being able to vote almost feels like I get to prove them wrong.”

Wasowicz’s parents didn’t talk about politics too much when she was younger, and for the most part, she didn’t question their beliefs. 

“I guess before it was kind of easy for people to tell me things, and I would just believe them,” she said. 

During 2020, her parents shifted their political views, and Wasowicz said it was time for her to start forming her own opinions. 

Wasowicz mainly relies on social media and word of mouth to get her news, but she tries to have conversations with people who have different beliefs than she does.

“It is important to try to understand other people and what they believe in,” she said. “Everybody’s had different experiences and grown up in different places.”

Although she doesn’t describe herself as particularly the most politically savvy person, Wasowicz said she believes participation is the most important part of American democracy, especially for the younger generations. 

“I feel like it’s especially important for younger people to vote,” she said. “I mean, we’re going to be here for a while.”

South Sudanese community leader desires engagement and diversity in democracy

By Nathan Hawkins

Busy days are customary for Aban Laa. As the executive director of New Life Family Alliance in Omaha, a nonprofit that helps South Sudanese families, he oversees all operations.

It’s difficult to sum up his wide variety of duties succinctly.

“We do a lot of different things,” he said with a laugh. “Every day is different.”

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Aban Laa, a South Sudanese immigrant who serves at the executive director for New Life Family Alliance, a nonprofit serving South Sudanese communities in Omaha, wants to see young people get excited about democracy. Photo courtesy of New Life Family Alliance

What remains the same is the organization’s core mission: connecting South Sudanese families with community resources to help them live fulfilling lives in a new society.  

“There are a lot of adjustments in moving here,” he said. “Our goal is to make it easier.”

Laa said he believes it’s important for the South Sudanese community to be excited about democracy, but it isn’t an easy sell.

Laa recalled his first U.S. presidential election after emigrating to the country from South Sudan in 2001. In 2004, as George Bush and John Kerry squared off for the presidential ticket, and Laa assumed people would be excited to vote.

“I asked people in the community if they voted. They said, ‘What’s the point? It’s not going to make a difference.’”

An important step Laa wants to see more people that represent diverse communities running for elected positions.

“People want to see people like them running for office,” he said. “When it’s the same people running, it’s hard to get excited.”

Laa believes voting is a key way for members of underrepresented communities to take part in democracy. He mentioned countries such as Australia where voting is mandatory. Without that in the United States, Laa thinks it’s important for leaders to think about how to get young people involved.

“I think young people should be excited about democracy,” he said. “They are the future, and we must ask how we can get them involved.”

UNL associate professor shares expansive view of democracy and American dream

By Hallie Gutzwiller

Francisco Munoz-Arriola’s sixth-floor office in Hardin Hall might be small but a window seems to take in the whole city of Lincoln. 

Like his East Campus vista, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor takes an expansive view of democracy. He said it’s important to him that all communities are included and equally represented.

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor Francisco Munoz-Arriola sits at his computer in his office on East Campus. Munoz-Arriola, who immigrated from Mexico 24 years ago, said he would like to see democracy be more inclusive. Photo by Hallie Gutzwiller/CoJMC

“The strength of democracy should rely on a more inclusive system,” he said. 

Francisco, who works in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, always knew he wanted to do something that benefited society. His work in hydro informatics and integrated hydroclimate includes making connections between climate, water, agriculture and ecosystems to better predict risks. He then creates data that is useful for the public. Aside from his research, Francisco also teaches students on the importance of decision making when it comes to climate risks.

By striving to provide access to public resources and ecosystem services “in an equal form to everybody” he said he is contributing to building a stronger democracy. And when it comes to the American dream, Francisco said he views it is not a dream for himself but rather a dream that expands to those who are fighting for the same goal every day.

Gazing out the window, Francisco reflected on his journey of coming from Baja California, Mexico, to the U.S. almost 24 years ago.

“My dream came through,” he said. “I became what I wanted to be. Everything would be nice if I could see the other immigrants enjoying life in the way that I enjoy it. And then that would be a nice American dream.”

