The Ballot Box Project

Northeast Shores Development Corporation

Funding Received: 2015
Cleveland, OH
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
May 21, 2016

Teens. They’re good for nothing. All they do is play on their phone, get into trouble. They’re so rude, don’t want to do anything. And loud. Don’t forget, they’re really, really loud- hanging out on street corners acting a fool.

If you ever interact with the public, you’ve probably heard these sentiments more times than you can count.

When we started the Ballot Box Project, the community said it was important to make sure the youth have something to do. Ways to make money, learn, be productive, and just get off the streets. I’m going to let you in on a little secret; those are all things teens want as well.

Admittedly, throughout our process we’ve struggled to get youth involved- that is, until the vote. What made this component so much different? We came to them. We spent a lot of time coordinating with the high school so the youth that these projects are for will have an actual say in the outcome.

Going into the election most of the high school students had no idea what was happening. The cafeteria was filled with a bunch of old people with trifold boards and voting booths. We introduced the project and the process. Then nothing really happened. Not at first. It took one crazy artist, and a bold student to begin the dialogue. Then the chaos began! That good type of chaos that lets you know it was all the hard work was worth it.

The high schoolers took their first voting experience very seriously. They talked with the artists to learn about all the projects on the ballot to find out which projects were most meaningful to them. Then they got to vote for the first time in their lives!

Now what? The teens got to do the voting thing, we got to put a check into the box that says over 120 youth were involved. But do they youth really care about the Ballot Box Project? Of course they care! It’s silly if you doubt that.

Knowing that inner city youth are passionate with hopes and dreams, but have obstacles getting there, an organization was formed in Cleveland called MyCom. It was developed as a way for Cleveland youth to connect, navigate, and be productive so they can grow. Our neighborhood is involved with MyCom. This isn’t about adults deciding what is best for the youth, but for everyone to sit at the table together and discuss.

Immediately after school lets out, there was recently a MyCom meeting where the teens shared their life’s ambition. They want to be very specific types of doctors, lawyers, and therapists. One of them wants to be on the NY Times best seller list. Turns out, we have a funded project that can help. Then we talked about the community and the arts happening in the neighborhood.

“Yeah, they came here and we voted on the projects,” the students announced. I told them I organized that. They wouldn’t let the meeting continue without hearing which projects won. Not only were they were super excited when they found out the winning projects, they wanted to get involved in all of them. Success!

Project support was provided to nine artists, three specifically to engage youth. Others are of interest to the teens. The teens really want to be connected to the artists. While the artists were at the school during the campaign, some felt a desire to connect with them even though it wasn’t a part of their proposal. So what’s the problem?

The problem is there are less than three weeks of the school year left and the connections haven’t been made. Once the school year is over, the teens will not have access to these projects. Only those who are already connected with us and various resources in the community will be privileged enough to participate. That it not what the Ballot Box Project is about. It’s about inclusivity.

These students want more than the cliché of societies expectations for inner city youth.  All of the pieces are in place for something amazing to happen. While I can nudge people to get the information out there, and by nudge I mean borderline harass, I can’t make them do anything if they’re not ready. The artists have families, jobs, and businesses to manage. They also have an audience with so much potential, who aren’t yet jaded by the world, and just want to do something positive.

*Between the time of writing this draft, and typing the last five paragraphs, information about a majority of the projects has been relayed to the teens. It is with much relief that the projects of highest relevance and interest to them is now in their hands. What more can be done?