Even though Clarissa Mata was only 6 years old at the time, she remembers the night of November 4, 2008 like it was yesterday. She and her family were gathered around the television set in her home in Jenison, Michigan watching the election results come in state by state. Watching America elect their very first Black President forever marked her life.
“I watched the country turn a different color [Republican-led red to Democrat-led blue] and I just remember thinking it was so cool that people get to determine the future of this country,” she says.
Today, Clarissa is 18 years old and is planning to vote for the first time in a presidential election this November. Although this may be the first presidential election Clarissa can vote in, she has been engaged in local politics since she was 16 years old. Using her Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok profiles, she is constantly posting content to remind her followers and friends to register to vote.
“I want to live in a country that reflects the people and what the people want,” she explains.
Through her social media content she talks about politics and the politicians that she likes. “If I can reach the people who can vote there, that's me being informed and helping other people be informed,” she adds.
Clarissa believes that her vote matters and she wishes more people believed that they too have the power to make a change.
“I think a lot of people think it's just one vote and that their vote doesn’t matter, but that thinking at a large scale can become dangerous. Those hundreds of votes can make a difference—especially in local elections where there have been so many times where the results are determined by a few votes,” she says.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community and first generation Mexican-American immigrant, Clarissa says she cannot vote for a candidate who doesn’t want to address the current climate crisis, ensure equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, fight for reproductive rights and comprehensive immigration reform for undocumented immigrants.
“Sometimes it gets a little hard to find a candidate that encompasses my values because of my identities and beliefs,” she explains.
Clarissa is part of a new generation of Americans known as Generation Z. According to data from the Pew Research Center, one-in-ten eligible voters in the 2020 electorate will be a part of generation Z. Generation Z is more ethnically and racially diverse than any previous generation and is most likely to believe that Black people are treated less fairly than people of other races and ethnicities.
When it came to registering to vote, Clarissa did it the day she turned 18. She says she thought it was going to be a really long process, but she simply went to www.michigan.gov and was able to quickly register to vote.
“It took me five minutes and it was done. And two weeks later I got my voter’s registration card. It seems silly, but I treasure my voter’s registration card,” she adds.
Advocacy for Clarissa comes easy. As a digital native, she has grown up surrounded by smartphones and computers. Back in 2018, she did not hesitate to use the internet to educate her mother about the candidates running in the midterms. “My mom was hesitant to vote because it was 6:30pm on the day of election and she didn’t know who was running and why… but I sat her down and I told her we were going to learn about the candidates and then I would drive her to the polls,” she remembers. That day, her mother voted thanks in part to the encouragement from Clarissa.
Although Clarissa is only 18 years old, she has already made waves advocating for the election of Milinda Ysasi, the first Latina commissioner of the city of Grand Rapids, and more recently for the election of Bryan Berghoef, Democrat candidate challenging Republican candidate Bill Huizenga for a congressional seat. Knowing more about Clarissa, it's no surprise that three years ago Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss called Clarissa “the next Mayor of Grand Rapids” after hearing about her ten year plan.
“In 2017, we were at Lions and Rabbits for an award ceremony. I went since my mom won an award and I met Mayor Bliss there. I talked to her about everything I was doing and what I plan on doing and she said, ‘Wow. The next mayor of GR right here!’”
Clarissa wants to fight for the rights of her West Michigan community and plans to run for office in ten years after finishing law school.
“I think a lot of people my age want to leave this town and this state and I can understand why. But, I think if you can take the time to find your people you will find that we can all co-create a place of belonging for all. If it's not here yet—we can imagine it and create it,” she shares.
Clarissa may not be a lawyer yet, but until she is she will be focusing on her studies at Grand Rapids Community College and participating in local elections while working part time at her mother’s business, Lindo Mexico Restaurante Mexicano.
Written by Michelle Jokisch Polo