Jul 28, 2014
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Montclair Teens Shaking Up Presidential Debates

The League of Women Voters honored Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis.

Montclair Teens Shaking Up Presidential Debates


The League of Women Voters of New Jersey presented its first annual “Young Activist Award” to Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis for submitting a petition to the Commission on Presidential Debates which called for the selection of a female presidential debate moderator.

The three 16-year-old girls from Montclair launched a major online petition drive on  www.Change.org and garnered over 180,000 signatures. The award was presented at the League’s 2012 Fall Forum in Edison, where the young activists received a standing ovation from an audience of over 115 people, many of whom were actually experienced female moderators.

When asked what motivated the girls to start this petition, Siegel explained that the girls’ were part of a Civics and Government Institute at Montclair High School.

“It was then that we all found out that there hadn’t been a female presidential debate moderator for two decades, which was absolutely ridiculous," she said. "We were all just so shocked.”

Determined to make a change, the three students created an online petition demanding a woman be selected to moderate one of this year’s presidential debates. This summer, Tsemberis, Siegel, and Axelrod captivated the nation as they attempted to deliver 180,000 petition signatures to the Commission on Presidential Debates in Washington D.C., but they were not met by staff and could not gain access to deliver the petition. On August 13th,  Candy Crowley was announced as one of the three presidential debate moderators, a huge victory for the girls and all those who support equality.

League of Women Voters of New Jersey President, Toni Zimmer, presented the award stating, “I am extremely proud to present the Young Activist Award to Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegel, and Elena Tsemberis for their dedication to raising the public visibility of women of political power who are involved in promoting civic engagement, and for serving as an inspiration to others across the country.”  Zimmer added, “There’s a lot of talk about our younger generations being unconcerned or apathetic, but these young women -- along with many others across the country -- are working for political change;  they are a shining example of future female political leaders.” 

“It validates what we’ve always been told. Through the American democracy system anyone can make a change in this country. That’s part of what makes it so beautiful and I think that is part of why it was founded because anyone can have a say,” Axelrod commented when asked about the  success of the petition and receiving the League’s Young Activist award. “We have a say and we’re 16. It’s a pretty remarkable feeling to know anyone in this country can have power and it’s good to have a woman up there. As women who might want to be doing powerful things like moderating a presidential debate, we don’t want to be told that we can’t.”

Part of the actual petition stated: “Presidential debate moderators have a lot power when it comes to helping the American public to better understand candidates. Being a moderator is a tough job; the moderator must keep the debate flowing, make sure candidates stay focused on relevant topics, and maintain an unbiased stance…Men are no more capable of performing these tasks than women -- but for the last two decades, only men have been given the job.”

During the award ceremony, Zimmer asked what’s next for the young women, and Tsemberis replied that they are looking to fight for more diversity stating, “This year there are no moderators of color at the presidential debates,” a statement that received a round of applause from the crowd. Tsemberis added, “We still think there’s a long way to go when it comes to workplace equality for women. Equal pay for equal work still isn’t something that we have accomplished.”

The “Montclair 3” were also granted honorary membership in the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

To learn more about the League of Women Voters of New Jersey or to join the League please visit their website,  www.lwvnj.org. Membership is open to both women and men. Consider joining the over 150,000 League members across the country in making democracy work.

This information is from a press release issued by the League of Women Voters. 

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