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Lincoln leader plugs into activism app

Student sparks civic engagement through projects, TriMet passes


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Senior Christian Purnell, Lincoln High School student body president, engages with other students in the hall during lunch. Purnell is working on taking the voice of his student body beyond the Lincoln High campus. When it comes to civic involvement in Portland, there might soon be an app for that.

Lincoln High School senior Christian Purnell is working to get students’ voices heard beyond his campus. He wants their voices to be heard throughout the city — and he’s working with former Mayor Sam Adams to do so.

A while ago, he was introduced to a Portland City Club leader and asked if there was a way for students to work with the club’s 1,500 members on civic engagement projects.

That led to a meeting with Adams, the City Club’s executive director. They came up with a mobile-device app that would allow kids to plug in their interests and connect them with members of the City Club — the nonprofit, nonpartisan education and research-based civic organization.

They want to help connect students with all types of projects — from public polling to helping shape public policy.

Adams also wants to motivate City Club members to be guest lecturers at local schools. He’s impressed with Purnell’s dedication to civic leadership, and “enthusiastic about the possibilities.”

Engaging civically

Purnell is student body president at Lincoln High School, a position he takes seriously. He has meetings once a week with Lincoln student leaders, plans assemblies and social activities, and attends City Club meetings.

He’s been involved in student government since he became student body president in sixth grade at East Sylvan Middle School, near his family’s home in the West Hills.

He’s also an avid tennis player on the Lincoln varsity team, and has been captain the last two years. The team is undefeated so far in the metro league.

Every summer for the past three years, Purnell has volunteered helping low-income kids at Portland After-School Tennis & Education on a full-time basis.

He’s found it rewarding to bond with the kids, either through “reading at a higher level or beating you on the tennis court,” he says. Besides being fulfilling, he believes it is every citizen’s duty to volunteer.

When he was elected as student body president last fall, Purnell had three goals in mind: to connect his peers with city and community leaders; to increase student participation in community service projects; and to help students build their character.

“We wanted to change the atmosphere a little bit,” he says.

Purnell and his student government team are looking to survey their peers at Lincoln to see how many use TriMet each day.

For his first two years at Lincoln, Purnell rode Line 81 to and from school every day until he got a driver’s license his sophomore year. Most of the time he says the bus was so crowded with Lincoln students he couldn’t find a seat.

The leadership team hopes to justify free bus passes for Portland Public Schools students through the school survey and a letter to the TriMet board. The Portland School Board, City Council and TriMet’s board will vote on the issue next month.

During last fall’s election season, Purnell organized mock elections and debates on campus. He and other student leaders distributed voter’s pamphlets to the student body, officially registered those old enough to vote, and organized a mock election for others who couldn’t vote in November.

To prepare for the mock elections, the leadership team held debates on foreign policy, the economy, city funding and abortion. They packed rooms with 200 to 300 students who engaged in the political conversation. Students “elected” President Obama and Mayor Charlie Hales in the mock elections.

Lincoln students who could vote saw a 75 percent turnout, close to the 82 percent of registered voters countywide.

Connecting with others

Recently, Lincoln’s Associated Student Body brought in the Albuquerque nonprofit One Million Bones project, which aims to raise awareness of atrocities and genocides around the world.

Project presenters spoke about atrocities happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Students created 700 symbolic bones from newsprint and tape, which will be part of a collection of a million bones flown in from across the nation, to lie in June at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

For each bone made, Seattle’s Bezos Family Foundation donates $1 to further education in the Congo.

Purnell and his team also organized a multicultural assembly in February to familiarize Lincoln students with the racial makeup of their student body. Lincoln’s Tongan population danced the haka, a Polynesian war dance, and spoke about their culture. Lincoln’s Native American students showcased their culture through dance and song.

The app is still in the early stages and its creators hope to work out details in the next three months.

“Our service goal is getting kids beyond what is normally thought of as high school service,” says Purnell, who’s deciding between attending Haverford College, Carleton College or Whitman College to study political science.

“I sincerely hope that we have changed the way kids think about student government and its capabilities.”