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'Raise Your Vote' speakers encourage citizens to vote, become informed and politically active

The importance of every single vote--coupled with a call to action--was a common theme running through speakers' remarks at the first "Raise Your Vote: The Women's March Goes On" on Saturday at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks. More than 200...

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At the "Raise Your Vote" event Saturday in Grand Forks, Elias Dean spoke about challenges which he and other immigrants have faced as they attempt to make a new home in this area. Dean, who came to the U.S. in 2012 from Somalia, owns a restaurant in Grand Forks.

The importance of every single vote-coupled with a call to action-was a common theme running through speakers' remarks at the first "Raise Your Vote: The Women's March Goes On" on Saturday at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks.

More than 200 people gathered for the event, hosted by the local Equal Rights for All group, which seeks to continue the momentum begun a year ago at the Women's March on Washington, a demonstration by hundreds of thousands advocating for legislation and policies concerning human rights and other issues.

With a panel of "diverse representatives of the voting community, I think the exciting part (of this event) is to highlight the importance of the right to vote in our country," said Kathy Fick, ERA member.

In addition to short talks by eight speakers, information on voting was available "to inform people and to make sure they're equipped and prepared to vote," Fick said.

The event's purpose was to stir public discussion and raise awareness, "to cross all boundaries of ideology and political affiliation and thought," Fick said.

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Each speaker shared personal experiences and perspectives on voting and the importance of becoming politically engaged.

Maia Jackson, a senior at Grand Forks Central High School, said she's looking forward to casting her first vote in the fall election.

"I encourage everyone to vote," she told the audience. "I encourage women to put themselves out there and run for office."

Women too often underestimate their own potential and qualifications in the work world and the political realm, she said.

Maria Berlin, chair of the first Hispanic Caucus in North Dakota, spoke of the Hispanic experience in the United States and the love many of these people have for this country.

For some who came as children and are living here under the provisions of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, "their status is being taken away; they're going to be deported," she said.

The political landscape is changing in North Dakota where the fastest-growing minority group is Hispanic, she said.

"For the first time in North Dakota's history, we have a Hispanic candidate," she said, introducing Aurora Ortega, who was in the audience. Ortega plans to run this fall for the right to represent Fargo's District 41 in the North Dakota House.

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Anthony Arnold, who was born with cerebral palsy, said he is concerned about policies at the local, state and federal levels that affect people with disabilities.

After graduating high school, "I realized the political scene does have a direct effect on me," he said. "We are the government, and we hire politicians to help maintain it."

Corey Mock, who represents Grand Forks' District 18 in the North Dakota House, urged listeners to "get involved with issues you care about" or run for political office.

"Communities are so much stronger the more we're involved," he said.

Thomasine Heitkamp, who heads the ERA, said the event was successful, because "it looked like America, in terms of neighbors and friends."

Tory Johnson, who spoke at last year's Women's March event in Grand Forks, said, "For someone like me, to find a group that's hopeful, intelligent, helpful and action-oriented but also inclusive, that's such an important thing-and it's such an important thing for Grand Forks."

While she may not be able to affect policy at the federal level, there are things she can do at the local level, she said, and she welcomes the "opportunity to find what is mine to do."

"Events like this give me ideas about where can I use my voice."

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Fick said, "It is stating who we are, and that we're going to claim it and live it more fully. Voting is one way we make that claim of who we are."

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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