Light a Fire

Next Up's New Executive Director Breaks the Cycle

Elona J. Wilson talks about her path to leading the youth voting organization.

By Hanna Merzbach November 30, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly

The average age of an executive director in the US is 48. At Next Up, which mobilizes young leaders to build political power, the new executive director just turned 25. Oregon native Elona J. Wilson is bringing her grassroots organizing experience to the Portland-based nonprofit, where she’s working to amplify the voices of diverse young people to achieve a more equitable state.

“I do think that in believing in, elevating, and amplifying the voices of the youth, it made sense to go with someone who was more close to our average age [of people served],” Wilson says, adding that more than half of the Next Up’s board is under 25.

Founded in 2002 as the Bus Project and called Next Up since 2019, the group strives to dismantle institutional barriers to voting and develop youth leaders from marginalized backgrounds. In 2020, after making nearly 200,000 calls to young Oregon voters and advocating for voter reform, the organization helped increase the state’s turnout among voters aged 18 to 29 by 13 percent compared to 2016 and boost voter registration rates in communities of color. That election is done, but another is always coming up, and the group continues to support disenfranchised youth.

Wilson has long recognized the importance of empowering young people, describing herself as “mentor-grown.”

“I’ve been very lucky to have lots of different people who play mom and dad in my life,” she says.

As a child, Wilson experienced homelessness, often having what she thought were “sleepovers” in her mom’s car. She went to about 10 different elementary schools in the area before finding stability with a family in Southeast Portland. They and other mentors encouraged her to take leadership positions in student government, apply for scholarships, and eventually attend Pacific University.

“I’m the first in my family to graduate [from college], but I’m not the last to break the cycle of poverty and addiction,” she says.

Elona J. Wilson 

Wilson’s interests vary widely: she explored various majors, from biology to marketing, before landing in the early education program and graduating debt-free in 2018.  She started her post-college career as an organizer for Stand for Children, working to reduce police presence in schools and boost Oregon's graduation rate by communicating directly with low-income and BIPOC youth. (For the class of 2019, when measuring the percentage of public high school students who finish in four years, Oregon was in the bottom five among US states for graduation rates.)

Wilson continued this grassroots organizing model in her tenure as the advocacy director at the Coalition of Communities of Color. She says her new role at Next Up—she takes over from Samantha Gladu, who held the executive director position for three years—is an intersection of her previous roles and focuses on racial and criminal justice in the youth space.

With the help of four other staff members and a dedicated team of volunteers, Wilson will continue to expand Next Up beyond engaging youth in elections. After being especially active in the fall redistricting process as a member of the We Draw Oregon coalition, Next Up continues to advocate for a policy that could give voting rights to people who are currently incarcerated. The team also plans to educate Portland youth about the city’s ongoing charter review, the decennial process that could change the way city hall functions.

Wilson says she also hopes to bolster the nonprofit’s focus areas beyond the Willamette Valley and continue to develop its youth leadership programs, which build community organizing skills among teenagers, college students, and young adults each month.

“I’m very dedicated to seeing Portland and Oregon change,” Wilson says. “[I want to] try to actually shift the foundation to be something that is for all Oregonians.”

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