Back in school, back in session


Hufsa Ahmed, Emily Geier, Ava Kalenze

Hufsa Ahmed

Emily Geier

Ava Kalenze

Local students re-elected to Minnesota Youth Council

 

A few weeks before the start of school, 36 students from around the state were already hard at work at a weekend retreat planning for the upcoming legislative session. 

Among them were Hufsa Ahmed, Emily Geier and Ava Kalenze, representing Mounds View and St. Anthony Village high schools.

The three students — Ahmed from Mounds View, Geier and Kalenze from St. Anthony — had found out earlier this summer that they had been re-elected to the Minnesota Youth Council. Ahmed and Geier are back for their second terms, Kalenze for her third, on the legislatively-mandated body that serves as an advisor to state representatives.

This year’s mid-August retreat was a time for council members to create a platform for the year, choosing what topics they want to focus on and beginning to work on small group projects within their congressional districts.

“[There are] four members from each of the eight congressional districts, and then four at-large members,” explains Kalenze, herself an at-large representative.

Although the group has begun to solidify its platform for the year, it will need to wait until session opens in early 2020 to select specific bills to hear.

“Really, it’s what do we want to hear and who will give us a hearing,” explains Kalenze. “Then we have our hearings at the Capitol.”

 

Youth voice at 

the Capitol

The group typically hears around four bills, presented by the legislators who have authored them. There are often testifiers from both sides of the debate, and the council can ask questions before taking a vote.

Afterward, the council writes its feedback about the bill — including any relevant research that it has done on the subject — and sends it to the bill’s author.

“It’s not like we tell them to do this and then they insert that into their bill,” says Ahmed. “It’s more that they take that overall feedback and improve [the bill]. A lot of times the bills that we listen to and approve of ... are passed through the House.”

Before session begins, the council is kept busy working on education policy in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Education. While the council used to have two separate committees — one that worked primarily on education, another focused on legislation — it changed its model this year to focus on each area for half the time.

“We’re working directly with a lot of people at the education department,” says Kalenze of the council’s current work. “We’re analyzing the Minnesota Student Survey results and we’re working on constructing a student bill of rights.”

 

District projects

In addition to working on issues of education policy, students have also started small-group research projects within their districts that they will then present to the council as a whole.

“I’m in Congressional District 5 and I have three other people that are with me,” explains Geier. “Each district has to lead a presentation ... I used to not be able to speak in front of two people, now I can speak in front of a group.”

Geier explains that each district chooses a central topic — this year, her district’s is mental health — and works to research and compile a number of different resources dealing with that topic, both at the state and local level.

According to Ahmed, issues of mental health and school safety have been big focuses for the council in the last couple of years. “The issues that we address as the council apply both statewide and locally. For example, last year, two of our main focuses were gun legislation and reforming gun laws to better protect schools and ... increasing the availability of mental health services for students.”

Ahmed was initially prompted to join the council by concerns about mental health at Mounds View High School.

“The spring that I decided to apply, there was a suicide at our school. It wasn’t the first one that happened in the past couple of years,” she explains. “It was that incident that made me say, ‘I’ve had enough. I want to be able to express my voice on a larger platform.’”

 

State focus, local impact

The sources that students collect for their projects can include legislators or local organizations who are working closely on an issue, as well as past research and surveys. The council focuses specifically on surveys of youth — like the Minnesota Student Survey — and the legislation that it hears is typically made up of bills that would directly effect Minnesota’s young people.

Additionally, while the council works primarily on statewide issues, representatives have been inspired by their time on it to dig deeper into their local communities.

“It has impacted what I want to do later on in my life. I know I want to pursue a degree, but I also hope to take some sort of leadership role in my community — perhaps on a city council,” says Ahmed. She notes that most of her community involvement prior to serving on the council was solely through volunteer work.

“I now see that I am able to make a difference in my community through meeting with my representatives and voicing my opinions,” she says.

For those wishing to find out more or get involved in the council’s work, additional information can be found at www.mnyouth.net/minnesota-youth-council.

 

– Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825

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