UNL student’s experience with corruption in home country offers unique perspectives in U.S. 

By Sam Cobb

In the three years she has been a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 21-year old Malvika Vijju has been able to get a unique perspective on American life and government after coming here from Andhra Pradesh, India. 

She moved from India in 2020 to attend UNL, which offered better research programs than those in India and was the most affordable. Now a senior, she plans to attend law school after graduation and then practice law in the U.S.

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Malvika Vijju, a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, came to UNL from India with plans to continue on to medical school before she switched her focus to law school, but still staying loyal to her goal of helping others. Photo by Sam Cobb/CoJMC

While a lawyer is often seen as a servant of the community in the U.S., the case is rarely the same in India, according to Vijju. The Indian government has much more corruption than in the U.S., she said, and that changes the way its citizens view people in positions of power who are meant to help. 

“There are times where it’s very fair in India,” she said. “Then there are times it’s not very fair.”

According to Vijju, this corruption also affects India’s legal system in many places, leading many people in the country, including Vijju’s own parents, to have negative opinions of lawyers. 

“My parents were against me becoming a lawyer because they were worried that I might turn out corrupted,” she said. “They have very different perspectives of lawyers than me. They think they are kind of liars.”

The type of lawyer she is studying to be, one that serves her community and helps it progress, is not as common in her home country as it may be in America, she said. 

Vijju said she believes that coming from a background in which she has experienced corruption and difficult situations have allowed her to develop more patience and understanding. These are the qualities that she brought with her to Lincoln from Andhra Pradesh, and she said they are the qualities that will help her stay focused on her main goal in life: helping people. 

Civic engagement professional is voice for those who can’t speak

By Teghan Metcalf

 Guadalupe Esquivel is passionate about amplifying the voices of noncitizens, like her parents that migrated from Mexico. 
As associate director of communications at the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, she regularly works with 70 Nebraska nonprofits who speak with those in the U.S. who are unable to vote, yet still deserve a voice. 

Esquivel said she believes democracy is “everybody having an equitable chance to be able to make their voices heard.” 

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Guadalupe Esquivel stands in front of a poster in her office at the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table. Esquivel is heavily involved in her community and believes that “your community is what you make it.” Photo by Teaghan Metcalf/CoJMC

Esquivel was a first-generation college student who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with majors in sociology, Spanish and Latin American studies and minors in political science, anthropology and ethnic studies. She began her journey at the Nebraska Table as a student and worked as a voter-registration canvasser, where she would encourage people to vote. She then had an internship at the Nebraska Table and was offered a full-time job after graduation.

She said she fell in love connecting with nonprofits that help minorities in the community. 

A few years ago, the organization switched from being voter centric to focusing on more broader civic engagement. 

“We realized just how exclusionary that was to only focus on potential voters instead of the wide community that may not be able to vote but are still so deserving and impacted by policy that need to be able to have their voices heard,” she said. 

Esquivel said she is hopeful about the future of democracy because she believes people are more engaged with it. Democracy is “the people,” she said, and when people are involved, great things come from that. 

UNL student inspires change through community involvement

By Rukhshona Islamova

Naidaly Gonzalez Miranda’s goals in life are rooted in working toward an issue and making sure a solution comes to life, initiating positive change wherever she goes. 

“Democracy to me is making a change one way or another, and I like the idea of having a say in it,” she said. 

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Naidaly Gonzalez Miranda at East Campus Community Gardens, where she is volunteering to prep and clean in October 2022. Miranda is heavily involved in her community, constantly taking steps toward positive changes. Photo courtesy of Naidaly Gonzalez Miranda.

A first-generation student, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sophomore majors in agricultural leadership and is simultaneously in a 3+3 law program. She intends to use her passion for taking initiative and her education to focus on policy issues within agriculture and food insecurity. 

“A lot of the (agriculture) workers are minority people and being able to stand up for them through policy work is kind of my purpose,” she said. 

