“Grab ahold of your privilege and take to the streets!”
A report from the City Club of Portland’s Action Summit, June 1, 2012
By McKenzie Ingram, NWHF Intern, Spring 2012
“The greatest threat to constitutional government is a lack of civil discourse.”
So said one member of Lincoln High School’s “We The People” team at the Youth Action Summit on June 1. Little did he know that with this statement, he was creating a theme for a day filled with impassioned youth, community leaders, and policy makers ready to engage Portland’s younger generation in our community’s civic life.
As soon as the clock struck 9:00 am groups of students flowed through the door, buzzing around, finding friends and settling into Portland State’s Smith Memorial Union ballroom. The audience was almost equally young people interested in civics and adults just as interested in engaging the youth in such an important topic.
Fresh off their 2012 national championship victory, Lincoln High School’s “We The People” team hosted a discussion about the importance of civic education and civic participation for Portland’s young people. The panel, a handful of Lincoln’s brightest students, spoke about the current state of civics, and the challenges we face as citizens. Audience members asked questions, and could do so via Twitter, which was then projected onto a screen on the stage.
“The best way to ensure that Portland is a worse place in 10-20 years is to not invest in education,” one We The People team member said.
Included at the event were Mayor Sam Adams, Portland Schools Superintendent Carole Smith and newly elected City Councillor Steve Novick. Leaders were asked to participate in a “policy charette,” where people could talk directly with their policy makers. Artistic drawings were used to illustrate Portland now and in the future. Each table’s drawings and conversation was different, representing the vast cultural, ethnic, generational and socio-economic diversity in the room.
There were calls for “more parks” and”more adults who listen to youth”. I heard people speak about what they truly believed the spirit of Portland entailed, and how our public policy should reflect and protect it.
Secretary of State Kate Brown hosted a conversation with the youth, listening intently as they told her what issues they were interested in, and how she could relate more to their generation. The Bus Project had a strong presence throughout the day. They emphasized the importance of having a political voice, and helping to register those who had not previously been registered to vote.
The most exciting and invigorating part of the day was when three of Portland’s most influential and engaged Portland youth presented their stories, and what civic engagement meant to them. Audrianna Rodriguez, talked about how civic engagement meant evolving from an introverted student into a youth leader, and it was clear that her efforts have led to a transformation within herself. The second speaker, Zahara Muhammed, was a ball of energy, much wiser than her age showed. She spoke about the importance of voting, voice, involvement, and she has a very bright future.
With respect to all the presenters, the Summit’s third “youth” speaker was the highlight of the entire day for me. Aukeem Ballard, a masters student at Lewis and Clark, student teacher at Lane Middle School in Portland and participant in MLK Day of Service award, spoke with so much charisma that I wanted him to run for president. He spoke in depth about his mother, about chasing away thugs in order for his siblings to grow up in a safe environment. He spoke about how civics means you need to know your community, and actively participate in it. To conclude his speech, he recited a “poetry slam” whch created a standing ovation that lasted for minutes.
His call for action seemed to change the atmosphere and renew the audience’s passion for the state of civics in Portland.
“We are not asking for a protest, we are asking for a riot. You can’t expect the world to change when you can’t break a dollar. You have to roll up your sleeves, grab ahold of your privilege and take to the streets. There’s a reason we have soles on the bottoms of our feet.
And we will use education to our advantage. Produce mass weapons of instruction. Fire similes like shotguns. Point the sentence at your temple, take the trigger and squeeze. Because this is the smoke barrelling out. This piece.”
Although the day concluded with various helpful training sessions, the vision for the day resonated most strongly with Ballard’s speech. His voice and unwavering commitment to civics and ethics seemed to speak to everyone.
Ballard’s voice is one that our community should be proud to have, and as a city, we should do everything in our power to provide our youth with every opportunity to be as bold as he is.
Northwest Health Foundation is proud to have been a financial supporter of the Youth Action Summit, as the development of young leaders is critical to both health and philanthropy.
McKenzie Ingram has been an intern with Northwest Health Foundation for the spring of 2012. She will soon graduate with a BA from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications.