Perry Graham sits at a small table at Espresso Roma at the edge of the UO campus with his brown dreadlocks pulled back into a frizzy ponytail. The 23-year-old scribbles in his notebook as he sips coffee out of a clear mug — all pretty normal for a college student on a gray fall afternoon.
You could say that Graham is just another young hippie wannabe who probably thinks peace and freedom are achieved by smoking a lot of pot. What more could he be doing with his life? He’s only 23; he doesn’t care about politics or the community. He’s too young.
But if you thought all of that, you’d be terribly wrong. Don’t be so quick to judge this 23-year-old. He isn’t disinterested or uninvolved. Graham is one of the few young people in Eugene who is set on improving the community through his involvement with the Occupy movement. He was the brains behind the Occupy Eugene’s Expression Center, and was arrested at the Nov. 17 bank protest.
But, come on, what can a naïve 20-something really do?
“Don’t forget 2008 and the strong youth involvement that elected Obama,” UO graduate student Graham says.
Historically, younger generations paved the way for change through protests such as those in the ‘60s and ’70s. So it really doesn’t matter if you are 18 — young people can make a difference.
Today it seems like the majority of young people have forgotten. Eugene’s younger generations don’t think they can make a difference, at least when they are so inexperienced. They are not involved in politics or civic engagement and are deemed “apathetic” by older generations because they really aren’t interested in the issues of contemporary politics or they are unaware of them and do not think they have the ability to influence political change or better the community — and those who are involved only stay for a while. But there are some exceptions.
What’s with all the apathy?
So, why aren’t more young people involved in civic engagement in Eugene? Most adults would say it’s because the youth don’t care and have a general disregard or lack of respect for the community.
According to statistics from Young Democrats of America (YDA), Generation Y rivals the Baby Boomers in size and by 2015 will make up one-third of the electorate. In 2006, voters aged 18-29 made up 21 percent of the electorate, with 39 percent identifying themselves as non-white, according to YDA.
In general, young people are not actively involved in politics or even in community improvement efforts because, as Graham says, they just don’t see how it applies to them. Graham adds that he thinks the apathy stems from people being indifferent to activism because it is so common in Eugene. “They think ‘Oh, it’s just another group of protesters’ and walk away.”
UO post-graduate student and recently elected Interfraternity Council President Jeff Rodgers says one reason young people, particularly college students, may engage in civic efforts for only a brief time is because they come to school to get their diploma, and some are paying a lot of money to do it. “They are just here to get what they paid for,” he explains.
But The Bus Project Executive Director Caitlin Baggot knows that young people can make a difference. Baggot started out as a volunteer at the Bus in 2002 when she was 24. The Bus Project, which is based in Portland, is a statewide organization that aims to engage young people in a larger set of issues — from recruiting voters to turning good ideas into laws.
Thirty-eight-year-old Portland mayoral candidate and current state representative Jefferson Smith founded the Bus Project to promote youth involvement and provide a platform to disseminate the voices and beliefs of young Oregonians. The Bus Project was launched to fame when it came out with shirts during the 2008 elections that read “VOTE, F*CKER.” This declaration was a response to a shirt marketed by the popular clothing store Urban Outfitters that read “Voting Is For Old People.”
To Baggot, the notion that young people are apathetic is totally untrue. “Old people always think young people are lazy,” she says. “The argument that young people are apathetic is a cover to systematically disenfranchise them.”
And sometimes it’s simply that the youth don’t know how to get involved, Baggot says, noting a recent national study that found the reason most 18- to 25-year-olds aren’t involved or don’t show up to vote at the polls is because they don’t know how, when or where.
At the Bus, volunteers strive to empower youth, educating them about current issues and learning about what really matters to them. In one day of volunteering, a group of 80 canvassers knocks on upward of 400 doors, promoting progressivism in Oregon and for the nation as a whole.
Baggot has seen firsthand how passionate youth can be, as well as the kind of difference one young person can make. “One of the most heartening things,” Baggot says, “is seeing high school students who can’t yet vote themselves but can get other people to register. They can’t cast their one vote but they know they are personally responsible for 600 votes, and they are so proud.”
Why are the youngsters in Portland so much more involved? Is it something in the water? The Portland youth may be such a foil to Eugene youth in terms of civic involvement, Baggot says, because of outreach within the Portland community.
