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Young lobbyists learn adult lessons

Catching a lawmaker's ear isn't easy, particularly if you're 12 years old.

But young lobbyists increasingly are taking heart-felt causes to Capitol Hill and learning adult lessons."Children can make a big difference," said Julie Monson, a sixth-grade teacher at Parkview Elementary, 1250 W. Mead Ave. (980 South), in the Salt Lake City School District.

Her students, in recent years, presented lawmakers with their anti-gang initiative aimed at getting stores to lock up spray paint. Now their concept is law.

"We have to teach our students, particularly where I teach in a high-risk, urban environment, that these students can have a voice. A lot of times, behaviors we see in gangs, and at-risk behaviors, are because they feel they do not have a voice in the direction their lives are taking," Monson said.

But there are rules to successful lobbying, and sweet persistence and timing are key.

"Legislators have kids and grandkids, and care very much about kids," said Barbara Lewis, a schoolteacher of academically advanced students at Jackson Elementary, 750 W. 200 North, and author of "The Kid's Guide to Social Action."

"But they lose patience if you don't follow rules that exist there."

Several student groups have successfully helped move legislation to law.

The cherry is the state fruit, thanks to Millville Elementary students in Cache County.

Lewis' Salt Lake students helped secure stiffer penalties for drive-by shootings, graffiti and guns on school property, and helped persuade lawmakers to set aside $10,000 for student tree-planting projects - funds her students will fight to keep and perhaps to expand this year.

"I think involving all ages of people in the legislative process is important. You can't start early enough," said Roz McGee, executive director of Utah Children.

But kids also must have savvy teachers to help guide them through the legislative process, as tiny voices can be drowned out by larger, well-funded lobbies, Monson said.

"If children are able to raise an issue, cause enough interest and be able to lobby just as any special interest group, they're going to get the attention of a legislator," Monson said, adding few turn their ears to kids. "Sometimes, it's all in how you do your planning."

Members of youth councils are learning the ropes. After calling and writing legislators about anti-tobacco abuse legislation, about 300 students last week gathered at the Capitol for a youth rally, sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

The centerpiece was a bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Montgomery, R-North Ogden, which would penalize businesses selling tobacco to underage customers.

But Montgomery, who was ill, didn't attend. In fact, only one lawmaker did, unless you count a handful of others glancing from a Capitol balcony.

The rally was held during lunch, just before caucus meetings, and some lawmakers had short notice. That could have hurt the cause, said Ashley Thirkill, a 15-year-old student at Fremont High, Weber School District, and spokeswoman for the Governor's Youth Council, which fights tobacco abuse.

Still, Rep. Jordan Tanner, R-Provo, who spoke at the rally and works with students on health issues, says the rally was a success.

"I would have liked to have had more legislators there . . . but each legislator has to do what's important to" him or her, he said. "I think they heard the rally . . . It's all positive and useful. In working with legislators, it has to be a series of moves, not just one."

The students, though disappointed that lawmaker seats were empty, know one rally won't seal the bill's fate. They vow to continue lobbying in phone calls and letters to lawmakers for the new bill.

"I'll continue to bug them," Thirkill said.

The youth council has some legislative experience. Last year, they backed a 25-cent tax on cigarettes, which is now in effect. Of the millions of dollars from the tax revenue, $250,000 benefits a media campaign to educate about tobacco's harmful effects.

"In building up liaisons and connections, we've been able to be effective," said 18-year-old Jennie Ashworth of North Ogden, chairwoman of the Governor's Youth Council. "It's a good opportunity for me to meet people and learn more than what's going on in my own high-school world."

The student lobbyists won't give up the fight and are certain they will be heard, just like last year.

"This is just incredible," Angie Galloway, a Bonneville High sophomore and member of the Governor's Youth Council, said at the rally. "This will affect future generations. I like to get in there and make a difference."

Several student groups have successfully helped move legislation to law. The cherry is the state fruit, thanks to Millville Elementary students in Cache County. Jackson Elementary students helped secure stiffer penalties for drive-by shootings, graffiti and guns on school property, and helped persuade lawmakers to set aside $10,000 for student tree-planting projects - funds they will fight to keep and perhaps to expand this year.