How Small Town Jersey Girls Sparked a National Debate

Without even being eligible to vote, three 16-year-olds from Montclair, N.J.,  have taken a stand in politics and directly engaged 170,000 people across the country in their cause. Countless more have learned about their particular demand through the media attention and social discourse they’ve stirred up. That’s quite an impact for three youth from a township whose population is just shy of 38,000, according to the 2010 US Census.

Pictured (left to right) are Sammi Siegel, Emma Axelrod and Elena Tsemberis from Montclair, NJ, attempting to deliver boxes of petitions to the Commission on Presidential Debates in Washington, DC, in July. Photo courtesy of

When the teen trio of Elena Tsemberis, Sammi Siegel and Emma Axelrod, all students from Montclair High School, learned that the last woman to moderate a presidential debate was Carole Simpson in 1992, they petitioned to have a female moderator in the upcoming presidential debate season.

“We were all shocked and decided to jump on the opportunity to write a petition,” Siegel said.

Their campaign very quickly became the most popular elections-related campaign that we have on our site.

Tsemberis, Siegel and Axelrod first became interested in activism through a program at their high school known as the Civics and Government Institute (CGI).

“The students are encouraged to be active, they are taught right from the beginning how to write a bill, how to speak in public, how to get their point across, how to take action. And these three have really taken it right to heart and gone gung-ho with it,” said social studies teacher, Shana Stein.

An Earth Day event of the Civics and Government Institute (CGI) at Montclair High School Amphitheater in Montclair, NJ, in April 2012. Photo by Tom Manos.

While the CGI program’s curriculum includes many social movements including workers’ and civil rights, Stein noticed the teens’ interest  in the women’s rights movement right away. “The three of them, especially, were thinking about how women are not represented in positions of power. We started talking about moderating debates and it kind of went from there,” Stein said.

Their fight for women’s rights also comes from example-setting in their families. Axelrod was inspired by her immigrant grandmother. “I found out that in the 70s, [my grandma] was on the front lines protesting for the ERA to be passed” Axelrod said, adding her grandmother was otherwise quite unassuming. “So to know that she got that fired up about feminism makes me realize how important this issue is to be addressed. Seeing the way she felt about that is an inspiration for me every day,” she said.

With guidance from a graduate of the CGI program, the three girls wrote two petitions using the web’s lead social change platform, The petition targets the Commission on Presidential Debates as well as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Republican National Committee (RNC).

Within a week of posting the petition on, it garnered 100,000 signatures. “Their campaign very quickly became the most popular elections-related campaign that we have on our site,” said Michael Jones, deputy campaign director at 

In July, the teens went even further in their attempt to have their voices heard. After numerous requests to arrange a meeting with the Executive Director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Janet Brown, went unanswered, they decided to go to Washington, D.C. anyway. They went to the Commission’s office and brought with them boxes filled with print-outs of petitioner comments and a flash-drive containing all of the petition’s signatures.


On August 2, 2012, Managing Editor Mike Schneider of NJ Today interviewed Elena Tsemberis, Sammi Siegel and Emma Axelrod about their petitions to encourage those with influence to choose a woman moderator for this year’s presidential debates. Video courtesy of NJ Today.

The girls were turned away by security, said Siegel. “They told us they did not accept packages even though in the beginning, they told us they did and they knew that we were coming. They turned us away and refused to accept them,” she said.

Axelrod and Siegel both speculated their age was the main deterrent in being allowed to enter the Commission’s office. “I think that [The Commission on Presidential Debates] didn’t take us seriously because we’re three high school girls,” Axelrod surmised. The high schoolers felt that they were unjustly dismissed because though they are only three people, they are carrying the opinions of 170,000 Americans.

Despite the teens’ first hurdle in D.C., the three plan to continue the campaign with a reinvigorated activist charge. “Not being taken seriously as a girl by the Commission and not be taken seriously as a feminist by my country makes me want to get involved, even more than I did before,” Axelrod explained.

As for their next steps? The girls believe that greater awareness is critical and will make the difference in seeing their goal realized. “It’s all about bringing attention to the issue and letting the political world know that this is something they need to deal with,” Siegel explained.

And the girls don’t only strive to tackle challenging women’s issues on a national level, but feel that there are many community issues in Montclair to address. For these three young women who prize their strong academic foundation, budget cuts in their school are especially unnerving. “This year, especially in Montclair, so many programs and teachers were cut in schools. My town even considered getting rid of an elementary school altogether… I think that education should be one of New Jersey’s top priorities, and that we should not cut so many necessary programs. I would like to see this issue addressed in the upcoming election,” Siegel said.

Both the local and national political arenas can definitely expect some more social activism from this dynamic trio. “I know that they will continue to fight it, I don’t think they are going to stop. I look forward to seeing what will happen next,” Stein said.


MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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