In March, Minnesota Civic Youth was one of eight sponsors for Youth Day at the Capitol (YDAC), a day-long event in which almost 200 students in grades 5-12 gathered to learn about youth-related policy issues and the policy making process in Minnesota. GradNation recently published an article and picture gallery from the day. While I was there, I overheard a conversation among a group of young women which made me think about engaging young people to advocate for change.
This was my first time at YDAC and I was interested to see which topics and activities the students enjoyed most. As I was sitting outside the main presentation room during a session on advocating for after-school program funding, a group of middle school students walked out, sat down in a circle and started texting on their phones. One of the YDAC facilitators walked up to the group and asked why they had left the presentation. “None of that stuff is relevant to us,” said one of the young women. “None of us go to after-school programs so we don’t really care about that.”
The facilitator paused, then said: “What do you care about?”
The young women looked her and each other and laughed nervously. Then one spoke up: “Right now I care about our school lunches. They suck!” The others girls laughed and chimed in. “She’s right, they do suck!” The facilitator smiled and said, “Well, what are you going to do about it?”
The young women looked at her like she was crazy. “What could we do about it, we’re just kids?”
The facilitator continued: “Who do you think determines the school lunch menu?” One girl answered: “The government?”
“In part,” said the facilitator. “But in many cases, individual school districts choose to implement alternatives or supplement the government program. That means the final decision lies with your district’s administration.”
“You mean we could tell the superintendent how we feel about school lunch and they would listen?” said one of the girls.
“Yes,” said the facilitator. “There’s no guarantee that they will change it, but it you bring them a well-thought out proposal, I can almost guarantee that they will listen.”
The girls looked at each other and smiled. “We’d be heroes,” said one.
“I know you said you didn’t care about funding for after-school programs, but the process around advocating for change is often the same, whether you’re talking about more funding for programs or changing your school lunch. Let’s go back inside and hear what the presenter has to say.”
The girls nodded, stood up, and followed the facilitator into the room. As I sat there, full of admiration for the facilitator, it hit me: The key to engaging young people to advocate for change is helping them identify topics that matter to them. Most young people are not apathetic – they just don’t see themselves as connected to the issues or the process.
Helping young people make those connections is my passion, and will be a primary focus for Minnesota Civic Youth. I believe doing so is the first step to helping young people see themselves as a member of the larger community. And once they see themselves as a member, they have a deeper interest in the well being of that community.
Do you remember the first time you were interested in changing the status quo? Were you successful? What did you learn? Tell us about it in the comment section below.