Fathuma Ali has a special appreciation for the power of voting because she’s seen what it’s like when it’s not exercised.
The 20-year-old Starbucks barista was born in Ethiopia and is Oromo. Despite being Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, Oromo have been the target of systematic government repression, according to Human Rights Watch.
“It’s mostly students that are getting killed because they are so passionate about things and want to make a difference out in the world,” said Ali of violence and repression in her homeland, where the ruling party won all 546 parliamentary seats in the 2015 elections. “But because they are the wrong kind of people, they are not getting the chance for their voice to be heard.”
Ali, who moved to the United States when she was nine years old and became a citizen in 2009 at the age of 13, will be casting her first vote this fall and cherishes the opportunity.
“A lot of people think voting is unimportant,” she said. “They just say they don’t want to think about it or that it’s political, but their opinions matter too. If we just let problems pass without speaking up, no one is going to solve them.”
Ali, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, spoke at a partner event in the Starbucks Support Center (Seattle headquarters) recognizing Citizenship and Constitution Day. The day commemorates the formation and signing of the Constitution of the United States on September 17, 1787.
"There are times, especially with our divided and polarized politics right now, where we can forget how easily union becomes disunion. And how easily bonds of trust and affection can dissolve and evaporate in communities," said Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University,who also spoke at the event. His organization is focused on spreading the knowledge and practice of citizenship in the United States.
Volunteering and voting are two primary ways to "live like a powerful citizen," he said.
Starbucks is participating in the TurboVote Challenge, an initiative that brings employers together to increase voting in the U.S., with a target of 80 percent voter engagement by 2020. TurboVote supports voter participation through a digital tool that makes it easier to register, vote and stay informed.
Just under 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, down from 57.1 percent four years earlier. According to TurboVote, turnout in the U.S is lower than Canada, Mexico, most of Europe and many developing countries
Ali, however, sees promise for greater electoral involvement among her fellow partners (employees) at the Seattle Central District Starbucks where she works.
“When I was in high school, lots of my peers were passionate about voting,” she said. “They wanted to change something in the world. I think a lot of partners in the stores want to see changes as well. They are talking about making changes and voting is a way to do that.”
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