02-19-2017  1:18 pm      •     

It can be hard in today's world to be heard when you've got something to say. And when you're a person of color in Oregon, it can be even harder — despite recent U.S. Census Bureau information showing that Oregon is growing more diverse, it's still among the Whitest states in the Union.
So if you're an African American in Oregon, and you don't cast a vote when election time rolls around, you might as well give up on having anyone hear what you've got to say.
But thanks to a new effort by the Community Fellows Program, more Black Oregonians will be able to have their say at the ballot box. The organization — formed by members of the Oregon Bus Project, Teen Summit: The Next Generation of Leaders, the Youth Empowerment Institute and others — is aiming to register 1,000 new African American voters in the Portland area by the Oct. 17 registration deadline.
"Basically, we're trying to get the community engaged in the political process," said Karanja Crews, director of Teen Summit: The Next Generation of Leaders, a group that encourages leadership and initiative among young people.
Eight youth from Crews' organization have been hired part time to meet the Community Fellows Program's voter registration goals. The teens are targeting community events and so far have had a fair amount of success. To date, the project has registered more than 200 new voters, Crews said.
"The Bus Project is training our kids how to register people to vote, and then we're just on the ground, street-teaming," Crews said.
Crews estimates that roughly 80 percent of Oregon's African Americans are not engaged politically. At only 6 percent of the statewide population, that means that very little Black input is being heard at the polls.
"The people who organized this effort were confronted with an urgent situation — not enough African Americans were registered to vote," said Cyreena Boston, constituency director for the state Democratic Party, who helped conceive and create the Community Fellows Program.
"And not only are not enough African Americans registered to vote, those who are don't choose to mail in their ballots as much as voters from other constituencies," she added.
While Boston is affiliated with the Democrats, the Community Fellows Program is officially a nonpartisan effort; anyone the program registers to vote is allowed to choose any political party or none.
In addition to the grass-roots, get-out-the-vote effort on the part of Crews' teens, Boston said that the project's next effort will be to organize a large-scale, get-out-the vote gospel concert, where attendees — especially African Americans — can register to vote on the spot.
Boston said that efforts like the Community Fellows Program are long overdue.
"Political parties — especially the Democratic Party — have failed African Americans for a long time by taking them for granted," she said. "What the party is interested in doing now … is finding much more competent ways to inspire African American voters and help them to remain in the party as engaged constituents.
"The party is in the process of, not necessarily changing its face, but making sure that it's reflecting the faces of its members and that it's being credible to the communities it represents," Boston added.
Boston said that the Community Fellows Program marks the first time in American political history that young people have been employed directly in this kind of civic project. If it proves to be an ongoing success, she said, she will try to see it replicated in other cities and states.
She added that participating in the project is exciting not only because it is bringing more people into the electorate, but also because it is giving its young employees a glimpse into the world of political activism and organizing.
"The part of the program that is most exciting for me," Boston said, "is not only do we have these young leaders who are being employed to really help sustain and enrich their community, they're also getting hands-on training about the election system, how to register voters and public policy training."
As the program goes forward, Boston said she wants to use it to reach out to church congregations, whose members are often involved in the community in a charitable sense, but don't vote as often as one might think.
"We want to reach out to African American communities of faith," she said, "and ask religious leaders to participate in this program, to encourage their parishioners to be civically engaged.
So far, she said, the project is well on pace to meet its 1,000-voter goal. But, she added, the payoff will be more than just getting more people to the polls.
"What this will do is show people that young people are aware, they are engaged politically," she said.
"These are the next generation of leaders."

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