Aimee Riley is going over the finer points of registering voters at grocery stores—some put the information up front, others way in the back with the dairy where it’s hard to find—when she stops, sniffs the crisp air on this winter afternoon outside a Starbucks and swivels her head. “Cigarette smoke,” she says with a smile, always a smile, that doesn’t quite conceal her disgust. “I just wanted to see where it was coming from.”
Smoking is a professional interest for Riley, 32, a community educator for the American Lung Association. That’s in addition to her three other jobs: full-time communications major working to maintain a 4.0 GPA at the College of Southern Nevada, activist on voting rights and education issues, and mother of two.
Hers is the classic post-boom Las Vegas story, with a twist: She moved here from the Bay Area in 2004 to be closer to her son, who lived with her ex-husband. Despite only holding a high school diploma, she landed a job as an administrator at a surveying company, complete with a corner office, a company car and a nice salary. She reaped the benefits of an economy on fire, but distanced herself from the life of her adopted city. “I hated it out here passionately,” she recalls.
In 2009 she was laid off, but that’s when things actually started looking up. A friend talked Riley into taking classes at CSN, and a political science course opened her eyes to the possibilities here. She was elected president of the CSN student government and, as the chair of the Nevada Student Alliance, is the first woman to represent student government statewide. She volunteered with the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the NAACP and other groups, transforming herself from someone who didn’t know the names of her elected representatives two years ago to someone who has pressed the flesh and rallied students in Carson City to fight tuition increases. She’s conferred with Sen. Harry Reid and met President Obama.
Riley will graduate from CSN in the spring. Then it’s on to UNLV for a bachelor’s degree, probably in political science. From there, she’s got her eye on elected office, or maybe Dan Klaich’s job; he’s the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Her smile doesn’t quite conceal her sense of urgency.
“I want to make a change in Nevada,” she says. “I’m more comfortable in small groups, but we don’t have time for one-on-one communication. We need to make massive policy changes. We can’t mess around.”