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Colorado youth find receptive ears with state lawmakers

Posted at 1:30 PM, Dec 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-13 15:30:54-05

DENVER (AP) — As a high school sophomore, Margot Swetich followed state Sen. Faith Winter to a building across the street from the State Capitol and into a meeting room, where an assortment of lobbyists peppered the Westminster Democrat with questions and objections to the contentious family leave bill she championed.

Margot, then just 15, reeled from the intensity of the exchange — and felt growing admiration for Winter’s composure amid the crossfire.

Afterward, Winter debriefed the young student and stressed that yes, conversations can be difficult — especially in cases like the family leave bill, which in 2019 had more than 200 lobbyists tracking it.

“But I told her,” Winter says, “that you know you’re doing the work when it’s hard.”

For Margot, now a 17-year-old senior at Northglenn High School, that lesson about politics and public service stuck. Now, after her two-year term on the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, she works as a youth advisor for Rep. Shannon Bird, also a Westminster Democrat, while she considers studying political science and journalism in college.

And it did not escape her that Winter’s quest to procure family leave for Colorado employees only weeks ago finally came to fruition — though on the general election ballot, not in the legislature.

“This year, seeing that passed, felt like an amazing example for me,” Margot says. “I had this really beautiful timeline of what it takes to get things done — and the patience it took to get things done.”

Driven by issues impacting their daily lives and aided by the legislative process itself, Colorado’s youth — whose activism on police violence filled the streets last spring — also have stepped up their engagement with the sausage-making realities beneath the Capitol dome. While the police reform protests prodded lawmakers into some quick, incremental action, young people across the state also have been learning other ways to make their voices heard — by elected officials who increasingly seem inclined to listen.

Some have channeled their influence through COYAC — the youth council created by Durango Republican Ellen Roberts, who served in both the House and Senate before leaving in 2016. They’ve weighed in on concerns from mental health to school safety to climate change through a system that’s taking those voices more seriously than ever.

Others, like 17-year-old Ethan Reed of Parker, have cut their teeth on organizational models and then struck out on their own to capitalize on relationships with legislators cultivated during their teen years. And they’ve found success.

“I think there’s been an uptick overall in political activism,” says Winter, who has dozens of students shadow her each year. “I feel activism itself hasn’t changed. But the momentum, and older folks listening to young people has changed.”

In 1982, the heartwarming story of youth involvement in Colorado politics featured a Thornton elementary school urging lawmakers to designate the stegosaurus as the state fossil. (They succeeded.) Fast-forward to 2018: The state legislature passed a bill creating an interim committee of five lawmakers and five youth representatives charged with generating policy proposals that could result in as many as three actual bills being introduced — bills that, significantly, would not count against any legislator’s five-bill personal limit.

That committee, advanced by Loveland Republican Rep. Hugh McKean, didn’t offer any bills in that first year because the ideas exceeded the scope of the legislature’s authority — or its ability to pay for them. But it started students along the learning curve of lawmaking.

The committee only met once in the 2020 session cut short by the pandemic. But if the pandemic subsides, the mechanism promises to put more young people’s ideas front and center in 2021 not just as pie-in-the-sky concepts, but as actual bills. Ideas coming from the committee are presented in a hearing format where legislators can ask questions. From there, committee votes can either cull the bill or move it forward for formal consideration.

Ultimately, it could be offered with the entire committee as cosponsors.

It’s a huge step away from the lip service of years past, when COYAC representatives from across the state would meet, hash out ideas and then present them to a group of legislators in the hope that one of them would carry a bill.

“But all the legislators already had their bills,” McKean says.”And they’d listen politely and say, ‘Thank you, maybe next year.’ Then next year would come, and it was the same game. It was always disappointing to the kids.”

— Restoring youth’s faith in the future through civic engagement

When Ellen Roberts was elected to the statehouse in 2006, she found herself at a unique vantage point to advocate for engaging young people in the legislative process.

She had lived through her two children’s teen years. It was the right point to assess how the world had changed so significantly since her own teens. Then she looked at the General Assembly. She didn’t see a lot of youth.

“And even though we were starting to get some younger legislators, the world is changing so quickly that every decade younger people experience the world in a dramatically different way than those who came before them,” Roberts says. “It’s important to find a way to engage youth.”

House District 59, Roberts’ home turf, covers an irregular L-shaped expanse of southwestern Colorado. She reached out to kids across the breadth of the district, in Durango, Pagosa Springs and Cortez, to brainstorm what youth engagement might look like. She sought kids on the younger end of the teen spectrum — late middle school to early high school — “before kids are super busy with driving cars and college applications.”