At the Bus, Baggot and her peers work to give young people the tools to make a difference. “In the current partisan environment, I think young people are really hungry for a place they think the conversation is alternative,” she explains.
Youth In Action
Yet some young movers and shakers, like Graham, are making a difference in their communities, proving that young people can make a difference and set an example for their indifferent peers.
Though Graham has been committed to civic engagement since he was a child living in Washington, D.C., and volunteering for the Invisible Children organization, he didn’t find his true passion until the Occupy movement came to Eugene. The conflict resolution and dispute management masters candidate created his thesis project in the fall. Graham’s thesis focuses on the structure of the Occupy movement and the communication and conflict management within Occupy sites.
Graham says he hopes to find out what works so that future protests can be more successful. The bright-eyed, dreadlocked optimist plans to continue researching the structure and management in Occupy sites nationwide, in an effort to find out what techniques work best for future protest movements and peacekeeping efforts. He says one reason the youth who are involved may leave Eugene is restlessness — at least that’s one of his main reasons, aside from planning to study other Occupy sites across the nation. But Graham says most likely he’ll stay involved in community efforts because of how rewarding it is. “I feel more alive doing this type of work — I shouldn’t even call it that,” he says. “My life is richer because of it.”
At age 24, Creswell City Councilor A.J. O’Connell is a prime example of a young person succeeding at making a difference in his community. O’Connell, who was elected last year, says it is so crucial for youth to be involved in their communities because “the future is them.” Young people, who he defines as people aged 30 and below, can bring a new perspective to governing.
In less than a year in office, O’Connell has spearheaded efforts to make Creswell an anti-hate community, to honor a fallen police officer on the 40th anniversary of his death, and to re-route the TransAmerica bike trail through Creswell in an effort to stimulate the economy and create jobs. He has also been on the forefront of creating a sister-city relationship with another community.
But O’Connell says his biggest accomplishment is altering the political dialogue in his community. “It’s not just a good ol’ boys network,” O’Connell says. “The people will be heard and we (elected officials) act as a vehicle for the people.”
O’Connell frequently challenges Creswell’s local government, creating controversy in the community. He says his primary mission is to serve as an advocate for community members, though he is often shut down and says he feels silenced in council meetings.
At the Dec. 11 meeting, O’Connell presented his ideas for the TransAmerica Bike Re-Route and a winter coat donation program, with the goals of stimulating the local economy and improving conditions for the poor. The City Council voted against both proposals and, as O’Connell writes on his website, “they and the mayor failed to present valid arguments against their passage. It was clearly obvious that the mayor had orchestrated a dissenting vote in advance of the meeting simply because I was the one presenting this.”
O’Connell says the mayor and city manager placed their own political gain before the interests of community members, alleging they blackmailed potential supporters of the project by threatening to pull their city funding if they supported the measures. O’Connell says that less than half an hour after the council’s vote, the mayor proposed that the city manager get an increase in salary.
“I will not rest nor will I ever quit in the face of this daunting challenge,” O’Connell wrote. “The people of Creswell need to know that I will always be their advocate and that I will never back down in the face of bullying and intimidation.”
Holden Center Service Learning Program Coordinator Leisha McParland came to the UO to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international development, and she’s stayed in Eugene specifically to foster what she considers a wonderfully unique community. At the Holden Center, McParland and her peers aim to create a bridge between nonprofit volunteer organizations and willing volunteers — they want students (or community members) to be able to fulfill their most elaborate desires.
Rodgers, a student staff member at the Holden Center, is working on a petition to get the Chinese government and the university to bring potable water to impoverished areas of China. He credits such involvement to his drive for leadership and to tackle something bigger than his own self-interests.
On an Alternative Break program through the Holden Center, Rodgers went to the Dominican Republic, where he says he was finally able to do something significant. He volunteered as a dental assistant and worked with a team to provide routine dental care, including reconstructive surgeries, for inhabitants of a rural village. Rodgers says he realized his ability to make a difference when he saw a girl, emerging from hours of oral surgery, smile for the first time.
Why youth should care
“I think that youth just need to realize that they have the most at stake since they have the most time left to live on this planet,” Graham says. “And the current ways that we are handling business is not painting us a pretty picture for the future.”
