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Jackie Chen, 16, of Oakland High, looks on as her classmate, Charavult Jesse Sovey, 17, fills out his ballot.

High school students cast ballots at Oakland Youth Vote Forum

on October 25, 2012

In the Castlemont High School library, Da’Janique White, 17, stood with a mic in hand, demanding more energy from her fellow students. “Okay, listen. I don’t like dead crowds. I don’t like people not being participation-ish,” said the Fremont High School senior. “Seriously. So, y’all gotta boost it up for me a little bit, okay?”

As president of the All City Council (ACC), the Oakland student government body, White was charged with getting the young crowd that was gathered there pumped up to vote.

The Oakland Youth Vote Forum 2012 drew nearly 90 high schoolers to East Oakland on Tuesday after school. Hosted by the ACC and other Oakland youth organizations, the event featured Oakland city council and school board candidates in a forum with pre-selected questions asked by students. At the end, students submitted their orange ballots, checking off the names of the people they wanted in office. Though most of the attendees are too young to vote in the general election on November 6, they were excited to see the candidates in person and hear a forum-style argument about issues specific to students.

An array of those issues had already been distilled into questions on a bright pink piece of paper in the hands of the forum’s moderator, 18-year-old Bella Montoya, a recent graduate of MetWest High School. Questions covered drop-out prevention, undocumented youth, sex education and school funding, among other topics. A few candidates urged eligible students to vote for Proposition 30, the tax measure for statewide educational funds, and Measure J, Oakland’s bond measure for school facilities.

Money for schools was on the mind of Castlemont 16-year-old Jamika Baker. She wanted “more support for programs that we actually want to be in,” she said at the registration booth outside the library before the forum. “I want dance back. We couldn’t afford it this year.”

ACC Vice President and Skyline High senior Lynn Christina Melchor helped students sign in outside. At 18, Melchor is eligible to vote this year, and said the confusion surrounding first-time voting is what first drew her to the event. “A lot of people who are 18 are lost, and they don’t know how to vote,” she said. “If they’re iffy and they wait too long, then they’re not going to know the process, and never vote.”

Twelve candidates were invited to attend the forum, based on questionnaires ACC students sent all Oakland city council, school board and city attorney hopefuls. The ACC members reviewed and rated the surveys that were returned by their early October deadline, and candidates receiving ratings of 3 out of 5 or higher were invited to participate.

The city council candidates in attendance were Nyeisha Dewitt, Alex Miller-Cole and Lynette McElhaney, all contestants for District 3; Dan Kalb, one of the seven candidates for the District 1 seat; and Noel Gallo, one of four people running in District 5. School board candidates in attendance included Jody London from District 1 and Mike Hutchinson from District 5.

After a welcoming meet-and-greet featuring finger foods and tables set up by community youth organizations Forward Together, The Spot, and Youth Together, students and candidates moved to the cafeteria to get to work. Candidates were given one minute and 30 seconds to answer questions. With over 100 reported homicides in Oakland last year, violence, gang injunctions and curfews were important topics for students and candidates alike.

Noel Gallo, from District 5, said he believes that curfews and gang injunctions not only can work for Oakland, but are necessary. “There’s no excuse that I can give you why a 16-year-old needs to be out on the street at ten o’clock at night,” he said. “They need to be at home, reading, writing, helping mom cook, something like that.”

The other candidates said no to curfews and gang injunctions, many saying these tactics hadn’t worked in the past. “The data says they don’t work, you guys won’t support it, I hope you don’t vote for it,” said District 3 city council candidate Miller-Cole “The solution is not with the police department. The solution is with neighbors working together.”

Violence and safety were subjects that hit home for 16-year-old Jackie Chen. “You never know what’s going to happen,” she said, recalling a shooting that took place outside Oakland High last year. She said she was disappointed by the relatively small number of candidates present, but still touted the importance of voting. “Even one vote makes a difference, I believe,” she said. “We fight for our right to vote, so we might as well take advantage of it.”

The organizers had hoped a larger turnout of students would take advantage of the opportunity on Tuesday. “It would have been good to know who else was doing this, so we could collaborate,” said OUSD family and community engagement coordinator Raquel Jimenez, adding that Youth Uprising held a similar forum on Saturday. She also noted the length of the forum, about an hour and a half; some students were doodling in notebooks, resting their heads on the cafeteria tables, and checking their phones as candidates spoke. “Next time we have to be more creative about the structure. Something that allows more two-way communication.”

Even though most in attendance were not yet eligible to vote—and attention spans may have wavered—Montoya, forum moderator, said the important thing for students to take away is “knowing who to talk to when they want something changed in their school.”

At the evening’s close, when results were announced back in the library, Nyeisha Dewitt was pronounced winner for city council District 3. Candidates who represented the other races without opponents present came out victorious, securing youth votes simply for showing that they cared by being there.

“It feels awesome to get the endorsement of this crowd,” Dewitt said after the announcement. “As adults, if we do it right, if we trust young people to tell us their solutions, we can have a dialogue that will put them at the forefront. We need more of that.”




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