The teens behind the Uche Uwahemu campaign
on September 29, 2014
While more than a dozen Richmond political candidates talked about their visions for the city’s future, a gaggle of smiling youthful faces stood in the back, toting signs for the man they want to see elected.
Mayoral candidate Uche Uwahemu is their man, and every time he spoke to the crowd, he counted on boisterous applause from a contingent that is mostly below voting age.
“I enjoyed the debate, I just love seeing everyone’s views on how they can improve Richmond,” said Dayjah Burton, an 11th grader enrolled at De Anza’s High School Law Academy program.
Burton is one of almost 40 students who volunteered to help Uwahemu’s campaign. The students canvas different neighborhoods, attend mayoral debates and will soon begin making calls to build support. Uwahemu, a newcomer to Richmond politics, has built a grassroots campaign that relies on youth campaign workers and small donations from friends and fellow Nigerian émigrés to counter the strong name recognition of candidates Tom Butt and Nat Bates.
Canvassing intrigued most of the students, especially Baltazar Caceros, a 10th grader in the Law Academy who has been on the campaign team for about two weeks.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Caceros, 15. “I love interacting with my community.”
Caceros, a native Spanish speaker, recently went out with his classmates to canvas a neighborhood. At one point, he knocked on the door of a family of Spanish-speakers.
Due to language barriers, the resident was reluctant to talk to the teenagers. But once Caceros spoke in Spanish, the scenario changed, Caceros said.
“They were surprised to find out how old I was,” Caceros said. And on the subject of Uwahemu, “they actually did not know that he was one of the candidates.” Caceros admitted that his parents, also Spanish-speaking residents, were unaware of the candidate’s presence in the election until their son joined the campaign.
Caceros said residents at that house promised their support.
After his canvassing experience, Caceros started researching Uwahemu’s background, and found how “he wants to run Richmond in a different way, not in the way we did it before, like flip the script.”
The law class was first introduced to Uwahemu when he visited De Anza and offered the students an opportunity to participate on the campaign because one student, Sonila Shakeel, had volunteered earlier in the summer.
“We thought, oh what a great opportunity it would be for them to see how their democracy and their country works,” said Tahitia Dean, the law teacher. “He’s running for mayor of Richmond, so it is something that affects their community directly.”
Shakeel’s involvement started with canvassing. But as soon as the new school year started, she got more involved and became the campaign’s coordinator.
“I guess I always thought of a mayor in a certain way,” Shakeel said. “(Uwahemu) just seemed a lot more different than what I expected.”
The campaign process left a strong impression on Burton, who now wants to get involved in future electoral campaigns. She hopes to go to college and become a lawyer.
Uwahemu, who has a law degree, said having young people work on his campaign has dual benefits.
“It has been a great experience for them and it’s been also a great experience for our campaign,” Uwahemu said. “They’re [having] a huge impact in what we are doing in Richmond.”
While Uwahemu remains an underdog in the eyes of most political observers, his inclusion of local students in his campaign has drawn praise from supporters and opponents alike.
“Kudos to those young people who have become involved in our political process,” said Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles, who is running for re-election and has not endorsed Uwahemu. “I hope that this is just the beginning of their political activism.”
As for an upcoming youth-led candidate forum for Richmond mayoral and City Council candidates on Oct. 2, Burton has one remark for the mayoral candidates.
“For me, what I want the most from the candidates is for them to actually answer the questions,” Burton said. “And not talk about what they have done in the past.”
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