But this means more than just realizing that young people have the most at stake, Rodgers says — it’s an obligation to humanity to be involved in the community and improve our nation for future generations, whether through environmental activism, human welfare or political action.
After a week of being sick, Graham visited the Occupy Eugene site in order to check on the progress of the Expression Center he’d envisioned. As he looked at the walls made from an old Taco Time building, the 23-year-old says he felt as though the universe was responding to him. The first real structure of this Occupy site was taking shape, creating a space for Occupiers to make signs and adding to Graham’s vision of the movement gaining permanence. In that moment, Graham realized that something extraordinary had occurred — he’d made a difference. “It’s not just signs,” he says. “It’s art. It’s a platform where people can express themselves.”
McParland says she is most inspired when she sees so many volunteers working on something together — and especially when they pass on the itch to friends who have never been involved in such volunteer efforts. “There’s just something so inspiring about seeing people get out and do something in a communal effort — to see one person do something that is totally selfless.”
How to make youth care
Graham says the best way to inspire civic engagement is for youth to find what they are most passionate about — the environment, politics, animal rights, human rights.
McParland says the source of that passion is discovered through exposure to new things. She encourages eager young volunteers to try their hands at various projects, even pulling weeds in community gardens. “I like to tell volunteers who just came from pulling weeds that it may be something small — just one drop in the bucket. But it’s a drop in a big bucket of a larger picture.”
Perhaps it’s not the youth who are to blame; maybe it’s the politicians and major activist organizations that exhibit apathy toward young people. Baggot says it could be a lack of outreach from existing organizations. She says there are two critical ways of promoting civic involvement among youth: ensuring that they know their efforts matter, and making civic engagement fun and exciting.
At the Bus, Baggot and her peers use social media and tie-ins to contemporary subjects of importance to promote youth activism. O’Connell also harnesses the power of the internet, using social networking sites to spread his political concerns during elections and campaigning. And while in office, he reaches out to his constituents by posting updates on Facebook about his proposed measures and government doings.
For Rodgers, the key to engaging youth is providing them with positive role models. It starts in the classroom, showing children through mentorship that they can make a difference and that community involvement is valuable. And sometimes, finding out that what you are passionate about doesn’t have a thing to do with politics.
Rodgers admits that he is among the majority of students who don’t even know who Congressman Peter DeFazio is, but he’s okay with that. He says this sort of disconnect could be remedied by politicians making more of an effort to get out and actually talk to their constituents. Rodgers acknowledges that our digital age has made it all too easy to lose this personal touch, though he adds that showing youth they have a stake and a voice in government can reduce the amount of apathy in the community. “It’s important for (politicians) to be role models,” he says.
McParland agrees, adding that it’s important to highlight the achievements of young people who already are doing great things and making a difference. She says that by showing other community members — old and young — what young people are doing, people will become inspired and possibly even catch the “contagious” desire to volunteer.
Ways to get involved
“I’ve got news for people,” O’Connell says, “there are a lot of people out there that are just like me and of similar age to myself.” He adds that what people need are the right conditions “to get out there and do something.”
Getting involved with a political campaign or with a volunteer organization is easier than most people think. McParland says the Holden Center welcomes volunteers of all ages, regardless of their student status. The Holden Center’s Service Learning Program pairs volunteers with various nonprofit organizations in Lane County, such as FOOD For Lane County and Womenspace.
Furthermore, other volunteer-based organizations such as Greenhill Humane Society and NextStep Recycling are always searching for volunteers to help improve the community. And as the next election cycle gets underway, local politicians such as DeFazio offer volunteer opportunities and internships for students to work on their campaigns.
O’Connell encourages young people to go to City Council meetings and address the issues that concern them. “You really can make a difference, especially at the local government level because the leaders are so accessible,” he says. “Find the topics you are passionate about and pursue them.”
Though The Bus Project had to close its Eugene office due to a lack of steady volunteerism and minimal funding, Baggot says she would love to see another “Bus station” open in Eugene. The statewide program is open to people from all areas, and interested Eugeneans should email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how they can ride the Bus and do something on a larger scale.
“Young people in Eugene have so much to offer Oregon,” Baggot says. “There is a way of thinking about the world that makes Eugene special. ... Eugene has leadership, support, energy that can make anything happen.”