“My dad’s an immigrant and he’s paid under the table,” says a youth, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He should be making $3000 but he’s making far less because he’s an immigrant. My mom works at Subway, she’s not making a lot of money.” She is one of the youth leaders in the Youth Environmental Justice Alliance, and one more Portland resident who is disappointed in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s decision to cut funding for YouthPass. “Paying for transit for five more kids would make it even harder for my family, and for people who don’t have money. I have to go get our food stamp card and I wouldn’t have money to do that. I know there are students like me who are not in Portland Public Schools and affected by this stuff, too. At David Douglas the buses are over capacity. My friend has to sit in the middle of the aisle. Do you know how annoying that is? Imagine it even more packed every single day. What about people with early dismissal? They don’t allow you to be there after you’re dismissed. What about people with late arrival? They need a bus to get there.”
Two years into his term, Mayor Wheeler has cut all city funding for the YouthPass program, leaving East Portland youth with inequitable access to public transportation compared to the wealthier, whiter Portland Public Schools’ students. The Portland Business Alliance demanded more police to keep houseless people out of downtown, and Mayor Ted dutifully obeyed. Under pressure from his wealthy, white peers, the Mayor also found money for some West Portland community centers. All this to serve his own class, at the expense of the most vulnerable youth in the city. His budget takes money from vulnerable East Portland students and wastes it on more militarized police and resources for the privileged. This is what white supremacy looks like in a “progressive” city like Portland.
For 22 years, youth of color in our city have fought for equitable access to public transportation. Last year city council finally agreed to fund East Portland students’ transit access. The Mayor committed to performing an independent assessment of the cost of YouthPass, and to bringing together community stakeholders to find a funding solution in the years ahead. Ted Wheeler kept none of his promises.
“The Mayor never set up a meeting to talk about the next school year, or to talk about the funding, or how we distribute them,” says Say Wah Paw, a David Douglas High School Junior and youth organizer with YEJA. “This was all supposed to happen and it never did.”
Instead, youth and organizers with the Youth Environmental Justice Alliance brought together countless meetings to attempt to assess the cost and determine a funding strategy – and one emerged. “He’s always ignoring us,” says Say Wah. “Every time we have a meeting he never shows up. What the heck?” The youth-led strategy required the city to support the 2018-2019 YouthPass program, and would see TriMet support the program in 2019 and beyond. The City, under the Wheeler’s lacking leadership, failed to meet its obligation to youth.
“He gets really defensive whenever we call him out. He wants to ‘clarify.’ He kept on pushing down everything,” says YEJA’s Carly Chan, a senior at Franklin. “He interrupted testimony. I just can’t forget it. He interrupted testimony to defend himself at a time when a person’s two minutes is being used to testify. He took that away.”
The Mayor insists YouthPass is not a City priority. This, in spite of two decades of advocacy for YouthPass, hours of youth testimony, tens of thousands of youth using the program, thousands of signatures on our petition, and a City-endorsed Youth Bill of Rights which explicitly states transportation funding as a priority and a right of our youth. In spite of Portland’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to meet climate goals. In spite of the transportation crisis choking city streets. In spite of Oregon’s graduation rates near the bottom of national rankings, thanks primarily to the communities of color Portland schools continue to fail. In spite of all this, the program doesn’t merit the support the Mayor gives to West Portland community centers, downtown Portland businesses, and the Police. According to Ted Wheeler, City priorities are dictated by the Mayor with no regard to history, precedent, or necessity.
The Mayor wants to spin this as a victory. Because some of the funds from last year remain unspent, an unsustainably-funded YouthPass program may still exist in some form at East Portland high schools. The Mayor’s staff expresses confidence that the City can convince TriMet to fund the program this year. We do not share their optimism, but we have always intended to focus on TriMet as the permanent home for this program. We will continue to fight for the funds, to honor the decades of youth advocacy, the imperatives of transportation, climate, and education, and to show respect for East Portland youth who the white and wealthy continually overlook.
“There’s a lack of accountability from the City to working with school districts and youth to find a path forward,” says YEJA Organizer Adrian Cato. “We’re not going to let that go.” This is a serious disappointment. The City can and should do better for East Portland, better for low-income people, and better for people of color. Every youth in our region deserves the access to opportunity that free public transportation provides. Thanks to Ted Wheeler, the future of YouthPass is uncertain.