Auburn Spotlight, Calvin Wilborn

"You can still hold on to your core beliefs and be willing to sit at the table with people who you may not agree with."
Calvin Wilborn
Senior, Public Administration

Spotlight Interview

Just 50 years ago, African Americans citizens from Alabama weren’t allowed to sit and vote at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Today, Auburn University’s Calvin Wilborn has the opportunity to not only sit as a member, but serve in a leadership capacity and stimulate political conversations with college students across the nation.

Wilborn, from Dothan, a senior majoring in public administration with a minor in civic engagement, is the vice president for College Democrats of America, the official youth branch of the Democratic National Party, or the DNC.

“It’s definitely an honor to represent Auburn,” Wilborn said. “It’s really taking it to the next level, to see that you have African American students here who are civically engaged, and who are here because they love Auburn and want to live the Auburn Creed. I think the Auburn Creed self-enforces a lot of the things we do, you know ‘I can only count on what I earn,’ so we’re working hard and making sure we’re implementing goals for college students across the country.”

As vice president, Wilborn has the opportunity to visit state College Democrats chapters, travel to conventions, meet with progressive lobbying groups and serve as a DNC member. He meets once a month on a national conference call with the state federation presidents and four officers from each state and communicates with thousands of student members across the country.

Wilborn’s goal for his term is to increase political resources such as vans, phone bank access and giveaways like t-shirts and materials for College Democrats chapters.

“College Republicans receive a $4 million line-item budget from the Republican Party,” Wilborn said. “Despite the challenges chapters face in the South, College Democrats of America was recently able to secure a line item budget from the DNC for the first time in more than four years. With these resources, our chapters can make calls not only during a presidential election, but also for local campaigns. We plan to show the DNC and party leaders why College Democrats is worth the investment.”

He said the first step for College Democrats is to examine themselves, and then “hold accountable the party’s ability to reach college students.”

“I feel like now that I’m in this position, I have this opportunity to push and really make change in our party,” he said. “Of course it includes advocating in state legislature and nationally for issues that matter to us, like Planned Parenthood funding and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and making sure we are engaging college students in the democratic process.”

Prior to his appointment, he served as president of the Auburn University chapter of College Democrats and director of the Student Government Association’s Lobby Board, where Wilborn said he “grew to love the role of bi-partisanship.”

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is how important it is that we are at the table and have those conversations for bipartisanship,” Wilborn said. “Lobby Board was a unique opportunity because you have people from very different backgrounds advocating for one thing, and that was higher education. You can still hold on to your core beliefs and be willing to sit at the table with people who you may not agree with or ideologically match.”

Wilborn spear-headed efforts on campus in the recent campaign for Doug Jones, which received recognition from DNC chair Tom Perez for the win in Lee County.

“I got to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I’m an Auburn student, War Eagle, and it’s because of the efforts of Auburn students on campus pushing that the tally went to Lee County,’” Wilborn said.

Under his leadership, the Auburn College Democrats chapter grew and sparked interest on campus through numerous speaker events and field trips.

The group traveled to hear Barack Obama speak at the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, marking the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery by Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights protestors.

Wilborn said the event was one of his “defining moments in College Democrats” and proved he was in the right place.

“There was a father and son in the crowd, and he lifted his son up on his shoulders to see Barack Obama, which sent chills to me,” he said. “We have an obligation as College Democrats not only to work for the current, but really the obligation to lift up the next generation.”

As an African American, a member of the Pentecostal church and a Democrat in the South, Wilborn said his views “aren’t exactly celebrated” by others around him.

“We need to show people that yes, you can be a Christian, yes you can be a person of faith and still be a part of the Democratic Party,” Wilborn said. “If you look at the general guidelines of Christianity, you know, do unto others as you want them to do to you, making sure you feed the homeless, the poor and the sick, I think that aligns with the Democratic Party more than anything.”

In Wilborn’s time at Auburn, he has immersed himself in community service through his minor in community and civic engagement. Three professors Wilborn said have been influential in his life are Mark Wilson, director of Civic Learning Initiatives; Barbara Baker, executive director of the Women’s Leadership Institute; and David Carter, associate professor of History.

Wilborn worked with Wilson in the Department of Community and Civic Engagement on the Appalachian Teaching Project, a consortium of universities that engage students in research projects that address challenges faced by communities in the Appalachian region.

“The Appalachian Teaching Project opened my eyes to how a lot of us take for granted how we came from an area of privilege,” Wilborn said. “We have to realize there are some people who can’t afford to eat, there’s an opioid epidemic in the Appalachians and there are people who rely on the dying coal industry.”

Wilson said Wilborn has the ability to “create an inclusive atmosphere” and bring people of all backgrounds together to solve problems.

“Calvin is a good listener, one who seeks to understand the perspectives of people he meets,” Wilson said. “He found himself in a deep conversation with a community member who wanted to understand the interests of a college student in politics. He was mesmerized with her stories of issues in coal-mining communities.”

Baker said she enjoyed having Wilborn in her classes for his “broad perspective.”

“He always sets his sights high and proceeds toward his goals, undeterred by nay-sayers,” Baker said. “The College Democrats could not have made a better choice if they wanted someone committed to the purpose of the Democratic Party.”

Carter has worked closely with Wilborn as the faculty advisor to the Auburn chapter of College Democrats and called his optimism “contagious.”

“Calvin is an extraordinary student, someone who takes the responsibilities of citizenship seriously,” Carter said. “His example of civic engagement and desire to make a difference in the lives of others give me great hope for our future.”

Wilborn’s advice for students interested in politics is to find issues that resonate with their lives.

“We have to identify issues that are important to us and then also look at the bigger picture,” he said. “Even if they (the issues) don’t directly affect us or our friends and family, someone is affected by policy.”

As for the future, Wilborn is interested in continuing his political experience. He hopes to continue on to an advocacy or outreach role with the DNC, or possibly work on Capitol Hill.

“I do want to stay in the political arena,” Wilborn said. “College Democrats has given me the opportunity to visit a lot of congressional offices and to see the excitement of that and what they do on a day-to-day basis. I don’t know if I want to run for office, I’m not dead set on that, but I would like to work on Capitol Hill for a few years to get the D.C. experience.”