A second-generation immigrant of El Salvadoran descent, Miranda said her experiences with two cultures allows her to think for and vouch for both sides. 

“I’ve been able to not feel pressured to think one way,” she said. “I think it’s helped me be able to know what I think is wrong and what’s right versus believing what someone wants me to believe.” 

As a person who knows what she wants, Miranda is taking an active role in making change on campus through her numerous involvements. She is an Association of Students of the University of Nebraska (ASUN) senator and belongs to Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, a national society focused on the professional advancement of minorities in agriculture, natural resources and related sciences. She said she is also a proud member of Define American, an immigration-focused registered student organization at UNL.

Through her involvement and education she said she hopes to take positive change much further than UNL’s campus.

Teacher sees reality of the American dream in her students

By Jennifer Torres

When Llana Meza thinks about democracy, the word “people” comes to her mind. 

“We all have equal rights as humans within the U.S. and we can use that to make a difference in our society,” the Northeast High School Spanish teacher said.

To Meza, people’s freedom and equality shape democracy – each person has the right to give their own opinion, where both the opinions and wants of immigrants and native-born Americans are equally valued.

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Llana Meza with her family at the Nebraska State Capitol. The Northeast High School Spanish teacher said she believes in the American dream after listening to her student’s experiences with their immigrant parents. Meza’s students have the privileges, opportunities and education that their parents were not able to have. Courtesy photo.

A couple of years ago Meza would have said that the American dream is fiction. But she has a new perspective as a teacher of students with immigrant parents who come to the U.S. in search of the American dream. 

“Teaching in general, you see so many students with different backgrounds and cultures,” she said, “so when you get to see that first-hand, then yes, you do believe in the American dream.” 

Meza gets emotional seeing her students benefit from the American dream.

“Now I have kids who say things like, ‘I wanna buy my parents a house because my parents have never owned a house.’”

Meza has lived in Nebraska for most of her life. Her father is from Mexico, and although she didn’t grow up with him, she has grown to appreciate the language and culture so much that she became a Spanish teacher.

Although Meza believes in the American dream, she thinks U.S. democracy is “a little fragile” and far from perfect. 

While she said people are always going to disagree, especially regarding politics and government, the current climate is problematic. 

“There is a lot of unrest and division that is black and white,” Meza said, noting that when people don’t align on morals and values, they often are seen either as one or the other, when in reality, their situation is far more nuanced. 

Meza exercises her right to vote and believes all Americans need to do so. 

“That is something we can do – to have a voice,” she said

UNL student says dreams on hold as she awaits citizenship

By Jackson Reddick

Biological systems engineering student Furqan Mahdi dreams of owning her own lab one day.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, who is working in assistant professor Rebecca Wachs’ lab on East Campus, said she wants to take graduate-level courses to achieve her dream.

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln biological systems engineering student Furqan Mahdi stands in the East Campus lab where she works. She dreams of owning her own lab one day, but is frustrated with the citizenship process.

But uncertainty in her life has her frustrated about her future.

“I’m in my ninth year in the United States, and not being a citizen is scary,” she said. “I don’t know what is going to happen next.”

Mahdi, who came to the U.S. from Iraq, said she would prefer to be a U.S. citizen going into grad school, an issue that she has tried to fix.

She applied for citizenship in 2019 and said she still hasn’t gotten a response. Mahdi said she knows of people who were approved citizenship after applying after eight months.

“How can I exercise democracy, as when I call the citizenship offices, a robot answers the phone,” she said. “And when I ask to speak to a real representative, it just shuts itself off.”

Growing up in Iraq, even when her country was at war with the U.S., Mahdhi’s teachers talked about how dreams come true in the U.S., she said. 

Today, she said she thinks those words were empty promises, noting that practicing her Muslim religion here also is a struggle for her.

“I have to have tough conversations with my family back home,” she said. “It is very hard for them to process that you don’t have that many freedoms here.”