READING, Pa. — After a rousing opening featuring a marching band, cheerleaders and students waving red and white pom poms, the crowd fell quiet when Vice President Kamala Harris asked for a show of hands: How many had grown up participating in active shooter drills in school?
Most of the students in the 500-seat auditorium at Reading Area Community College raised their hands.
“Here’s the thing: I think older adults don’t understand what you have been through and what that means in terms of the fear that you have to live with,” Harris said during the Tuesday event. “So when I think about our young leaders, they have been through a lot. But… what I love about you is that you’re not waiting for other people to figure it out.”
“You are leading on these issues,’ the vice president added, prompting a loud round of applause. “I’m here to say thank you and to encourage you to keep doing it.”
The need to address gun violence was what seemed to most resonate with the students, who were still talking about the issue after the vice president had left the campus of this Hispanic-serving institution in a Hispanic-majority city located roughly 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Harris is in the midst of a month-long “Fight for Our Freedoms” tour to several colleges across the country. The tour, which kicked off last week with her visits to two historically Black schools, is an opportunity for Harris to talk about issues the Biden administration sees as most pressing for young voters as an election year approaches.
Biden, who is running for a second term, and Harris, have struggled in recent polls to excite young people and voters of color, two of the Democratic Party’s most important groups. Biden, 80, is fighting perceptions among most voters, including Democrats, that he is too old and should not run for reelection. Harris, 58, has been under intense scrutiny, having taken on high-profile tasks, but made little progress on intractable issues such as addressing root causes of migration and protecting voting rights.
The vice president was well-received during Tuesday’s upbeat event, similar to her reception last week at Hampton University in Virginia and North Carolina A&T University. Upcoming visits over the next few weeks are scheduled for schools in Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, most of which have sizable Black and Latino student populations.
Hours before Harris’s arrival, long lines formed outside of the college’s Miller Center for the Arts, while inside the auditorium a DJ played top hits from artists like Bad Bunny, Latto and Beyoncé and Reading High School band and cheerleaders energized the crowd. The cheerleaders closed out with a cheer for Harris: “She got that fever. She got that heat. She’s our VP. You cannot compete,” they chanted.
Before she took the stage, Harris made brief remarks to students in the overflow area outside the auditorium and to a group of student leaders in the center’s lobby. She then talked about a range of issues with actress Annie Gonzalez, who appeared in the Netflix show “Gentefied” and the Hulu film “Flamin’ Hot,’ and took questions from students about such concerns as climate change, reproductive rights and gun safety.
Gabriella Soto, 19, who attended the event, said Harris’s question about active shooter drills particularly resonated with her. She has lost count of the number of drills she did at school while growing up. Now, as a daycare teacher, she has taught young kids to stay quiet in their hiding spots. And as an education major, she expects those drills — and the fear of school shootings — will be part of her future in the classroom.
Soto said it was meaningful for her to hear the vice president acknowledge how present the issue is in young people’s lives, as guns are the number one cause of death among children and teens. It also reminded her of her own conversations with her family about living through school shooting drills.
“I talk to my parents or my grandparents about it and they look at me like I have three heads and I’m like, ‘that’s normal.’ Even now, I work in a school and my kids are not fazed by it. It’s weird to think about it but it just feels like it’s normal to me and that’s not OK,’ Soto said.
Biden, for his part, on Friday will announce the creation of a new office for gun violence prevention amid stalled progress in Congress to pass firearms-related legislation.
Several students, including Soto, marveled over Harris’s decision to come to their community college, calling it a sign of her dedication to them.
“It’s definitely like a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of RACC students,” Soto said as she stood outside the auditorium on the sunny afternoon hoping to get a glimpse of Harris leaving.
Colin Pinkerton, 21, said he felt Harris’s visit sent a positive message to Reading, a city of about 95,000 that is the county seat of Republican-leaning Berks County. Reading’s median household income is $38,738, compared ot the county median household income of $69, 272. It has a poverty rate of nearly 30 percent and was named by U.S. News and World Report as one of the nation’s 10 poorest cities.
