By Todd Geise
As we forge into fall, it is a great time to reflect on the summer season. Open Buffalo was busy. We reopened our offices to staff in early July while practicing all the precautions we have all become so familiar with because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In mid-July, as we began in earnest to carry out our voting and 2020 Census civic engagement initiatives, we wondered how we would catch up on the time lost. But then, we received great news that the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program and the Buffalo Urban League were placing students for a summer employment opportunity. How could we say no?
On July 21, Open Buffalo welcomed 14 youth workers, aged 16-19. Suddenly, we had a small army to help us spread the word about registering to vote and the critical importance of everyone being counted in the census. The six-week period the cohort was with us was a journey of discovery for everyone involved.
For most youth workers, this was their first paid working experience. Committing to the Monday through Thursday schedule from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. came with some valuable lessons.
So, what exactly did they do?
As Open Buffalo focuses a great deal on training and skill building, we began their program with a deep dive into civics. This is something we know has been minimized at the high school level. Topics that we covered on their first day were branches of government, the constitution, the right to vote, and census law. After all, how could they interact with the public without this knowledge?
On day two, the youth were in the field.
Our field work consisted of two activities: pop-up tabling and canvassing the community. Using up-to-date data from the Census Bureau, we were able to identify neighborhoods with less than 50 percent response rates, with several under 30 percent. Knowing that in many of these neighborhoods, voter registration and participation was historically also lower, we were also able promote voter registration. Our pop-up tabling locations included Broadway-Fillmore, Bailey-Kensington, Jefferson-Utica, Jefferson-Ferry, and MLK Park, to name a few. While some of the youth workers managed the table and clipboards, additional groups canvassed the neighborhoods where tabling was occurring. Dropping literature at doors, on cars, or even with passersby, the teams were spreading the word, and spreading it quickly.
Throughout their time with us, they registered 200 people to exercise their right to vote and ensured that 75 households were counted in the 2020 Census. Ultimately, the teams worked most of the City of Buffalo, distributing more than 4,000 pieces of voter and census literature.
But that is not all. At the mid-point of their time with us, we added two new elements: phone banking and text banking. In collaboration with New York Immigration Coalition, we were able to offer training on software that would facilitate these projects. For three weeks, we had three phone lines set up and two texting systems set up. Ultimately, the youth workers reached out to more than 20,000 potential voters to encourage registration or voting in the New York State Primary, as well as to remind them that they needed to complete their census.
Through an assignment rotation process that ultimately evolved into the youth workers being empowered to select their own assignment for the day, all were trained and experienced a diverse set of skill building activities. It was rewarding to observe their growth as well as receive their appreciation for letting them pick their assignments. Some preferred the field work, others the phones, and still others, assisting with general data entry and office support.
There were some great demonstrations of teamwork throughout this time. On two occasions, Open Buffalo sponsored cookouts. The youth workers were trained and oversaw shopping for supplies, marketing the events, manning the events, and interacting with the public who came by for a hot dog and chips. We held these events at Imperial Market at Bailey and Kensington as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. While the food was the draw, those that needed to be able to register to vote or complete their census were welcomed to do so.
While we are, of course, thrilled with the results of all their efforts, we are especially touched by what one youth described as an outstanding experience. Her full testimonial follows:
“Hello, my name is Teah Stevens. My Internship at Open Buffalo was outstanding, because I had fun working with other youth. I have learned that it is very important to vote because your vote is your power. With each vote, your decision can be joined with others in the country and it can make a huge difference. Also, I learned that the 2020 Census is important because it will determine your community’s funding for the next decade.
“Recently I learned that Buffalo has had only an 49.9% self-response rate in 2020 Census, and New York State has a 58.3% self-response rate. The statistics overall are very poor, and I feel as a community we can all do better.
“Getting to work with the other youth was amazing and very interesting. I have made friendships I did not expect to have with my fellow workers. When I started my internship, it was very strange. I did not know anyone or anything at all, but through the process I have realized that I would like to help my community more. So, working here became amusing. Additionally, working with Open Buffalo’s staff was miraculous, especially being able to see what they really work on and being around them and their wonderful personalities. I am grateful for the experience I had!”
So, from all of us at Open Buffalo, we express our gratitude for the hard work by all the summer youth workers. We hope that their journey from expanding their knowledge about civics to working directly with the public on such important issues will be remembered by them as they prepare to enter adulthood. We wish them the very best of luck moving forward.