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Roy D. Wilson was hanging a voting flier on the door of an East Oakland home earlier this month, when two occupants came to ask what he was doing, in turn prompting one of Wilson’s student volunteers across the street to recognize a schoolmate she hadn’t seen in months.

Suddenly a four-way conference bloomed — tackling politics, the direction of the country and how to make things better. 

“It’s about caring about something that’s bigger than us,” Wilson said. 

Wilson is the executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center at Merritt College in Oakland, which is partnering with the League of Women Voters to send volunteers into Oakland’s 6th and 7th city council districts. That’s where the city’s residents least likely to vote live. 

The ‘To Us You Matter: Vote’ project has been urging residents to vote since September. Volunteers are nominated by teachers and administrators at schools from Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda.  

The ‘To Us You Matter: Vote’ project volunteers gather for a group picture before delivering fliers to encourage people to vote in the upcoming election. (Photo courtesy Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center)

“It’s not partisan,” Wilson said, a few hours before embarking on the Oct. 24 get-out-the-vote effort. “It’s a multi-racial group; they’re 13-17 years old and probably 70 percent young women. 

“They have experience with injustice and  a thirst for justice.” 

Wilson has been part of similar campaigns for 15 or 20 years, he said. The Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center was established in 1995 by Oakland community leaders following what was then the largest Martin Luther King Jr. march and rally on the West Coast. The idea was to start an organization guided by King’s goal to to uplift communities by navigating the racial divide, poverty and violence. 

The center’s ongoing mission is to collaborate with educational, faith-based and community-based initiatives to advance youth and civic engagement, ethical leadership, and economic and education equality. It does so through direct action in the region’s most vulnerable, high-poverty communities. 

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is heavily involved with the center. Before the pandemic shut much of the country down in March, Lee took students on the semi-annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to historic sites in Alabama, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where late Congressman John Lewis and other peaceful protestors were beaten by Alabama troopers in 1965.  

In Oakland, Wilson said center volunteers delivered more than 4,000 get-out-the-vote fliers during the weekend of Oct. 17-18. 

“Today we’ll have 14 young people, three adults and probably six or seven (additional) people from the League of Women Voters,” Wilson said. “It’s been bigger than that on some days. All our students are in high school.”

A volunteer with the project holds up a stack of fliers to be delivered. (Photo courtesy Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center)

“Today I’ll probably walk three or four miles,” said Wilson. “It’s intergenerational, it’s interracial. It just has ‘help’ written all over it. “They’re able to put (electronic) devices away and come together.” 

Wilson said there’s extra urgency in the project this year, as the country struggles mightily with, not only a pandemic, but flaring racial and economic tension.  

 “The stakes have never been higher in our lifetimes,” he said. “It’s very possible the stakes have never been this high in this country at all. Are we going to be a racist, greedy, divided nation, or are we going to be a plurality?” 

Wilson said his group’s focus is being “lifelong citizens. That’s really our number one criteria. 

As far as actually getting folks to vote? People are telling us on their doorsteps that they are voting, and they have voted. I think it’ll be historically higher this year.” 

A flier hangs on a fence, featuring voter information in both English and Spanish. (Photo courtesy Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center)