Roberts understood that the generation she appealed to had seen their world turned upside down by a succession of calamities from the 9/11 attacks to school shootings to a looming recession. She hoped this endeavor might restore the idea that the world had not spiraled out of control and they could indeed make a difference — if they engaged.

Together, Roberts and the students drafted a bill to create the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, which would bring together representatives from all over the state to exchange ideas and then interact with legislators. She shepherded it through in 2008, and the first year it was funded with $8,472. The figure remains stuck in Roberts’ memory. She felt she needed to keep the fiscal note small, so lawmakers wouldn’t have an easy reason to kill the bill.

But at the same time, she was ambitious about wanting to prove that COYAC wasn’t just a “showpiece” where young people’s ideas would be humored before they posed for a parting photo at the Capitol.

“We tried to prepare them for the realities of the legislative process,” Roberts says. “Sometimes the idea is not right, or they haven’t thought about every angle, and it’s back to the drawing board with a new approach that takes into account what you learned along the way.”

She calls it one of the most satisfying things she did in her legislative career.

Since 2017, Cheryl Fleetwood, a longtime community organizer, has been director of COYAC, which fields one representative from each of 35 state senate districts and five at large to serve a two-year term, with the positions staggered so that 20 turn over each year. This year, a bill designated two of those at-large spots to the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in an effort led by McKean, the Loveland representative.

The group has four bipartisan legislators as members: Republican Sen. Don Coram and Rep. Hugh McKean, and outgoing Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd and outgoing Rep. Bri Buentello. In January, state leadership will appoint new legislative members.

The council meets four times each year — twice while the legislature is in session and twice during the interim period. Funding for the program grew to $25,000 per year and was poised to increase to $50,000, Fleetwood notes, before the pandemic hit. The increase didn’t go through, but its previous funding held firm.

COYAC also is developing additional opportunities for youth engagement through vehicles like the Senate District Youth Advisory Council Network, up to a 10-member group within a senate district that works in concert with the original council.

But while the young people get experience building relationships and understanding the process, Fleetwood sees COYAC and its spin-offs as a valuable resource for legislators looking to get youth input on issues.

“What we’re trying to provide is a direct line to youth in their district,” Fleetwood says, “so they’re informed about what youth in their district are going through, or what reality is on the ground.”

It’s a work in progress, benefitting from an increasingly activist generation that is finding its voice at a time when at least some legislators seem ready to listen.

“It’s evolving,” Fleetwood says. “They have so much to say and are so incredibly articulate and insightful. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe we’d have better policy if we listened to them. In a perfect world, legislators would recognize that.”

— Impacts from the Parkland shootings felt across the nation

In the wake of the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 students and staff, student activism spiked, guided by leaders like Emma González and David Hogg, who quickly gained national profiles as they and other Parkland students spoke out against gun violence.

The protest spread nationwide as students at many schools participated in marches and walkouts to draw attention to the issue. At Erie High School, then-15-year-old Sasha Miller joined with other students who, at noon one day, silently left their classrooms and sat outside of the school.

“It was scary,” she recalls. “I’d always been a goody two-shoes. This was an act of rebellion. Teachers didn’t like it. Administrators didn’t like it. We were doing it as a statement: We need safety. I think it built a lot of student activists’ confidence.”

She also attended a march in Denver, which re-energized a commitment to public engagement that dated back to her middle-school days. That’s when she first met Cheryl Fleetwood and got involved with COYAC. The organization made her feel like she was doing something positive — particularly in the area of mental health.

In those first years as a new COYAC representative, Sasha testified about the importance of mental health resources in schools and learned about the legislative process. And she began to realize the slow, often painstaking pace of moving ideas into policy and law. She also learned some lawmakers, including from her own district, wouldn’t make time for her.

As she worked on issues, she found that perspectives varied when she ventured beyond her suburban bubble. She learned to appreciate hard questions and the value of forging new relationships. In short, engagement was grueling work.

The Parkland protests reminded her that she wasn’t alone in trying to change the world.

“Those marches are the catalyst of the work,” she says. “All the awareness behind that is really lonely work. You sit at your desk, and you do stuff, and you feel like it’s just you. But seeing that there are so many other people who are doing the same thing as me and who want the same things as me, reminds me that I’m not doing this in vain. The Parkland shooting was probably the catalyst of a lot of these movements.”

Sasha, now 17, will graduate from high school this month and wait out the pandemic before she begins college, where she could pursue her interest in policymaking as well as her budding interest in humanitarian issues, which attracted her attention while she spent her junior year studying in South Africa. Meanwhile, she continues to work as an advisor to COYAC.

She figures her generation takes engagement so seriously because of the seeming nonstop violence and chaos that has always surrounded them, from the 9/11 aftermath to a litany of school shootings to the current pandemic.

