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Building an Army on Wheels

The Oregon Bus Project is the free-wheeling, grassroots-shaking, democracy-flouting, politically-charged answer to what a small group of progressive activists saw as a crisis in their state.
 
 
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What started out as bar talk ended up becoming an organization with 4,000 volunteers.

As legend has it, five people sat at the Rogue Brewery in Portland, Oregon on an evening in 2001, trying to devise a plan to save their state. Drinks were had and ideas were proposed. They could start meeting every Wednesday night to watch the "West Wing...." nah, that would too passive. They could take over the Democratic Party... hmm, no, taking over a party is too risky. They could get a bus and start trekking across the state supporting progressive candidates... but buying a bus is too… too… wait a minute. They could get a bus.

The Oregon Bus Project is the free-wheeling, grassroots-shaking, democracy-flouting, politically-charged answer to what a small group of progressive activists saw as a crisis in their state. Among other problems, the state legislature had been dominated by right-wing conservatives for nearly a decade, rural and urban Oregon could not identify with each other, and important issues were batted back in forth among legislators -- a tennis-match of will that saw no winners. The group identified a need to bridge this urban/rural divide, engage young people in the political process, and create a grassroots progressive movement to take their state back.

To do this, they would buy a bus.

"Oregon's a big state," explains Caitlin Baggott, longtime Bus Project volunteer and founder and editor of the project's magazine, The Zephyr. "Especially for people in Portland, we just don't know what people are thinking outside the valley. So the conversation turned to, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could just take a busload of us over there to talk to them to figure out what's happening?' And then someone said, 'Maybe we could. Maybe we could get a bus.'"

If You Dream It, It Will Happen

Although Jefferson Smith, the initiator of the bus project, had originally approached other friends and even the governor to take the lead, he finally realized that he and a group of young activists would have to start the project. The plan was to get young people on the bus once it was purchased, drive them to campaigns across Oregon, and canvass for progressive candidates who needed help.

The group "begged and borrowed" money, spreading the news about the Oregon Bus Project by word of mouth and asking friends to donate as little as $5. Around 20 people involved with the project began meeting at the "Smith Compound," where they broke into groups and hashed out ideas for the project.

Finally in 2002, after much planning and fundraising, they had a kickoff ceremony, where Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon tried twice to break a champagne bottle against the newly acquired 1978 charter bus. The second time, he dented the metal, the bottle bouncing off the bus like a kickball on pavement. He eventually grasped the bottle and shattered the glass on a lug nut -- a tense but triumphant launch of the Oregon Bus Project.

oregon bus project

Nice Idea, Kids

After their champagne bottle kick-off, the Oregon Bus Project quickly got rolling on their mission to support progressive candidates -- much to the surprise of politicians.

"A well-known politician said to us, 'That's a nice idea kids. I'd love it if you could bring out 10 volunteers to work on my campaign. That would be huge,'" Baggott relates. "On our very first trip, we brought out 150 volunteers. It's not that people didn't support us. They were genuinely excited about the idea of us brining out 10 volunteers to help. So when we were able to bring out 10 times that many, I think it really startled people."

People quit their jobs to work on the Bus Project. In the beginning, they volunteered 60 to 80 hours a week, stealing time from sleep in the middle of the night. According to Baggot, "There were 20 or 30 of us committed at that level. It became a driving passion for us. It quickly took over our lives."

By the end of 2002, the Oregon Bus Project had engaged 4,000 people as volunteers and supporters, knocked on 70,000 doors, and helped get seven progressive candidates elected. Nice idea, kids.

But the project was seen as just that -- a project to complete -- and at the end of 2002, everyone expected to go back to work. Only, they couldn't let go of what they'd spent months building, couldn't see themselves returning to work, in some cases, for Red Bull or for corporate lawyers representing tobacco companies. They began to redefine their purpose, deciding that they wanted to do more than focus on candidates. They wanted to enrich people's understanding of the political process. The organization's motto, "Educate. Engage. Elect," began to take on new meaning.

"We were advised over and over and over again not to get too complicated," says Baggott. "Everybody said, 'Just do the bus project.' But we really resisted that message. We resisted the tried and true business model of, 'Do one thing, and do it well.' We want to do everything and do it well."

To the Oregon Bus Project, doing everything means: creating a quarterly online magazine of political commentary and analysis called The Zephyr; holding an "Engage Oregon" conference; starting Third Thursdays, a forum that combines cocktails and conversation about pressing issues; and throwing one crazy kick-off event called RISE, to be held May 22, complete with two bands, a deejay, a fashion show, and a political poster contest in the "revolutionary fashion."

Who said politics couldn't be, well, anything the Oregon Bus Project wants it to be?

