December 2018 Amherst Bulletin Column: Young People's Role in Politics and Leadership

December 2018 Column: Young People's Role in Politics and Leadership

Earlier this month I visited my old elementary school, Fort River, to watch kids ask important questions of the Massachusetts commissioner of education. As I end my term as State Rep, I want to reflect on what we’re doing for those kids.             First, what we’ve done already – through the arduous work of advocacy, awareness building, organizing, and leadership, generations upon generations have brought our world and our state to the point where these kids can expect, on average, the best and longest lives that humans have ever had. In class they learn to understand peers of different races and genders, including those that don’t fit traditional boxes. When they get to ARHS they will have support and encouragement to pursue post-secondary education, and many will go on to earn advanced degrees. If they stay in Massachusetts, they will join a workforce that is the most educated and best paid in the country. They will enjoy the best health outcomes of any state. And the ARPS schools are empowering them to become organizers, volunteers, and leaders in their own right, to continue moving this state and this world forward.             But what are we doing for them now? In Massachusetts, complacency with the status quo leads the legislature to settle for incremental improvements. Nationally, divisive and hateful political rhetoric is not only getting nothing useful done, but actively driving young people away from civic engagement.             And while the averageMassachusetts child can expect a safe and reasonably prosperous lifetime, many are still in some ways left out. Non-white kids will struggle against implicit bias and sometimes fear of overt violence. Students from poorer or even more rural districts won’t have access to such diverse academic and extracurricular opportunities as we pride ourselves on. All kids will have to contend with physical devastation and global instability from climate change unless we take some truly dramatic steps over the next 30 years.             The thing is, if the 4th and 6th graders I talked with at Fort River were making the world’s decisions, we would have a more equitable education system in Massachusetts. We would have both sustainable energy and sustainable materials. (One of their repeated comments was about disposable cafeteria utensils.) We would “choose love” – the Fort River motto – in our political discourse and work out plans for society with leveler heads. 18-to-29-year-old voters wouldn’t be disillusioned with our government systems because those systems would be getting big things done.             So why aren’t we empowering more young people to be decisionmakers? I was one of only five 18-29 year-old legislators, even though that age group makes up one-fifth of the voting age population. Our generation and the next are profoundly impacted by the decisions of the legislature, and moreover, young people can bring a lot of value to legislative – and other – decisionmaking. Why, once our elementary schoolers grow into activists during or after college, are they so often told to “wait their turn” or trust that decisions will be better handled by those with more life experience?             Having leaders with lots of life experience can be useful, but young leaders also have certain advantages. They tend to be more impatient and more energetic, eager to get more done. They tend to be more passionate and less accepting of the status quo, willing to work extra hard and contribute more creativity to the problems at hand. They tend to have recently been students, meaning they are in the mindset of learning – being open-minded. These are useful traits not only for politics but for all the institutions and organizations that serve our society. Not every young person can or should run for office. Some will best contribute in business, or human service. But I hope that young people will take on more leadership within their fields, because their perspective and their style are currently being left out. While my generation is incredibly grateful for the comparatively safe, healthy, and vibrant world built for us, there is a lot more building to do. This work would benefit from creative and visionary ideas, and much of it needs a sense of urgency.             As I finish my time as your State Rep, I hope I have served with the level of passion and creativity I saw in this next generation of Fort River students. As I move to other forms of advocacy and leadership, my wish is that this community and others will empower more and more young people to help create the world they deserve to live in.

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Photo and book images by Violet Kitchen, Picturing Policy posts by Violet Kitchen and Kaley Davis.