BY N.G. Onuoha
For 33 days, during three lunch time periods, C.C. Hampton and Ranisha Browder sat behind a rectangular fold-up table outside the cafeteria at Covenant House New York. They answered questions, organized registration forms and urged residents to vote.
“Voting is going to mean empowerment,” said Hampton, an outreach specialist at the organization. “Knowing they can make a difference—that [they] do matter. ”
Their daily tabling routine began shortly after Hampton, 28, joined the staff in June. The agency, located on West 41 Street and Tenth Avenue, provides housing services to homeless and at-risk youth in New York City. For years, Covenant House made voter registration forms available to residents interested in voting, but to Hampton, simply registering the young adults—primarily first-time voters—was not enough. She teamed up with Browder, a clothing room attendant at the agency, and the duo started a voter registration drive.
“Once we decided that we were going to put this voter registration drive together, “ said Hampton. “We set out a goal [around 100] and then we planned it.”
When they began the initiative, Hampton and Browder received support, encouragement and resources from Coventry House — voter registration forms, signs and a convenient table station. The only problem: many of the residents were not interested.
“They’re busy trying to figure out where they’re going to sleep tonight,” said Hampton. “It wasn’t enticing to them. Plus, I heard kids say, ‘my vote don’t matter!’”
Originally from the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, 20-year-old Alina Pedroso has been in and out of New York City’s shelter system since the age of 16. She wondered whether the votes of the poor were counted in the election. “I had the thought of ‘do our votes even count?” said Pederoso. “Like the ‘hood, where I’m from, do they even take those votes? But we have people fighting so much for us. They try to make sure our votes get taken.”
Hampton and Browder understood the sentiments. Both women said they came from similar backgrounds and shared in the frustration of feeling like the voting process was of little importance, but they believed the key to generating more enthusiasm was to share their own experiences.
“I use myself as an example all the time,” said Browder. “I remember being 19, 20 and saying my vote don’t count! I wasn’t always the way I am, but I had to mature—that’s why I say, educate.”
Browder, 35, grew up in a single parent household as the third of nine children. Though her mother voted, she did not appreciate the practice. In 1992, she voted for the first time, for former President Bill Clinton. Hampton also remembers her feelings as a first-time voter. She admitted she needed a push to go to the polls in 2004, but she came from a family of active voters—most notably her grandmother who was a polling station volunteer at a local community center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Hampton was one of the 62 percent of first-time voters between 18 to 29 years old during the 2004 election.
“I think it’s important for them to not just vote this year but vote period,” said Hampton. “I feel like this generation has lost the importance of this right. It’s a privilege.”
Browder agreed. “I ask them, ‘where do you see yourself in five years? Depending on who you vote for, do you think that will be available to you? This is why I’m asking you to get educated, exercise your right to vote, [and] know why you’re voting for who you’re voting for.”
Hampton and Browder continued their effort with a three-student trip to a youth voter rally at John Jay College of criminal justice on Oct. 3 and Oct.4 as well as a larger group outing to the Oct. 10. taping of BET’s “Don’t Sleep,” a late night news talk show hosted by journalist T.J. Holmes. The taping featured a panel—including Representative Charles Rangel, journalist Sophia Nelson and Brandon Broussard, founder of “Barack the Vote”—and conversation on the previous night’s presidential debate.
“If you say ‘BET’ they’re ready to go,” said Hampton. “I felt it was important for them to see the people [they watch] on TV and hear them talk about how important this is. This generation is heavily influenced by what they see on TV. “
Pedroso was one of those who attended the taping of the talk show. “It was really nice, insightful,” she said. “They talked about Romney being so aggressive and Obama was still holding his composure.”
However, even after the taping, Pedroso admitted she still has to do research on the issues being discussed by the candidates. “I really don’t know much,” she said. “With all the different things and trauma going on in my life, I wasn’t attentive.”
Many of the residents at Covenant House are like Pedroso. As homeless youth, the responsibility of taking care of themselves and living independently has left little time to pay attention to conversations about the presidential election, or to listen to the candidates’ arguments about common issues of concern.
Unemployment was a unanimous issue at Covenant House. For Loang Manping, healthcare was also a concern. As a child, Manping, 20, watched his mother—a Sudanese refugee—struggle to keep a steady job. At age 17, he began living on his own, and in March, he came to Covenant House. “If I didn’t have Covenant House it would be tough for me to have healthcare,” said Manping. “Because I’m on my own. I’m young.”
Education was also a concern. Most of the residents at Covenant House only have a high school diploma and are interested in the possibilities of pursuing higher education. However, the rising cost of a college education has made it difficult. Alexander Hyden, 20, is a freshman at City College, and is currently in the school’s work-study program while searching for another job to help with the costs.
“People need more money for tuition,” said the education major. “It’s is a problem, [and] education can lead to more things being done.”
Voter registration in New York State closed on Oct. 13. The duo registered 50 Covenant House residents—half of the 100-registered voter goal they set at their beginning. While many would be discouraged, Hampton and Broward celebrate the number as a success. Their next step is to continue their outings to BET’s “Don’t Sleep,” other informative events for the youth. On Nov. 6, they will vote at Covenant House, which is a polling location in the Midtown West neighborhood.
“Even when we got two,” said Browder. “It was big because that’s two more than we had before, and two that will spark someone else’s mind.”
Hampton agreed, citing an African philosophy on the importance of community. “One person will tell another,” she said. “Its like Ubuntu—‘I am because we are.’”