This Ain't Your Momma's Volunteer Society

oregon bus projectToday, the Oregon Bus Project simply wants to reorganize government, enhance civic engagement, create a re-birth of the Progressive Era, and make the whole damn world a better place. Is that so much to ask?

For those still floundering, the project has already laid the groundwork, organizing around what they call the "Six E's": education, environment, equal rights, economic fairness, election reform, and 'ealth care. The project organizes events and designs media programs to raise awareness on political issues, teaches leadership skills to volunteers, links organizations and leaders who support progressive ideals, and has a savvy website that allows visitors to plug into their Engage Oregon network.

All the rest of us have to do is get on the bus.

The bus seats 47 people. It's a party on wheels, a moving classroom, a campaign strategy of steel. On the side of the bus is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: "A great democracy needs to be progressive or it will soon cease to be either great or a democracy." People honk and wave when they see it drive by.

"It's ridiculously fun," Baggott laughs. "It isn't a time to fall asleep with your head against the window. We all remember those field trips."

They have a bullhorn. They tell jokes. There is witty political banter. They do not sing Kumbaya.

"We have elected officials on the bus to interact with," says Smith. "As a result, we keep a promise to young people that even though they can't afford a $1,000-a-plate dinner, they can have a chance to talk with elected officials about what's important to them."

Nice plug, but how do they actually get a busload of young people, drive them to a campaign event, and have them knocking on doors for free? Simple: They don't let people forget about them.

"It is a huge amount of work," explains Baggott. "The week before a bus trip, volunteers are calling people multiple times. We have volunteers say, 'Isn't this harassment? Is it okay to call people this much?' The over-all feeling is that the situation is so dire, that it is just fine to call people this much. And receiving a phone call is the least someone can do."

If Voting is Cool, Call Me Miles Davis

oregon bus projectWhen Urban Outfitters introduced a T-shirt that read, "Voting is for old people," the Oregon Bus Project was among the groups to protest. Not only have they been disproving this manufactured youth apathy on a daily basis, they've created their own screen printed message on a T-shirt: "Vote F*ckers."

"It's true that our T-shirt is absurd and inappropriate, but there's nothing more absurd than not being engaged in the political process," points out Smith. The T-shirt speaks, in the most blatant of ways, of the importance of youth engaging in the political process.

"There's been a depolitization of our society," he says. "That's a problem because the people with all the power and control are making decisions on their own behalf because the rest of us aren't paying attention."

The Oregon Bus Project decided that they needed to wake people up to the politics happening around them. "Where is the next generation of leaders going to come from?" asks Smith. "Well, they're alive right now, and if we give them the tools, relationships and set of values to lead, they will be able to when the time comes. It's important for young people because they're going to be alive when it really matters. Everyone is saying, 'Get Bush out of office.' But the world is not going to be won or lost, fixed or broken, at the end of the 2004 election. It's going to take 20 years to do this work. So who better than the 20-somethings and the 30-somethings to lead the way when they have already been talking about this for a very long time?"

The organization uses a unique strategy, called "reverse coattails," to mobilize their communities. In other words, they're keeping it local.

"If you go door-to-door for John Kerry, most people you will talk to will have already formed an opinion about that person before you get to their door," explains Smith. "If you go to the door to talk about a state legislator, what you say to that person might be their only encounter with an opinion of that person. Political participation at the local level is very important. If you can get people voting in local elections, it's very likely that they'll vote up the ticket."

While young people may not be able to fork over a large campaign contribution, the Oregon Bus Project shows that what they can donate is time. "We're not trying to build a war chest, we're trying to build an army," says Smith.

But building an army is no small task, especially when you're recruiting only volunteers.

"I'd say the most difficult struggle is, how do you organize and collect the resources to help do the work?" says Smith. "Whenever you're organizing young people, the same tools that you use to organize other organizations don't apply. Your membership base is people who have just graduated and people who are starting new jobs and starting new families. They are a very poor, imperfect donor base. And when you're working on a volunteer basis, each of us is spread out very thin."

If the Oregon Bus Project gets the financial support they need, Smith sees the organization enduring. Currently, Smith is working to create a bus project in Washington State.

"If this ends tomorrow, I will feel good about what we've done," says Smith. "But we'd like to get to the point where we're a sustainable organization. I hope our ideas get copied. I hope this becomes a legend, and that we will continue to motivate youth to have an impact on their communities and the world."

But Baggott has different plans for the organization.

"We should become a nationally syndicated grassroots project that everyone turns to for their social life. We want to be just like the Elks Club, only no funny hats, and we don't want to be 60."

For more information on the Oregon Bus Project, check out www.busproject.org.

Megan Tady is a 24-year-old freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.