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SDOP educating voters to give City Heights a ‘loud enough voice’

Leonor Bernarde is a San Diego Organizing Project leader and City Heights resident. The nonpartisan group is trying to get 5,000 new and infrequent voters to participate in November's election.
Leonor Bernarde is a San Diego Organizing Project leader and City Heights resident. The nonpartisan group is trying to get 5,000 new and infrequent voters to participate in November's election.

Streetlights, programs for youth, and neighborhood funding.

All of these are threatened if City Heights residents don’t vote, according to members of the San Diego Organizing Project. The nonpartisan faith-based organization is pushing to reverse the low voter turnout in City Heights and the rest of the newly formed City Council District 9. It is also working to a lesser extent in District 4 and 8, according to Kevin Malone, SDOP executive director.

Dorothy Kwiat has been volunteering with SDOP for 25 years. For many of these years, she has been part of the struggle to try to bring resources to poor communities of color.

“The politicians will tell you what their agenda is, and tell you to vote for them,” she said. SDOP members “interview thousands of people in the community and ask what their agenda is, and tell the politicians.”

But for organizations like SDOP, packing a room isn’t enough for politicians any more, she said.

“Now -- this has never happened before -- now [politicians] are saying we are not even going to come to your meeting because your people don’t vote,” Kwiat said.

SDOP aims to get 5,000 new and infrequent voters to the polls from District 9, according to Hannah Gravette, community organizer at San Diego Organizing Project. That would make voters more representative of the community.

Groups of SDOP volunteers are going out every Saturday morning and Sunday evening to knock on people’s doors. The efforts started around the beginning of September. They will continue until the election.

And volunteers like Kwiat go beyond those efforts. She has a dinner party at 5 p.m. Tuesday and then walks City Heights with her dinner guests afterward to encourage people to vote.

The numbers are daunting. During the 2010 election, more than 53,355 voted in District 9, but only about 36 percent of them were people of color, according to the Registrar of Voters. That percentage is about half of what it should be according to the racial breakdown for the area, where 73 percent are people of color.

“The majority of Latinos in this age range of 18 to 25 are not registering, because there is not that push, not that awareness of why it’s important,” said Norma Sandoval, an SDOP volunteer who taught at Monroe Clark middle school and Hoover high school.

This voting pattern helps explain why areas like City Heights often fall behind in investment from local government, said Sandoval, who lived in City Heights most of her life until recently, and still has family in the area.

“The statistics, those were shocking to me,” Sandoval said. “I didn’t realize the great disparity, which to me, is a clear explanation of why we have a society that is so divisive.”

Voting is the most powerful way to make sure that the city is investing in infrastructure, said SDOP’s Gravette.

“To make sure that streetlights are getting put in and the streetlights that are in are working,” she said. “Making sure that sidewalks are safe spaces for people to walk, and the rec. centers are open fully, the libraries full hours restored. All of those are decisions that local elected officials make.”

Those improvements will take effort from all the residents of the area, she said.

“The only way that City Heights is going to have a loud enough voice to convince everyone to prioritize their community is if they all vote.”

Sandoval often finds that talking about the future is the most powerful way to drive home the point.

“Sometimes I walk with my children,” she said. “I tell them I’m here for them. I want to make a difference in their future.”


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