Teens going to Olympia to change the conversation

Editor’s note: Anthony Bencivengo is senior at Nathan Hale High School. For his Senior Project he is working with Solid Ground and the Statewide Poverty Action Network to engage his peers in the state political process. In this, the first of his reports, Anthony talks about recruiting youth to join him for today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day in Olympia.

January 17, 2014 – Robert Mercer has wanted to make his voice heard for a long time. His mother works at a psychiatric clinic that serves homeless and low-income people, and she has never shied away from discussing the obstacles they face. “Ever since I was a kid she was always grubbing about some legislation or another,” Robert recalls. “I guess it kind of rubbed off on me.” Robert is worried about homeless people who suffer from mental issues but can’t afford treatment. He fears that access to mental health services is becoming increasingly scarce as state funds dry up in an era of budget cuts. The result, far too often, has been homeless people suffering from psychotic breaks he believes could have been prevented if they had somewhere to turn for help.  “They’re in really bad situations,” Robert says, “That more state funding could have prevented.”

Anthony (l) talks to sophmore Tanner O'Donnell about Lobby Day

Anthony talks to sophmore Tanner O’Donnell about Lobby Day

I feel it’s extremely important for our politicians to hear about these issues. That’s why, as my senior project, I’m organizing a group of my fellow Nathan Hale High School students (Robert included) into a youth contingent that will join the Statewide Poverty Action Network (a social-justice advocacy organization closely linked to Solid Ground) in its annual MLK Day legislative lobbying session in Olympia. In a few days, we’ll be meeting with our state legislators to discuss issues facing our state’s homeless and low-income communities.

For me, this is an exciting opportunity. I’ve always been deeply involved with social justice – volunteering at food banks, participating in rallies and frequently writing to newspapers and my state legislators. I feel political discourse at the state level has been overly focused on cutting safety-net programs just as the Great Recession makes them more needed than ever. I hope that by speaking personally to our legislators, my fellow students and I can help change the conversation.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. The group I’ve organized is filled with a wide variety of students who each bring in different perspectives and experiences. The common thread is their passion for social justice.

Nolan Wolf, who recently completed a stint as a state legislature page serving some of the very legislators we’ll be lobbying, is coming because, as a person with arthrogryposis (a physical disability limiting his range of arm motion), he understands what it’s like not to be expected to succeed. People, he says, sometimes see him “as a disability, instead of as a person with a disability.”

Grace Jones’s youth group has hosted middle-schoolers from low-income housing development Yesler Terrace to speak about the documentaries they’re making about the ongoing remodel of their complex to meet safety standards. Aedan Roberts has used his status as an editor for the school paper to publish the personal stories of homeless immigrants. And the list goes on. Conventional wisdom goes that teens are lazy and disengaged, but this dedicated group of student activists is anything but.

All of us are excited to go to Olympia, for a variety of reasons. Besides the chance to make a difference, students in my group see this as a chance to learn more about state government, social justice, and the views of their representatives. Most of us are optimistic that our lobbying will make a difference. “I think it’s important for people to see a large youth presence in groups working for change,” says Grace. “Teens care, we have ideas, and we want to learn more.”

“Maybe, in a year or so,” Robert adds hopefully, “A politician will vote in a different way on something because I swayed them.”

Many of us are nervous, of course. Speaking face to face with experienced politicians can be intimidating for high-school seniors barely old enough to vote. Many of us are afraid of sounding uninformed, inarticulate or timid. But from my conversations with the students I’m going with, I can tell that they have more than enough eloquence, passion and knowledge. We must always first face down our fears in order to face down injustice. That’s another change I hope will be affected on MLK Day – that we will become confident in our own strength and power to create change. Some of us already have. “I don’t really have any fears,” answers Tanner O’Donnell when asked whether the event makes him nervous. “Except for bears. They’re scary.”

To make sure you catch the next report in Anthony’s series, please sign up to have this blog’s posts emailed directly to you!

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12-year-old documentarian tackles homelessness

It’s the morning after the One Night Count of homeless people in our community. I volunteered, along with numerous Solid Ground staff and volunteers, and hundreds of other folks throughout King County. We walked, arguably, every street, investigated every park bench and green space, because we want to get a more realistic picture of who is homeless in our community.

It’s a very adult pursuit, one that is sobering and, frankly, somewhat depressing. For all we are doing in Seattle-King County to end homelessness, and we are doing an amazing job developing new affordable housing and program models, we still have thousands of people living in cars, under bridges, in the lobbies of post offices.

But somehow this little movie gives me a glimmer of hope. It was put together by 12-year-old Leo Pfiefer from Salmon Bay Middle School. Leo developed this project as an entry for C-SPAN’s StudentCam documentary contest, “an annual national video documentary competition that encourages students to think seriously about issues that affect our communities and our nation.”

It gives me hope to think that 12-year olds are looking at the issue of homelessness and asking: What do we need to do to solve this problem?

It gives me hope to think about the 11- to 13-year olds I recently interviewed from our Penny Harvest program who are not just asking good questions, they are raising money and granting it to organizations that are making a difference. Keep an eye out here for more from those amazing young people.

I, for one, hope Leo goes far in this competition. We need more young people asking tough questions to the people in power. And we need them to help us formulate better answers.

still from Leo's video

“The Revolution will not be Adultist!”

“The Revolution will not be Adultist!” is the quote printed on the most recent popular Seattle Young People’s Project bowl-a-thon t-shirt. I find myself thinking about this quote often. Often when I wear the t-shirt, people read the quote and I see a confused look on their face or the look of faking understanding. I think underneath that confused look is the question, “What is Adultism?” In the Seattle progressive, liberal, even radical scene we talk a lot of good talk and even take some good action around issues of racism, sexism, and classism, but too often the discussion about how adultism intersects with these other oppressions is missing.  multicultural youth

Today I ran across a Facebook status update by my friend, Adam Fletcher, on “re-defining adultism.”  On his blog he defines “adultism” this way:

Adultism is the addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults. It is a major concept in the organization of society: Adultism prevails in every sector, including government, education, social services, and families. Its defeat is often seen as a bad thing, as adults are mostly capable only of seeing their own abilities as those that are truly needed to the function and well-being of our world.

The problem with adultism is that it ignores, silences, neglects, and punishes children and youth simply because they are not adults. Every young person experiences adultism from the day they are born until the day the world around them recognizes them as an adult.

I like how Adam frames adultism as an “addiction.” Addictions take active effort to overcome. The first step in overcoming addiction is awareness of the problem that we have, right? So I encourage you to ask the question: How are you and the groups that you are a part of ignoring, silencing, neglecting and even punishing children and youth? Have you written a grant “about and for” young people in your community without seeking youth input into that grant application? Do you have any youth involved in the decision making of your group? Have you found yourself saying recently, “Well they (a young person)  just aren’t ready for that responsibility yet?” Have you been part of either creating or enforcing arbitrary age limits that young people can or cannot participate in an activity or program?

How can you and the groups you are involved in start sharing your adult power with young people? How can you engage young people in decision making? How can you as an adult (if you are one) start following the lead of young people instead of leading young people? How are you overcoming your addiction to the attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and actions of adults?

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