Politics with a Youthful Twist: Working for the Washington Bus

Monday, June 27, 2011

I am a young voter - there, I've admitted it. I'm on par with the unicorn in my rarity and have only been voting for nary 2 years now. However, I have worked on campaigns before. In my high school days, I registered people to vote when I was not yet allowed to touch a ballot. I cheered on President Obama's election without being able to send in my vote. And, I must admit, I became a little bit worn out.

I distanced myself from politics when I moved to NYC - there were so many more interesting things to do with my first year at college than canvassing for change, right? I also found myself in a new place, so I had no clue what the important issues were for that area. Instead, I took national and global politics as my weathervanes to gauge the state of politics and left local work behind.

I am happy this summer to return to my local roots in Washington. I have had the great fortune to be chosen as a Summer Fellow at the Washington Bus, a youth-oriented movement that wants to bring young voters out of their unicorn status and get their voices heard when the ballots drop. They have reconnected me to the local Washington landscape in a way that has surprised me: they have forced (if the word 'force' can be taken as a gentle shove) me to go to events like Seattle Pride and have taught me all about local politics. Today's post is about my first week and experiences with the Washington Bus, and what it feels like to get back into the political game.

Are you a youth voter? Let me know what you think about politics in the comments! And if you're not a youth, what are your views on youth voters/the youth population in general? Let me know!

First, a word on local politics. Local politics may seem like the most boring part of the whole system - who wants to focus on city council elections when Obama is up for re-election, right? - but that is often the part that the Washington Bus focuses on. And, in fact, I think that is probably the healthiest option. While presidential elections roll around only every four years (and often affect very broad sweeping national decisions), city and local politics are generally every year and affect very specific and pertinent issues. But, of course, the excitement isn't there. The thrill of getting someone as important as the U.S. President elected cannot be matched by any local race - or so you'd think.

The Washington Bus has really brought some energy back into local politics for me. In their eyes, and now in my own, the view is that local politics is the most easily controllable type and it can be changed with just a few more voices speaking up from their neck of the woods. For youth voters, this can be where they effect the most change with just their single vote. As a young woman of color myself (a group that has, unfortunately, a very low voter turn-out), I really like feeling the sense of agency I get from working on local races and being cognizant of changes that may happen in my neighborhood. The Bus has taught me that I don't have to just descend into frustration when faced with the structures of power set up in our country.

And how, you might ask, do they do this? The answer is one part obvious and two parts unexpected.

The first, and probably most obvious, part is that they get us out there canvassing. They have us put on bright happy faces and descend upon mass gatherings like Pride to encourage people that voting is awesome. And that involvement in itself is empowering - you're making change with pieces of paper and your winning personality.

The other two parts are relentless positivity and education on how to meet people where they are. These are two of the "code word" Bus terms; at first, I didn't know what they were talking about, but even after this first week, I feel that they are drilled into my head. Of them, the first definitely depends on your personality, but can be honed over time. Relentless positivity manifests itself in understanding the structures of power are malleable and can be affected with a little participation. The second, education, is about finding ways to get people to enact that little bit of participation - for instance, using social media and VoteBots at major events rather than cold-calling random voters and hoping they are nice to you.

No one probably wants to be harassed, but young voters often escape even the base harassment unless they are somehow coded into the system (e.g. they have a home phone, a permanent address, etc.). In some ways, our job is to remind people who are never even asked to participate that they have a voice. And that's an amazing job. And I am so lucky that I get to do it with amazing people.

So, you can take away from this post two things. First: vote. Second: encourage and empower youth to do the same. Lamenting that youth are not participating in government and then not giving them the tools to participate are never going to get anyone anywhere. We'd rather shed our unicorn horns and become part of the mainstream voting population.

Check out some more of my thoughts on political participation and several rallies/demonstrations I've been to.