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Getting On Board with Washington Bus

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2008Perspectives Newsletter

A large bus, adorned with red and gold stripes, pulls toward the curb and groans to a halt. As its young passengers disembark—cheering, high-fiving, grabbing signs stapled to wooden stakes—it’s clear this is no ordinary bus. 

Josh Johnston (far right) cheers as passengers exit the bus to begin a day of volunteeering.

Josh Johnston (far right) cheers as passengers exit the bus to begin a day of volunteeering. Media credit: Kate Macfarlane

It’s The Washington Bus, a vehicle—both literally and figuratively—for engaging young voters and soon-to-be voters in politics. 

The Washington Bus is the brainchild of Joshua Johnston and a group of twenty- something friends who saw a need to bring more young people into politics. Johnston, who graduated from the UW in 2003 with a degree in sociology, now serves as the president of The Washington Bus’s Board.

“When I started being interested in politics and wanted to volunteer, I couldn’t find the opportunities,” recalls Johnston. “One of the reasons I started The Washington Bus is because I couldn’t figure out how to access the political process.”

The idea behind the bus, says Johnston, is to make politics both fun and meaningful to young people. The organization pairs political volunteerism—doorbelling, voter registration—with music and other activities. A group might board the bus, travel to a Washington town to do doorbelling, and then return to be greeted by a party with a deejay.

“We’re trying to show young people that politics doesn’t have to be big and scary and difficult to access,” says Johnston. “We get them to see that we’re about politics, but we’re not only about politics.”

 

Doorbeller to Campaign Manager

Those who know Johnston might beg to differ. He is, by his own admission, a 
bona fide political junkie. 

Johnston always had a passing interest in politics. He became more engaged when President Bush threatened to cut AmericaCorps funding. Johnston was a UW student at the time, working at AmericaCorps to help pay for his education. “I decided to get active politically,” says Johnston. “But it was a bear to find a way to get involved.” 

Volunteers with The Washington Bus speak at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party.

Volunteers with The Washington Bus speak at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party. Media credit: Toby Crittenden

After much searching, Johnston found a volunteer opportunity doorbelling for a candidate for state representative. That he continued doorbelling after his first day is a testament to his perseverance.

“I was chucked out on the street with a walk list and a pen,” Johnston recalls with a laugh. “It was my first time doorbelling, it was pouring rain, I was still going to school, and I was working about 30 hours a week. My girlfriend couldn’t believe I was spending my Saturdays doing this.”

Things improved after graduation. Johnston landed a paid position as campaign manager for Brian Blake, state representative for the 19th district in southwest Washington. He remembers the experience as both terrifying and wonderful.

“I was fresh out of college and had only done doorbelling,” Johnston recalls. “I moved to Kelso and didn’t know a soul.” A more experienced campaign manager (working on another campaign) served as a mentor. “It was the most fun I ever had on a campaign,” says Johnston nostalgically.

Other political campaigns followed. Johnston worked locally on Howard Dean’s campaign for president, a job that had him on the road most days. Then he was field director for Brian Baird, representing southwest Washington, helping him win reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Johnston was drawn to the excitement of political campaigns, but they had their downside. “I got tired of not having a job after November,” he explains. In 2005 he found a more permanent position with U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, serving as a district scheduler on Dicks’ congressional staff. The position, which he held for three years, involved doing advance work for events and outreach to the labor community. 

Now Johnston serves as policy and communications adviser for Julie Patterson, chair of the King County Council, tackling issues from transportation to arts funding. He describes his role as “policy analyst and position advocate.”

 

The Washington Bus is Born

It was while Johnston was working for Dicks that he and his friends dreamed up The Washington Bus. They’d heard about an opportunity for a $250,000 grant, open to organizations whose focus was up to 49 percent political. Over dinner, a small group, all from the political world, started “kicking around ideas.” 

At an event to register voters, The Washington Bus volunteers have fun while doing good.

At an event to register voters, The Washington Bus volunteers have fun while doing good.  Media credit: Sarah Nason

One existing organization that intrigued them was the Oregon Bus Project, a group in Oregon that drives teens and young adults to various locations to doorbell. They wondered if they could use that concept and add another dimension.

“We decided we wanted to use a bus to campaign for people but also to help advocate for 16 to 25 year olds, because nobody does that,” says Johnston. “And we wanted to use the arts to get people on the bus. We wanted to be an organization by young people, for young people, all the time.”

Using the Oregon Bus Project as a mentor, they submitted a proposal and received the grant in 2006—right in the middle of campaign season. They quickly planned a concert and doorbelling event to kick things off, but looked forward to more thoughtful planning after election day.

In early 2007, The Washington Bus hired an executive director and elected Johnston as Board president. Now the organization has seven full-time staff and has raised more than $500,000 in donations. 

 

Young Volunteers, Incredible Energy

Johnston gets excited talking about The Washington Bus, but ask about the actual vehicle and he positively gushes. Perhaps the bus holds a special place for him because he test drove it—and put down a deposit—the afternoon before his wedding. 

“It is the coolest bus. ...It’s a tangible way to show somebody who we are,” says Joshua Johnston.

“It is the coolest bus. ...It’s a tangible way to show somebody who we are,” says Joshua Johnston.

“It is the coolest bus,” enthuses Johnston. “It’s this giant thing. It’s a tangible way to show somebody who we are. It creates a bridge in people’s minds. But it’s about more than just physically having the bus to load people. It’s the image of being able to meet in a park on a Saturday morning and have teenagers introduce themselves and talk about their favorite YouTube political video before boarding. It’s about driving 50 kids somewhere and educating them about candidates or doing role playing for doorbelling on the bus before they get to the destination.”

Johnston figures that about 450 volunteers have participated in The Washington Bus events since the organization became official in 2006. The group remains steadfastly non-partisan, with the Board selecting projects that reflect the concerns of its youthful volunteers. In this presidential year, voter registration has been a major push. 

Volunteers for The Washington Bus high-five after arriving at their destination.

Volunteers for The Washington Bus high-five after arriving at their destination. Media credit: Kate Macfarlane

Near election day, the focus becomes reminding people to vote. Pesky voice mail reminders? That’s old school. The Washington Bus adds some fun with events like Disco Get-Out-To-Vote Day, featuring volunteers in disco attire dancing on street corners, sporting signs encouraging people to vote. On Halloween there’s Trick or Vote, with hundreds of costumed volunteers going door to door offering voting reminders. 

The young volunteers’ enthusiasm, says Johnston, is contagious. “Young people get written off as being apathetic,” he says, “but they’re completely the opposite.” Not convinced? Johnston guarantees that an afternoon on the bus would change your mind.

“There’s something about being on this bus,” he says. “Everyone is so charged up about volunteering. The energy is incredible. You can’t help but get swept 
up in it.” 

To learn more, visit The Washington Bus website at www.washingtonbus.org.