CHINATOWN — Like the months of boots-on-the-ground door knocking that preceded it, Tuesday's get-out-the-vote effort in Chinatown and Bridgeport was made possible by hordes of teenage volunteers.
"Of all the immigrant communities in Chicago, we come out on top for voter registration. Because why? Youth. We're the only community that continues to extensively utilize youth representatives," said C.W. Chan, chair of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a civic group that's been organizing voter registration efforts since 2000.
On Tuesday, about 50 teens, many of whom have taken the day off from Kelly High School, took to the streets to knock on doors and hand out basic, nonpartisan information about Election Day — who's running, where to vote and how to register.
Michelle Tan is one of the volunteers. A 17-year-old junior at Kelly, she's motivated by the chance to organize an entire community into a powerful voting block.
Melody Eng was one of those volunteers helping to get out the vote:
"One of my teachers once told me that voting is power. It's important to be able to speak up for yourself and not get pushed around," she said.
The Chinatown effort is part of the New Americans Democracy Project, a program of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a statewide advocacy group that provides money and training for immigrants rights programs.
Across the state, the group claims to have registered 150,000 new Americans to vote since 2004.
In the Chinatown and Bridgeport area, volunteers have registered about 8,000 voters since the 2000, growing steadily since the Chinatown coalition hooked up with the statewide group in 2008, Chan said.
Some of the teens are recent immigrants themselves and have been in America for less than a year.
During a lunch break at Bridgeport's Benton House on Tuesday, they self-organized into groups — Cantonese speakers over here, Mandarin speakers over there. The native English speakers had their own table.
But what's a hindrance to assimilation into wider American culture is the hidden strength of the voting push.
The teens hail from different areas in China, which means they can connect with other immigrant families who've made their way to two-flats and apartment complexes in the Bridgeport area.
"We've had the benefit of having a lot of volunteers. They're able to approach people in the community using their dialect. Many of them speak multiple [Chinese] dialects," said Theresa Mah, a senior policy adviser and director of Asian-American outreach in Gov. Pat Quinn's office who used to lead voter registration drives.
Chan said the bi-annual voting drives have significance well beyond election years.
It's rooted in the community's fight to stop Chicago area casinos from predatory bus pickups.
That effort in the late 1990s showed Chinatown residents they could have a strong voice in local issues, Chan said, a civic momentum that's evolved to include the building of a new field house and state-of-the-art library.
He credits the power of the teenagers for helping to make it all happen.
"If you or I knock on the door, they slam it shut on our faces. But look at this," he said, gesturing toward the room of the laughing teenagers.
"You know, we have a tree as our symbol. The tree takes time to grow but when it does, we say 'Oh my goodness, look at what we accomplished.'"
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: