Ixchel Arista joined Real Hard when she was a freshman in high school because it was one of the few after-school activities that fit with her busy schedule. Real Hard — a stipended after-school leadership development program facilitated by Oakland Kids First (OKF) — provides leadership opportunities and spearheads projects that empower young people to create more equitable school cultures for low-income students and students of color in Oakland’s public high schools. Once Ixchel became involved in the program, she was quickly introduced to the Youth Organizing Council (YOC), another OKF program that aims to advance justice and educational equity for Oakland students at the city level.
From the very start, Ixchel was impressed by her ability to influence change in Oakland as a youth organizer. Even during her freshman year, she had the opportunity to participate in meetings with city council members. Before this experience, she always felt that elected officials, even at the local level, were too busy to speak to a high schooler.
During her first year in high school, Ixchel became involved with a campaign to get Measure QQ passed in the City of Oakland. The measure aimed to authorize the city council to permit individuals 16 years and older to vote in Oakland Unified School District Board of Education elections. The measure can be traced back to a group of public high school students who were unhappy with the civic education they were receiving. These students felt their concerns wouldn’t be heard by elected officials unless they had the right to vote.
According to some estimates, the ordinance would allow approximately 8,000 youth voters to participate in local school board elections. This would be in addition to the 263,291 Oakland residents who are registered to vote, as of 2020. In the 2020 election, 87 percent of Oakland citizens 18 years or older were registered to vote, compared to 61 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander citizens and 70 percent of Latinx citizens. The fight to expand the voting age for youth in school board elections, from Ixchel’s perspective, would further advance equity for the entire city. “Oakland Youth Vote is bringing equity to Oakland. When we are fighting for young people — the majority [of whom are] young people of color and low-income youth — throughout Oakland to have the right to vote, we are leveling the political playing field,” she says.
Ixchel describes the start of the campaign as “fast and exciting.” The youth organizers had two paths to get the measure on the ballot: they could either knock on doors and get signatures from a majority of Oakland voters or they could convince a majority of the city council to introduce the measure. They decided to go with the latter option and advocated for the measure to be put on the ballot to councilmembers, which was championed successfully by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan.
Once Measure QQ was placed on the ballot, Ixchel and her fellow youth organizers developed a campaign to inform voters of the measure through canvassing, lawn signs, and commercials. In 2020, the measure passed with almost 68 percent of the vote.
However, once the measure passed, momentum began to slow. As of June 2023, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters has not developed the infrastructure to allow 16- and 17-year-old Oakland residents to vote. To participate in local elections, youth voters would need special ballots to ensure that they are not voting for other elected positions. Ixchel started working on this campaign at the start of her freshman year in high school. She envisioned that she would be able to vote in the school board elections by the time her senior year arrived, but that unfortunately has not been the case. Despite the logistical holdups, Ixchel is still confident that the opportunity to vote will be available to youth in Oakland in the future.
Ixchel remains proud of the work she has done as a youth organizer. “Getting involved with Real Hard and YOC gave me this mindset that students do have the right and the power to speak with leaders who are in control of what happens to them,” she says. “Organizing has taught me that, where there is moral power, there is also the potential for social power and political power.”
Learn More: Find data on voting in your community — and explore what policy strategies you can support to advance political inclusion.
Photos: Felix Uribe