“It could just be her trying to get us to vote for her but it kind of shows that she cares about our small community here,” Pinkerton said. ‘It’s a pretty nice gesture to say the least.”
Harris’s visit comes as Democrats work to energize young voters and shore up support among Hispanic voters ahead of the 2024 election. Youth voter participation has reached historic levels in recent election cycles, with a majority backing Democratic candidates. It also comes at the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, a point Reading Mayor Eddie Moran said had a “profound significance” for the community where more than two-thirds of the population is Latino.
But polls suggest Biden and Harris have challenges with some Democratic base voters. Since June, President Biden has averaged 41 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval in polls among 18 to 29 year-olds or 18 to 34 year-olds. Among Hispanics, Biden has averaged 38 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval in recent polls.
A recent CNN poll had Harris with 45 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval among 18 to 34 year-olds. Among Hispanic people, according to the poll, 43 percent approved and 57 percent disapproved. And 77 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said Biden is too old to effectively serve as president for another four-year term, according to a poll released in August by AP/NORC.
Alexander Hitchens, 19, attended Harris’s event feeling unsure about which presidential candidates he likes — and if he’ll even vote. He acknowledged entering the event that he didn’t feel educated on the issues and was skeptical of politicians.
“I’m not on anybody’s side,” Hitchens said, who’s studying criminal justice and called himself an independent.
But he left the event saying: “I think I’m gonna vote.”
He felt that Harris was “very to the people, just gets straight to the point.” Her messaging on the need to combat climate change and address gun violence while keeping people’s right to bear arms, in particular, resonated with him.
“I probably would vote for Biden and Harris. My family probably won’t like it,” he said, laughing and adding that his family supports former president Donald Trump.
Nangelie Zapata, 19, said she hoped Harris’s visit would bring about some momentum for change among youth in Reading and show them they and their city matters.
Zapata, who is studying art, added that she’s eager to vote in 2024 and is trying to sway friends and other students who are less sold on the importance of voting.
“It’s hard to bring an understanding just because there’s such a strange stigma against it. But I think we can always change that,” she said. “It’s just hard for some people to understand why their vote matters but I’m trying to explain it and change their minds.”
Aracelis Carrero, 21, is one of those students who doesn’t know if her vote really matters. She didn’t attend the event but stood outside the auditorium in hopes of catching a glimpse of Harris.
Carrero, who is studying criminal justice, said she registered to vote but she doesn’t know if she will actually do it.
“I’m not a Republican nor a Democrat. … Sometimes, me as a person, I feel like my voice doesn’t matter. So I just keep it to myself,” Carrero said.
Pinkerton, who chatted with Carrero and other students outside the event, chimed in saying he felt just the opposite.
“I feel like voting is the way that you get your voice heard,’ said Pinkerton, who is studying secondary education. “Even though it’s like you’re only one out of however many millions… if everybody thought that their vote didn’t matter, then nobody would vote.”
For Justin Perez, 19, who was inside the event, Harris’s remarks on gun violence stood out the most.
“This is just an issue that hits really close to home,’ Perez said, sporting a red student ID lanyard that said #RACCProud. “Changing that for us is what really would make a difference in our lives because I feel like our whole community feels it.”
Perez, Pinkerton and Carrero debated among their group of friends after the event what gun control would look like but they all agreed it needed to be a bigger focus in Washington. They agreed they would support a ban on assault weapons, more background checks and want more efforts to curb illegal gun sales.
Ahnya O’Riordan, 19, teared up listening to Harris speak. It wasn’t about any one issue the vice president addressed but hearing her offer them advice about being proud of who they are. She recited almost verbatim a closing portion of Harris’s remarks in which she told the students that they’re often going to walk in rooms where they’re the only one that looks like them.
“When you walk in those rooms, you walk in those rooms chin up, shoulders back, knowing that we are all in that room with you and that your voice is the voice of all the people you carry into that room and you make sure your voice is heard,’ Harris said.
“I felt like she actually gave us a voice and wants us to be heard and even gave us some strength,” O’Riordan, who is majoring in forensic psychology, said. “I just love her.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this story.