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reed magazine logoSummer 2008

The Activist

Caitlin Baggott ’99

Caitlin Baggott turns gleeful as she recounts the time Portland’s mayor-elect, Sam Adams, got physical with a city commissioner at an event sponsored by the Bus Project, the nonprofit she cofounded in 2001. Adams, then a candidate for city council (his bid was successful), was onstage, using a bicycle-powered Cuisinart to make a smoothie; Commissioner Randy Leonard, a tough-talking former firefighter, was pedaling the bike.

“Grassroots movements in the past have found free spaces in church basements. We found free spaces in the hippest bars.”
Caitlin Baggott ’99

photo by Garrett Downen

“Adams, who will be the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, was wearing a flowered apron,” Baggott recalls. “And Randy Leonard was wearing black spandex bike shorts, black combat boots, no shirt, and a leather jacket. And Sam Adams slapped him on the ass. I have a picture.”

That’s all in a day’s work at the Bus Project (www.busproject.org), where almost anything goes if it furthers the group’s aim of engaging people under 30 in civic life. What was meant to be a short-term canvassing project to boost the vote for progressive candidates in swing districts has become a multi-pronged endeavor that includes voter registration, political-skills training fellowships, plus madcap events that combine politics with music, theatre, socializing, and beer (the Bus Project’s Candidates Gone Wild, the site of the aforementioned ass-slapping, is now a regular stop for local candidates on the campaign trail).

“Grassroots movements in the past have found free spaces in church basements,” Baggott says. “We found free spaces in the hippest bars.”

While Baggott acknowledges that the group has sometimes taken heat for its irreverence—not everyone is amused by T-shirts that urge “Vote, F*cker”—she counters that Bus Project events routinely sell out an 1,100-seat venue precisely because they upend conventional notions of political theatre. “Portland is not lacking in serious debates, and by the end of the campaign, the candidates could give each others’ stump speeches,” she says. “In fact, we’ve had the candidates give each others’ stump speeches.” The Bus Project’s youth-power approach seems to be making an impact: it has been credited with helping to return the Oregon legislature to Democratic control in recent years.

A farm kid from Vermont, Baggott grew up on food stamps, then got scholarships to the Putney School and Reed. “I was given a huge gift,” she says. “I felt like it was my job to give back.” At Reed, she participated in SEEDS, a student community service program, and after graduation went on to jobs working with troubled youth. But she soon came to believe that working with six or eight struggling kids at a time was not going to make much of a difference in the long run. After 9/11, she felt even more strongly that real change had to be political. Now, at 30, she’s something of an elder stateswoman around the Bus Project’s Southeast Portland headquarters, a situation she calls “ridiculous.” But, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think the kinds of questions you’re asking when you’re 20 or 21 years old about community and yourself and where you belong in this community are fascinating questions,” she says. “I can’t imagine a better thing to be doing than listening to them.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2008