Young people board the Bus Project to change Oregon politics

It's part seminar, part Freedom Summer, part boot camp for political talent. The combination appeals to college students who want to learn social change at the retail level, and it has had an effect on the state.
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All aboard the Bus Project are involved in progressive politics.

It's part seminar, part Freedom Summer, part boot camp for political talent. The combination appeals to college students who want to learn social change at the retail level, and it has had an effect on the state.

You have to like a political-action group that says it fights for "The Six E's, defined as: Education Environment Economic strength Equal rights Election reform 'Ealth Care This is one of the catchy mini-manifestos of Oregon's Bus Project, a not-for-profit dreamed up half a dozen years ago. The combo of good, solid progressive goals and a dash of irreverence pretty much sums up the grassroots activist project, which lures the young and ardent, then buses them out to woo the jaded, discouraged and uninformed among us. Picture poli-sci seminar meets Eagle Scouts, with a bit of Freedom Summer '64 thrown in. This bus runs on the energy of intelligent 20-somethings eager to push progressive people and platforms, and with the stamina to do just that 70 hours a week. A 2006 article in Willamette Week described the Bus Project pedigree this way: "The Bus network is modeled after past state political incubators like X-PAC and Demo Forum. Like its ancestors, the Bus Project is an open-door fraternity-sorority of political junkies bound for bigger things. It shares DNA with both groups: Founders Jefferson Smith and John Wykoff Jr. are sons of Demo Forum alumni, and X-PAC Chair Kari Chisholm served as attending midwife for the Bus Project's birth." The human fuel-sources for the Bus Project are the summer PolitiCorps Fellows, a gang of college-age students (some just graduated, others closing in) who organize bus trips to destinations around Oregon, where they hold voter-registration and informational events, doorbell homes to report on last session's legislative progress, and gather intelligence on what is floating voters' boats these days. Hundreds of applicants are warned in advance that, if chosen, they may not have much time for leisure activities – such as laundry or sleep. By its second year, the Bus Project had a record to point to – four of its five Senate candidates were going to Salem.Then-Gov. Barbara Roberts called the Bus "the most exciting thing in Oregon politics for the last 20 years," a line the group has promised "to quote for about another 20 years." It's kept right on growing. In 2004, 100,000 doorbells were pressed and 6,000 new young voters registered through the Hip Hop Voter Drive, which also plugged local musicians. All five of the BusPAC's candidates for state Senate were elected. A Bus Project got rolling in Washington too, where participants took credit for helping win crucial Democratic seats in the state Senate and help seat Christine Gregoire in the governor's chair. Twenty-three young women and men from all ends of the country make up this year's fellowship, with political experience ranging from manning small-campus voter reg booths to stumping for John Kerry. Founder Jefferson Smith, during a recent interview, described the typical Fellow as a "hotshot with strong political interests; already a leader of some sort." Each Fellow gets a mentor and designs a program of events to execute during the summer. They spend about half of each day in classes and seminars, learning how to run campaigns and events, raise money, take the public's political pulse, and other key skills for the political animal. Among this summer's speakers were Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams and former Gov. John Kitzhaber and others "who actually do the real deal, not just political theorist types," as one Fellow put it. The young people stay in volunteer-family homes and get a $1,000 stipend to cover some of their costs. Most Fellows start out with some notion of heading into public service, but it often happens that the hours of bus time refine her or his goals. Brandon Parker, an articulate 21-year-old political science major heading into his senior year, had been aiming for Foreign Service since high school. "PolitiCorps opened my eyes as to how much is needed on the local level, and in the US as a whole," he said. "I've shifted to a domestic view." He's now looking ahead to a master's program in public affairs. The Bus Project's parallel goals of inspiring future public servants and involving Oregon voters more fully in progressive politics both rely on the idea that once someone puts in a volunteer hour, he or she is much more likely to stay engaged. "We've set a goal to generate 5,000 volunteer engagements between now and 2008," said Smith in a recent interview. "That's 5,000 discrete events â'ꂬ¦ voter-registration, democracy fairs, bus trips â'ꂬ¦ a person might do one, might do three. Six weeks into starting we had about 550 people committing to just over 1,000 engagements." "I think we are at the beginning of a new progressive, well, boomlet, might be the best word," Smith says. "We've had boomlets from the anti-slavery era before the Civil War to Theodore Roosevelt to the New Deal... to the Great Society. In the last 150 years we've had interludes of greater selfishness and greed, then greater community awareness. Now for 25 to 30 years we have had a real era of me. My hope is that people are lifting their heads up from their stock options and orgy of greed, looking at the disparities of wealth." Once upon a time a progressive cause just needed to lobby lawmakers, says Smith, now the same kind of organization must be able to talk to people, move public opinion and push open dialogue. Above all, "we need to have most passionate, the most publicly engaged people trolling for votes, blogging, educating â'ꂬ¦ riding the bus." Sort of like this: "One conversation I will remember, for sure, is the one when I was out in Bend, talking to an 87-year old woman," said PolitiCorps summer fellow Brandon Parker. "She was not registered to vote and we talked for quite awhile." Parker, who is African American, made his case to the elderly white woman. "You've seen the civil rights fight, you were in the thick of it," Parker reminded her. "At least we have the ability to exercise these rights. Imagine if one day you woke up and found out you couldn't vote?" She registered.


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