“We’ve kind of grown up in a noisy world of trauma, with a lot of terrible things going on,” Sasha says. “And so I think in the past couple of years our generation has started getting old enough to be like, ‘Hey, wait, this isn’t right.’”

— How one student used engagement to become “a force of nature”

On the opposite end of the metro area, Ethan Reed is a kindred spirit.

Now a 17-year-old senior at Legend High School in Parker, he dates his activism to the 5th grade, and a program called “Project Citizen” that took him to the state Capitol to meet lawmakers and encouraged him to write a letter to then-President Obama.

“He wrote back,” Ethan says. “That’s where it started.”

In middle school, he adds, he always stayed caught up on the news and found himself angry at many of the things going on across the country. Like Sasha, Ethan felt moved to action after the Parkland shootings. That resolve strengthened after the STEM School shootings near his home in Douglas County, where he knows many of the students.

And while he has been a member of several youth organizations, including COYAC, his desire to make an impact has stretched beyond their limits.

“I wish I were set up to facilitate his enthusiasm, but we’re not there yet,” COYAC director Fleetwood says. “He contacted me a couple years ago, after Oregon made mental health days excused absences. He was on fire to make it happen in Colorado as well.

“He’s totally charting his own course,” she adds. “But he’s an inspiration to me. Not every kid who’s interested in civic engagement has the initiative and courage he has.”

Ethan seems to be everywhere — “a force of nature,” Fleetwood calls him. He worked with the Douglas County School District giving input on back-to-school options in the pandemic. He has had op-ed pieces published on a variety of topics, challenged county commissioners on social media over coronavirus issues, and regularly writes letters to politicians on the federal, state and local level about issues that resonate with him.

He doesn’t hesitate to drive across the city to attend town hall meetings where he can not only participate, but cement relationships that can prove beneficial down the road.

After the STEM School shooting, he reached out to the Parkland co-founders of the March for Our Lives to gain insight on the impact the Florida shooting had on students’ mental health. And in the last legislative session, he worked with Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who has prioritized mental health issues, on a bill to make mental health an excused school absence — with the idea that schools can screen for suicide risks or other possible harm.

It was signed into law in March.

“I absolutely rely on him for youth input,” Michaelson Jenet said. “On mental health sick days, I said I got you covered. We did pass that bill. He reaches out when he has ideas, and I do when I’ve got youth-oriented bills. He’s come to town halls where I’m speaking, and asks good questions. He really cares, which makes him special.”

More recently, he has shifted his attention to climate change. Ethan hopes to work with Rep. Edie Hooton, a Boulder Democrat whose town halls he also has attended, on an idea he has to establish a committee — based on similar efforts in Massachusetts and California — to investigate state-based solutions for providing relief from wildfire and other natural disasters connected to the climate crisis.

Ethan first reached out to Hooton three years ago, in her first term, to talk about climate issues. Since then, they’ve communicated fairly often through texts and personal visits to the Capitol.

“He comes in regularly and advocates for legislation around climate issues,” Hooton says. “He comes in with a very collaborative approach. He’s informed and wants to be more informed.

“For someone that young to be that knowledgeable — first as a freshman or sophomore at the Capitol, he already has so much energy,” she adds. “He figured out a way to make his perspective heard. I’m telling you, I certainly heard him. He’s an influencer for sure.”

As for Ethan’s climate change proposal, both Hooton and Ethan describe it as a still-developing idea, but one that could gain traction if Ethan continues the work of submitting something concrete for consideration. For now, she sees it possibly as a resolution rather than a bill.

“We’ve had multiple conversations, and I like the concept,” Hooton says. “It’s a principle we can all get behind. That’s what resolutions are.”

Ethan admits that his engagement with legislators has consumed an inordinate amount of time, to the detriment of his academics. Still he battles to make room for both, even as he applies to colleges — he’s been accepted to 14 and counting — and works part-time as a cashier at a craft store. Not surprisingly, he has focused his college hunt on the Washington, D.C., area, in the hope he could carry his experience with local politics to the federal level.

“What I’ve learned throughout this whole experience,” he says, “is that a lot more young people are getting more involved. We’re sick and tired of elected officials not doing anything. We’re trying to preserve and protect the planet, and fix the social injustices in our system.”

That can be a frustrating and slow process. Which is why Winter, the state senator, celebrates every small victory along the way — a message she shared with her young shadow while she was hammering away at a family leave bill, and repeats often to other youths who come to the Capitol to learn how things get done.

“We ran that bill a total of six times,” Winter says. “Each time it ran, we gained more support, got better at messaging, built a bigger coalition, neutralized opposition arguments one by one. It was really popular outside the building. And it finally happened on the ballot. That doesn’t happen overnight.

“Politics is a team sport. Systemic change takes time.”